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The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Having made a number of movies dealing with cultural
identity, Mira Nair was an obvious choice to direct the screen adaptation of
Mohsin Hamid’s critically acclaimed novel The
Reluctant Fundamentalist,
even though she is Indian and the film is rooted
in Pakistan. It is a provocative,
multilayered film, and while imperfect it still feels genuine, and that is
perhaps its most crucial asset. The story unfolds in flashback as American
journalist Liev Schreiber interviews a controversial professor (Riz Ahmed) on a
day when political tensions threaten to come to a boiling point in Lahore.

Ahmed is perfectly cast as a young Pakistani man who, in the
year 2000, emigrates to the U.S. to live the modern American dream. (His sister
wants to be like one of the women on Sex
in the City
.) He earns a scholarship to Princeton and an interview with a
high-powered executive (Kiefer Sutherland) from a financial firm, who’s
impressed with his drive and sheer nerve. Ahmed even falls in love with an American
girl (Kate Hudson) who happens to be the niece of his company’s wealthy
founder. Then comes 9/11 and everything changes, notably people’s perception of
him. Almost inevitably, he is radicalized, and realizes he must return to
Pakistan to seek his destiny and help guide young people on their path.

In such memorable films as Monsoon Wedding and The
, Nair has illustrated more benign clashes of modern and
traditional cultures. The stakes are much higher here, but she still understands
both sides of the coin. The Reluctant
doesn’t paint its characters, or the societies they
represent, in terms of absolutes. America has much to offer its upwardly-mobile
protagonist, but he has chosen to join a highly competitive firm known for its ruthless
cost-cutting business tactics. (Even Ahmed’s father, a poet played by the imposing
Om Puri, questions the worth of his son’s profession.) As for the seismic
changes that occurred in the days following 9/11, anyone who was around at that
time can verify the xenophobic feelings that targeted innocent Arab and Muslim
people living here.

Nair has said, “The
Reluctant Fundamentalist
is an exercise in personal healing and
reconnection. There are elements of my own family and me that have felt
impacted by the events of the past decade. The film is an attempt, among other
things, to knit the pieces back together. Not by denying the tensions that have
appeared, but by illustrating the ways in which we can navigate them and be
human despite them.”

Despite these good intentions, the film loses some of its
momentum and focus in its final act. Yet simply by exploring the volatile emotions
of the past decade it engages us and exposes us to different ways of thinking. That
gives the film both relevance and value, despite its shortcomings. It even
makes me think about reading Hamid’s novel. 

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