The events of 9-11 have changed cinema. These changes have been far ranging, from narrative construction and movement to the aesthetics of urgency. The past before and since that day suddenly contracts to illuminate that fateful moment while images pace at the speed that intensifies the here-and-now, which, incidentally, tends to be everywhere. It is now impossible to see Muslims and the Eastern cultures without the tinted lenses that all spectators have come to wear, where each gesture is ridden with risk until it has had a chance to prove otherwise. Any film that claims to have “fundamentalist” in its title is likely to invite a concentrated dose of all these changes. Mira Nair delivers a masterful film that rides high on the minimal expectations of the audiences and turns each scene into a cruel exercise of meeting as well as challenging these expectations.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s true merit rests on one pivotal point. In a striking moment of autobiographical reflection, the central character Changez Khan (pun available only to those who see it!) realizes that fundamentalism has many faces. It lives as much in the ruthless and cold veins on Wall Street as it does in the rage of religious fanatics whose single minded devotion turns them blind, although they may be effective in their violent pursuits. It is well worth the effort to watch the film merely to relish this singular moment, which is nestled in the latter part of the narrative and delivered with remarkable flash on the gifted face of Riz Ahmed, who carries the film on his shoulders.
Mohsin Hamid’s novel is a monologue delivered by Changez, recalling his life-story to an American in Lahore. The American soaks in the tale of rousing financial success and pale disappointments in love and security of a Pakistani man in a country that claims to be bountiful and free. In screenwriter William Wheeler’s hands, this story turns into a tussle between the two men and the two forces they represent. Pakistan becomes a stage for religious fundamentalism, where college professors are hounded by zealots to collaborate with them and student unrest is inches away from the grips of proto-terrorists.
It is a cinematic transformation that adapts to a sense of a thriller befitting the Hollywood formula, providing a quick drive-by account of what turns someone into a terrorists. An American professor is kidnapped in the beginning in a scene that re-masters the essentials of cross-cutting between a Sufi Qawwali, faces of Pakistani family and fast edited kidnapping. Nair sets the expectations for the whole film in this scene. From now onwards, each close up of a Muslim, each gesture in their movement, puzzling expressions on their otherwise ordinary faces will be pregnant with implications of nefariously terroristic, fundamentalist activity. She steps out of this routine momentarily to critique it as Changez himself is stopped, frisked and treated suspiciously in the U. S. after 9-11. But the allegiance to stereotypical representation of another culture is clear. In Pakistan, all that moves is associated with terror; the air is filled with unknown but exotically charged sounds, and dark spaces are almost always ominous merely by implication. Nair spares no effort in competing with other thrillers in Hollywood and at times, with the help of cinematographer Declan Quinn and editor Shimit Amin, she displays a command that competes with Kathryn Bigelow. There is very little of her as a diasporic filmmaker, a label she abhors.
Changez’s story unfolds in another time and space. He begins by declaring that he is “A lover of America.” There, he would love “equal chance to win.” Once in America, Changez enjoys a brighter color palette given him by Nair and shines with his intelligence and acumen for financial analysis and strategy. Jim Cross, a shrewd, crafty money artist (Kiefer Sutherland in a cold role) mentors him, and sees him rise in the organization to become his partner. From now on, Changez’s narrative unravels as a romantic adventure. He finds love in photographer Erica (grossly miscast Kate Hudson), who is also (conveniently) a niece of the owner of the firm he works for. His straight-talking, ruthless skills take him around the world as he wraps up small companies into large ones and callously assumes that companies are made of capital and workers are mere disposable appendages.
The visual contrast between the Western part of this film and the Pakistani world is quite stunning, and it has impressed quite a few critics. In the United States, there is glamour, shimmering wealth, soft lights on warm bodies and detailed textures on surfaces in a world that claims to worship freedom and equal chances. Life in Pakistan takes place in a darker color palette, with beards and shadows competing to occupy the screen. No Western man shaves in Pakistan, a minor detail that films in Hollywood never skip in their grasp of the rest of the world.
