While it may seem odd that acclaimed Indian filmmaker Mira Nair is tackling a film centered around a Pakistani man, she certainly doesn’t think so. What drew her to The Reluctant Fundamentalist was its new look at the Iraq and Afghantistan wars. She read the novel (of the same name) by author Mohsin Hamid and fell in love with the fresh new look at the psychology of this subject. While those stories are normally told from the American point of view, Fundamentalist looks at it through the eyes of a Pakistani man. The film delves into “the mutual suspicion with which America and Pakistan (or the Muslim world) look at one another.” And through this unique point of view, we can gain a deeper understanding of the cultural differences that have informed so much hate in our country.
In 2011 Lahore, professor Changez (Riz Ahmed) is under suspicion of kidnapping a British professor at his school; and American journalist Bobby (Liev Schreiber) is sent in to suss out the details. In an interview format, Bobby learns about Changez’s life and must decide what, if any, involvement Changez has in the kidnapping plot. But how much can Bobby (and we, by extension) trust in Changez’s narrative?
Changez’s story begins with his trek to New York in pursuit of that American Dream (and I don’t mean the new American Dream of Adult World). Through his innate skills, he ascends into the hierarchy of the prestigious financial analysis firm Underwood Samson under the tutelage (and awe) of Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland). This brings him to NYC in 2001, and when the film cuts to a stock footage establishing shot of NYC in 2001 you know that 9/11 will be an important plot point. While in NYC, he also bumps into photographer Erica (Kate Hudson) via a Central Park meet-cute. Hudson comes off as grating in this film—thanks in no small part to her horrible dark hair—but her character is supposed to be grating so it’s forgivable (and if you’ve read Neil LaButte you can guess how things will shape up). Between his passionate relationship with Erica and his successful work relationship, Changez feels like he has finally made it in America.
Then 9/11 occurs, and Changez’s life slowly changes for the worst. In one of the darkest moments of the film (at least from an American perspective), Changez watches the attack on the World Trade Center on TV and a small smile creeps onto his face. He confesses to Bobby that he smiled because he was happy to see such a mighty country put in its place. It’s a dark and disturbing moment, and it only gets darker from there. We see how America’s suddenly escalated hate for Middle Easterners warps Changez’s everyday life (often in ways you wouldn’t even think about). You’ll certainly be rethinking the way you perceive others.
When Changez finishes recounting his life to Bobby, we must decide whether he is being honest and honorable or deceptive and treacherous. And again the thriller aspect of the film picks up, with a violent riot erupting from the protests involved with the kidnapping. Nair does a great job of not revealing the truth until the final moments, allowing you to experience their actions with your own bias towards the characters.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist captures the psychological aspects of the story brilliantly. With a heartwarming and darkly engaging performance by Riz Ahmed, you get sucked into his life. So much so that whenever the story returns to the present you find yourself counting down to the next flashback. Schreiber’s arc is much less interesting in the context, and his blandly adequate performance does nothing to add any intrigue. Because of this, the overly action-packed ending feels out of place, taking away from the impact of the psychological arc of the film.
But no matter how you look at it, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an important addition to our ever-changing worldview. Nair and Hamid have provided us new insight into our prejudices and maybe given us a way to find a safe common ground of understanding.