|DVD The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Run time: 130 min
Director: Mira Nair
Writers: Javed Akhtar, Ami Boghani
Stars: Riz Ahmed, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland
A young Pakistani man is chasing corporate success on Wall Street. He finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis, and the enduring call of his family’s homeland.
|Plot Keywords: istanbul turkey, title directed by female|
Country: USA, UK, Qatar
Release Date: 3 May 2013 (Sweden)
Opening Weekend: $30,920 (USA) (26 April 2013)
Gross: $519,535 (USA) (7 June 2013)
When I read on the Venice Film Festival schedule that the opening film, the Reluctant Fundamentalist, was going to be about 9/11, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. There have been just too many films, books, short stories, documentaries and so on on the subject and I didn't feel there was much left to say without risking to be too rhetorical or predictable. I attended the screening expecting a mediocre film, but what I watched instead was a surprising, moving, complex story that deals with a series of issues, the most important of which is not 9/11 but human emotions.
The film is about Changez, a university teacher in Lahore who also appears to be right at the centre of the conflict between Pakistani and Americans, as another teacher was kidnapped and most of Changez's students are being watched carefully by the CIA. Then Changez meets Bobby, an American journalist who will end up to have more in common with him than we first thought, and we learn about Changez's past in Pakistan and America, to find out that there's so much more to both of them.
There are several reasons why the film worked for me, but the main one would be that it doesn't only focus on one side of the story, but forces the viewer to assume both sides at different points. I have to admit I immediately sided with the journalist at the start, and I think it's because of the blurry way in which the film starts, that immediately makes us suspect there might actually be something that Changez's students are hiding. The viewer is literally thrown into a strange world that he doesn't understand, and the first thing he does is to take the side of something he does understand and that he is familiar with, and that is Bobby, who seems to be a journalist and whose background we seem to be able to understand. In a way, we are almost relieved when he appears, as before that moment everything moved really quickly and the story wasn't very clear yet. I found this a clever choice, as everything will be reversed at the end. But we do change sides quite soon in the story, as we get to know Changez's past and find that there was something we can recognize in it too: he went to university in America, he was successful, he was in love with the "American dream" and he spent many years in the country. When he talks to the journalist he makes an unexpected reference to CSI Miami, something that was in a way unexpected but also reassuring in the context of kidnapping, bombing and revolutionary ideas. His character is not as intimidating or mysterious as we first thought he was, and we actually find that it's easy to relate to him too. In a way, both Changez and Bobby look slightly out of place in the bar in Lahore, and yet we get the impression that if any of them said something wrong, something really bad would happen.
When we go through Changez's past abroad, we do get a sense of his character through the small things he does or says, in a way. He seems to be a very positive, successful, ambitious character that means well, dreams big and is attached to his family, but we find out quite soon that he is also a cold, calculating person who knows exactly what he wants and won't stop until he gets it. It starts at work, when he suggests to fire a huge amount of people to make a company be more productive, without thinking of the repercussions on people's lives. It continues in his love life, when he gets together with a girl whose previous boyfriend had died a few months earlier, and when she feels like she is cheating and can't have sex with him he doesn't comfort her but suggests to her to "pretend I'm him". Just like Changez, his love story is flawed from the very start.
And if Changez is flawed and living an illusion who is doomed to end, his love interest Erica (played by Kate Hudson) is also a broken, damaged character who doesn't even really get to redeem herself at the end. Her very reaction to his suggestion shows her inability to move forward and makes her sad and depressed. We understand straight away that the relationship means something different to her than what it means to him, and this is proved in the wonderful scene of her gallery opening, that is probably one of my favorite scenes in the film, where she portrays her love story as a hollow, shallow, cold pretense and also marks its end and a point of non return for Changez as well.
Our sympathies change as the story evolves, we don't know who to trust and who to dislike, but the answer is that there is no right or wrong. That is, I think, what the ending wants to show. Some people will see it as a positive one, others will see it as the beginning of the end. Different people will get different messages from this film and understand it in different ways, and I think that's what the director wanted. As for me, I'm probably a pessimist, but as the credits scrolled down and I prepared to leave the cinema, the scene that came to my mind (and that sums up the whole film to me) was the one in which Changez asked his students, during a lecture, to forget about the "American Dream" and help him build/find a "Pakistani Dream" instead.
I saw a screening of the film at the BFI film festival in London and Mira Nair's intro really did set the tone for the film. She mentioned how there have been countless accounts of the attacks from the viewpoint of those who died to protect democracy but what of all the innocent lives lost in the process? She wanted to give the viewpoint of the war on terror from the other side, who in one stroke of the brush have been deemed extremists or terrorists. She wanted to use this film as a platform to start a dialogue between the East and West, to tell a story of contemporary Pakistan which is caught between whether its identity should be pro or anti-American without realizing it has to choose neither but develop a "Pakistani identity".
And a dialogue it was. Quite literally. The journalist Changez talked to had perhaps become a reluctant fundamentalist in his own right, living in Lahore but after viewing the atrocities of the Taliban, reverting to the CIA. There are beautiful touches added to the film like linking religious fundamentalism with economic fundamentalism – like the ruthlessness of capitalism where money and success are the only motivation versus the blind hate of religious extremism, both ideologies pursued without regard for who suffers as a result.
