Mira Nair’s new film The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a near perfect masterpiece which tries hard to sprint on three legs but ultimately stumbles due to the weakness of its fourth one.
The main character is a young Pakistani man named Changez (chahn GEZ) from a socially prominent but cash-poor family. Adored by his parents, Changez has been raised to think of himself as a prince, but his inability to keep up with his nouveau riche peers in Lahore has fueled a fierce ambition which propels him through an elite American college (specified as Princeton) and into a coveted junior position at a consulting firm (modeled on McKinsey).
Sitting in a conference room high above Manhattan with all of New York City literally at his feet, Changez is finally able to face the future with confidence. The team from Underwood Samson & Company flies in First Class, stays at the best hotels, and makes a fortune “rightsizing” struggling companies. Profit and loss numbers are inexorable, and Changez knows that as long as he stays focused on these “fundamentals,” the arc of his career will continue its meteoric rise.
“What do you want?” asks his mentor Jim. “To be a partner at Underwood Samson before the age of 30?” responds Changez (the tiny question mark at the end of this boast showing how much he longs for Jim’s approval). “Why not shoot for 27!” says Jim with obvious pride. After all, he has selected this young man from a world of applicants, and now Jim is as invested as Changez is in the success of this new hire.
But then… catastrophe! Changez is on assignment in the Philippines when Al Qaeda attacks the World Trade Center, and although his colleagues are too focused on the fundamentals to notice, the customs officers at JFK are on red alert. And so, while Jim and the rest of his Underwood Samson team members are welcomed home with open arms, Changez is harshly questioned, strip searched, and finally released, alone, into the dark, cold night.
Years later, Changez is telling this story, in flashback, to a journalist. Changez now lives, once again, in Lahore, where he teaches Economics to Pakistani college students. But is that all he does? An American professor at the university has gone missing and the journalist is really an operative pumping Changez for information while CIA agents, armed to the teeth, listen in on their every word.
Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Mohsin Hamid (who is from Lahore, did graduate from Princeton, and once worked at McKinsey) the film version of The Reluctant Fundamentalist arrives in movie theatres at a timely moment. In the wake of the horrendous April 15 bombing at the Boston Marathon, we Americans are once again asking ourselves: “Why do ‘they’ hate us so much?”
Neither Mohsin Hamid nor Mira Nair would have the hubris to address this question head on (and certainly not in that formulation), but as high achievers from South Asia who have received considerable acclaim in the West, they ask us to walk in Changez’ shoes for two hours. Imagine having to always explain how to pronounce your name. (It’s “Nair rhymes with Fire.”) Imagine having people look at you and wonder if your personal appearance is a political statement. (Every time I’ve seen her, Nair has been dressed in shalwar kameez.) Imagine the indignity of a strip-search (something few Caucasians are required to endure at most American airports).
Many of our own ancestors have had to face similar issues in the past (my own father returned from Service in World War II with a name considerably less Jewish sounding than the one he had when he enlisted) but most of us have long since forgotten how it feels to be “different,” especially in a time of national emergency as we continue to fight an amorphous and seemingly endless “war on terrorism.”
Changez finally reaches a crisis point while on assignment in Istanbul. Jim, growing increasingly strident, demands that Changez objectively examine the books of a courtly Turkish publisher and draw the obvious conclusions. But Changez has lost his ability to focus on the fundamentals—fundamentals that deny the humanity of the subject under study. But what choice does that leave him? Must he now adopt a new fundamentalism? Is religious fundamentalism any more humane than the one that bows down to a ‘Free Market” dogma?
Hamid and Nair have no answers for us, only questions. And so the framing story of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (the CIA search for the missing professor), is tense, compelling, and ultimately unresolved. Liev Schreiber as the journalist and Martin Donovan as his CIA handler are both fine actors who understand that their job in this leg is to keep the story moving forward without drawing too much attention to themselves.
Shana Azmi and Om Puri are equally good as the parents Changez first leaves and then returns to. The Lahori chapters are filled with intense colors and vibrant music, nostalgic as imagined and never seen as shabby (even though we know that is how Changez has described his home when he initially decided to move west).
Kiefer Sutherland is excellent as Jim in what may be one of the best performances he’s ever given. There is a subtle hint that Jim is Gay which helps explain his inevitable rage. If he can pour himself into a corporate mold and keep his real identity totally private, then why can’t Changez do the same? Jim is precise and elegant and as sleek as a shark; he will never forgive himself for investing so much in the fate of this one exotic and beautiful boy. Leaving the theater, we can be sure that no one will ever again see the softer sides of Jim that he has shown to Changez.
Veteran actor Haluk Bilginer is also excellent as the Turkish publisher. Although his role is very small, he must be so charismatic in his few scenes that we are convinced he is the agent of Changez’ epiphany, and he is.
So these are the three legs that all work: the framing story, the story of family life in Lahore, and the story of professional immersion. And I have nothing but praise for Riz Ahmed, the British actor who anchors this film as Changez.
The problem is the love story. Frankly I’m not sure this film needed a love story, but it has one and it’s a disaster. Kate Hudson plays the daughter of an Underwood Samson partner. Erica is wealthy and beautiful, and her artistic aspirations provide Changez with entrée into Bohemian neighborhoods just a cab ride south of the midtown skyscrapers. But even if her part were better conceived, Kate Hudson is simply too old now to play someone so fragile. While I hate myself for saying this, I must be honest. She looks haggard in close-ups with Riz Ahmed and they have absolutely no chemistry. Mira Nair is to blame for this, not only for casting her but also for turning her hair brown and dowdy. Once you’ve decided your screenplay needs “a golden girl,” why rob your lead actress of her beloved blonde curls?
Including Erica adds nothing to the existential dilemma Changez faces in The Reluctant Fundamentalist; her arc just dilutes the tension and extends the runtime. This is a shame because The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a film that deserves unequivocal reviews that draw in the broadest possible audience. As one of Mira Nair’s greatest fans (I think I’ve seen and given high marks for every one of her prior films), I must honestly say that I wish I had liked this one more than I actually did.
The final words belong to novelist Mohsin Hamid:
“I believe that the core skill of a novelist is empathy: the ability to imagine what someone else might feel. And I believe that the world is suffering from a deficit of empathy at the moment: the political positions of both Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush are founded on failures of empathy, failures of compassion towards people who seem different. By taking readers inside a man who both loves and is angered by America, and hopefully by allowing readers to feel what that man feels, I hope to show that the world is more complicated than politicians and newspapers usually have time for. We need to stop being so confused by the fear we are fed: a shared humanity unites us with people we are encouraged to think of as our enemies.”
(Click HERE for the complete 2007 interview.)
Top Photo: Riz Ahmed as “Changez” in Lahore (narrating).
Bottom Photo: Ahmed with Kiefer Sutherland as “Jim” in NYC (in flashback).
Photo Credits: Quantrell D. Colbert/Mirabai Films
Click HERE to read an amazing article from 2001… published just before 9/11… when no one had a clue about what was about to happen…