Then 9-11 happens. Changez realizes that his talent for becoming a shark in financial waters is covered in brown skin. He is humiliated by security agents at airports, stopped and searched despite the company he keeps and the wealth he exudes. When his girlfriend Erica asks him in a frustrated moment, “How does this all happen?” Changez replies, “What makes you think I know!” In a startling scene that unravels Erica’s misguided love, Changez is faced with a shocking realization that his Muslim identity has become the inspiration for and the main subject of Erica’s photography-media installation project, which revolves around the fact that she has “been with a Muslim.”
As Changez watches the towers fall, he admits: “Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.” He was caught up in “the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.” Changez is here speaking for his culture, a distant observer who sees a spectacle unfold in front of his eyes, a spectacle that brings momentary awareness that even cruelty, brutality and violence have their brilliance in execution, if not in intent or purpose. It is a similar kind of awe we have toward fascism, because it is, in its own right, an aesthetic achievement, no matter how morally deplorable.
One of his corporate raids brings Changez to Istanbul where a disillusioned publisher, a hapless client, reminds him that he appears to be a “janissary,” like the Christian boys captured and trained by the Ottomans. It is a term that resonates well in South Asian history. Nair is quite consistent in bringing Changez to the brink of extremism, but shows that fortitude is made of something more than mere impulses.
Despite the forces that work him toward some form of extremism, the real epiphany comes from different corner of his conscience. Changez realizes that he is caught between two kinds of fundamentalisms, the religious kind and the financial forces that he has witnessed up close. Both discourses worship their own fundamentals at the expense of everything else. Both are blind to the humanity of their victims. Both need zeal and faith that swamps all reason. Struck by their similarity, Changez comes to a moment of realization that many ignore as the cloak of religion clouds his judgment. Pursuit of money looks quite secular. He relinquishes the latter and returns home to what he deems to be a life of an intellectual at a university. As Pakistan is radicalized and the social fissures and ferment are mixed with the religious one (so the film argues), he finds himself explaining his life to Bobby Lincoln for whom Changez is just another charismatic Muslim, likely tangled up in the webs of fundamentalism.
Once Changez’s gives up chasing the fundamentals of the capital, the narrative turns to the pressures of the other fundamentalism. The first part of the narrative has a polish and deft hand of a director who can command rapt attention from her audience. It is in the second part, in her indulgence of the complicated webs in which Changez lives, the reality of his people and the pre-conceptions of the Americans that Nair comes in weak. Here, she misses the deeper explorations of how hard it is to be reluctant when faced with injustices. She sides with the liberal middle ground; she brings the viewer to the doorsteps of the crisis, ridden with prejudices about Pakistanis and about Islam and then shies away from confrontation or complexity. Changez wants to emerge as a hero to the audiences of world cinema. Nair lets him and in the process gives up the risks of exploring temptations of religious fundamentalism.
On Fandor web site’s recent info-graphic, Mira Nair is listed as one of the most successful women directors in Hollywood. This film is a testimony to her ability. She has couched the narrative in the pace of a thriller and except for Kate Hudson’s embarrassingly misplaced performance as Erica, brings out stellar acting from the cast. Liev Shreiber shows once again how much command he has on performances of measured intensity. Shabana Azmi and Om Puri make self-assured appearance as parents of Changez, with Puri fully exploiting few moments of understated anger at Changez’s cold-hearted pursuit of money. But it is Riz Ahmed who presents Changez as a charged tinderbox, who is at once in control of his place in life even as it seems to slip out of his hands. This is his film as much as it is Mira Nair’s and he demonstrates a commanding presence in front of the camera that opens up shades of subtlety as the narrative moves on. Ahmed’s performance in this film will open doors for him. He had an earlier career as a hip-hop artist in Britain and the contained but sharply aimed energy he learned in that art form serves him well in this film.