It's a very fine balance to keep from tipping into either extreme and Mira Nair presented it beautifully. I read the book and I was afraid of the treatment – a British Asian playing the lead role did not conform to the image of Changez I had in my mind and I was afraid that the essence would be lost. But he managed to pull it off. The movie was adapted quite well. Every character had a story, nobody was good or evil, and everyone's behaviour had a consequence on the decisions made by other characters. It was a story of humanity where we are all the same yet cannot seem to get over the colour of the other person's skin.
As a director, Mira is blunt – she shows things as they are. Rather than seeing an aerial view of the Badshahi mosque or the glossy shops of Liberty, we see the gritty part of Lahore. The film is ambitious – set in five countries and telling a complex story but I think it succeeds. It's not that I don't have problems with the film but I highly doubt someone else could have told it so well. It seamlessly integrates the beautiful sounds of Pakistani music from the highs and lows of qawwali to the beautiful poetry of Faiz.
As a Pakistani who has worked on Wall street, I have seen reluctant fundamentalists pop up everywhere post-9/11 with the polarizing "with us or against us" Bush ideology, unapologetic racial profiling at airports, media portrayal of Pakistan as a cultural backwater, etc. I am glad someone is telling the story of how they came to be, how people who were once proud to be American withdrew back to their former identities, albeit reluctantly, but through the actions of the few people who unfortunately will have no interest in watching this movie because they are not interested in a dialogue. No, the only viewpoint that matters to them is their own.
This movie challenged my views of American policy. I thought that it was definitely written with an Indian audience as the demographic it would do best in. We had an opportunity to listen to the Director (Mira Nair) speak about this and her other movies. She told us "This movie is intended to start a conversation", and that it does. If you are a Hollywood / blockbuster fan you probably will not enjoy this as much. If you are open- minded, watch film for more than just entertainment, and like Bollywood / Indian film, this is for you. I think that just as 20 years ago film depicting disability, or sexuality was far less popular such is true about a film that illustrates a point of view that's not that of a gun toting American.
For those who have read Mohsin Hamid's brilliant novel on which this film is based the story will be easier to follow than the somewhat disconnected screenplay that was written by Hamid with Ami Boghani and William Wheeler. Mira Nair directs, and knowing her previous work suggests that it is this very disconnect that she wishes to emphasize in this profoundly moving film – in these times of global unrest and fear because of terrorist acts we don't know who to trust and who to dislike, but the answer is that there is no right or wrong. Nair achieves this by beginning her film with a conversation between an American journalist Bobby (Liev Schreiber) and a Pakistani professor Changez (Riz Ahmed) in a setting of high tension in a bar in Lahore and our initial belief is that the Bobby represents the core we trust and with whom we identify, that Changez is the unknown 'different culture' stranger who is suspect. In the course of the film that position is deeply altered. And that is where the power of the message is so affecting. But we must go through flashbacks of eleven years to understand the real drama.
Changez Khan (the very handsome and very fine actor Riz Ahmed) lives with his poet father Abu (Om Purl) and mother Ammi (Shabana Azmi) in Pakistan. The family is poor but educated and Changez decides to go to America to find his place in the corporate world of money and success – and help support his family (his sister is ready to marry but the family can ill afford a traditional wedding). Changez arrives in America, attends university, and rises rapidly, gaining a position with a Wall Street company that specializes in financial advising for business internationally. The head of the company Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland) personally picks Changez after testing his skills and sends Changez on missions to the Philippines etc where he examines the finances, cuts waste (and jobs of workers) and makes the businesses run efficiently, increase profits, but sacrificing the working class. On one such mission Changez is asked to analyze a publishing house in Istantbul, the owner Nazmi (Haluk Bilginer) has translated Changez' fathers poetry into Turkish, and pleads with Changez not to destroy his publishing house. Cross demands Changez shut it down and Changez refuses and submits his resignation. As he prepares to pack to return, jobless, to the US he is watching television and the twin towers of 9/11 are being attacked. His attempts to return to the US are met with police and airport interrogations since he is not a native born American, and this allows the viewer to witness the horrible and demeaning treatment 'foreigners' received in the wake of 9/11.
Changez does return to New York and has another setback with his photographer artist girlfriend Erica (Kate Hudson), herself deeply bruised by the loss of her lover in a car crash she caused in the recent past, who has an art opening that includes videos and images of bits of conversation she has shared with Changez – information which in the exhibition further underlines the concept of Changez as a potential terrorist. Changez flees to Pakistan, becomes an anti-violence but fiery professor whose students seek to rid their Pakistan of the American intruders. And this is where the conversation at film's beginning ultimately makes sense (it is now 2011). The manner in which the film ends is left for the viewer to experience. As in the book there are many sidebar stories and characters that underline the stories of both Bobby (who has been talked into joining the CIA) and Changez who moves from his love of the American Dream and his sweetheart, to his spiritual commitment to his Pakistan. These characters, as well as many others in this film, allow us to see there is no one way to view acts as right or wrong. It is all perception and hopefully this brilliant film will assist us in understanding the confusion that deeply affects us all everyday as we walk around the topic of terrorism. Grady Harp, May 13