Director Mira Nair was put in the unusual position of having to defend her film, ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, from conflicting suggestions of pro- and anti-American bias at the film’s press conference as opening-night film for the 4th Doha Tribeca Film Festival. One regional journalist wanted to know why Riz Ahmed’s Changez, the Pakistani protagonist who switches from successful Wall Street trader to fundamentalist Muslim professor (and possible terrorist) in a post-9/11 world, repeats the phrase, “I love America”; another questioned whether the film’s mistrustful ending ultimately serves as a condemnation of the U.S.
Nair and Mohsin Hamid, the British-Pakistani author of the source novel who also co-wrote the screenplay, addressed both questions eloquently. Nair explained her determination to address “enforced” assumptions in the post-9/11 world of “what you might be” because of your skin colour, place of birth or religion. “If there is a message at all, it would be first, to know the human being, in a way that is unflinching and yet with love, and including the language, politics and myopia with which we often view each other,” she said. Added Hamid: “You can love America and still be disappointed by it. When you are critical in that way, coming from a place that also has love, in some ways it is more powerful than if you are critical just from a position of hatred.”
The ‘Is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-terrorist?’ question isn’t answered until the film’s closing moments, walking a fine line of tension that was always one of Nair’s and Hamid’s fundamental ambitions for the story. The Indian filmmaker, who has lived in New York for many years, rejected any suggestion of censure, too, insisting that the film also serves as a celebration of America’s openness and belief in meritocracy. “Condemnation would be too easy almost – and not what what reality is about,” she said.
It was a five-year journey bringing ‘Fundamentalist’ to the big screen. At the press conference, she revealed that her initial approaches to A-list screenwriters were “met with a lot of ignorance and arrogance about our part of the world.” The next day, when I sit down with Nair and Hamid face to face, I ask her to expand on those episodes. “I don’t know if it’s the novel or the subject matter but people reveal themselves very quickly in terms of their attitude,” she said. “One of the people I spoke to said, as the very first thing in our first conversation, ‘Well, we’ll have to change the title of course. You couldn’t drag me to see a film with Fundamentalist in the title.’ That was the end of that conversation. I wanted a writer who would approach the subject with, if not knowledge, at least humility. And we found that in William Wheeler.” (He gets the screenplay credit, while Hamid and Ami Boghani share a screen-story credit.)
Are there any concerns that the title will affect the film’s chances in the U.S. marketplace? “Well, the word ‘reluctant’ helps us,” she laughs. “And also the fact that the book sold 1.5 million copies in America. People know the novel, and we have an amazing distributor in IFC. We’re also fortunate in how it has been received by the American press at festivals [it played Venice, Toronto and London before Doha Tribeca], because it could so easily have been the other way and then you have to do damage control.”
On a critical sequence in which Changez explains to Bobby (Liev Schreiber), the American journalist to whom he’s telling his story, why he celebrated the Twin Towers’ collapse (he is shown smiling as it unfolds on TV), Nair calls it “a delicate moment that we approached very carefully. We wanted to look at it unflinchingly and not tame it. He explains himself in the screenplay without toning down his reaction, but it’s not just revelling in something. I imagine with a studio, that scene would not have been able to exist.”
Added Hamid: “Riz’s character is allowed to express this thing but we also see Bobby’s reaction to it. It’s not just put out into the world as, ‘Here’s a smile,’ it’s put out into the world as, ‘Look, we know people smiled and we know people are furious that people smiled’ and you see both of those things.”
Nair, who has good relationships with most of the U.S. specialist distributors, deliberately proceeded without one in place for ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ because she knew scenes like that would raise red flags, and she wanted to make it with total creative freedom. “Having a studio on board means you’re always censoring and I wanted to be unfettered,” she notes. “We have, I think, still achieved a great sense of balance but without the market scores and reshooting.” She did, however, test the film several times in India, Pakistan and the U,S. before finalizing the edit.
The Doha Film Institute threw its full weight behind the project from the start, and ended up as sole financier after a second major investor pulled out right before Nair was about to start shooting in India, in July 2011. She was forced to shut down for two months as she made decisions to trim the budget, including opting to shoot on digital rather than film, complete post-production in India (which saved $1 million) and forsake most of her salary. “But we kept the global landscape because that was the point,” said Nair, who shot in Delhi, Lahore, Istanbul, Atlanta and New York City. “What’s the point of removing the whole skein of the story and just have two men in a bloody teashop?”
One advantage of the postponement from Nair’s perspective is that, having met with several name actresses, she was able to keep first choice Kate Hudson on board as Erica, the privileged American woman with whom Changez enters into a tumultuous relationship. It appeared that Hudson might have to drop out when the original start date coincided with the birth of her second son. He was born on 11th July, 2011, and the gap before the new start date in late August was enough to keep the actress attached. “I got her with a two-month-old baby on the set and I loved how she looked,” said Nair. “l loved the vulnerability, the womanliness and the fact that she wasn’t the blond bombshell movie star, although we made her a brunette ourselves.”
IFC Films intends to release ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ on April 26, 2013, bringing Nair’s long journey to its conclusion. She’s excited for audiences to see and judge the film for themselves now. “I was inspired by this subject matter because I’m so tired of always seeing the world from one point of view,” she said. “It’s so important to have a story like this one which creates a real bridge between the worlds that we all inhabit, and which casts a reflection and questions the two issues of the day: the fundamentalism of economics and money – look at what’s happening in 99 percent of the world; and the fundamentalism of what is often known as just plain terror.”