Adapted from the bestselling novel by Mohsin Hamid, Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist tells the story of Changez Khan, a successful pro-America Pakistani analyst on Wall Street, whose life radically changes after 9/11, the effects of which threaten to lead him towards Islamic fundamentalism.
As a standalone film, it as if Nair tries to fit too much of the novel’s plot into the film, and it takes quite a while for things to get running. Though the film starts with a bang – an American journalist is suddenly kidnapped – the next half an hour moves slowly. It follows Changez’s (Riz Ahmed) recounting to reporter Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber).
Riz has an amazing job with a boss (Kiefer Sutherland) that almost instantly has high hopes for him, a kooky loving American girlfriend (Kate Hudson), a flashy lifestyle – almost everything falls into his lap with little effort on his part. Until the inevitable destruction of the twin towers, Changez is faced with hardly any conflict. No conflict, no drama.
What follows is the expected backlash of Islamophobia, as co-workers and strangers all begin to perceive Changez as one of ‘them’. Though some of the scenes are effectively captured, this territory has been well-trodden in British dramas like The Road To Guantanamo and Britz (both coincidentally also starring Riz Ahmed). Indian cinema has also given us insights into the post-9/11 American Muslim experience with My Name Is Khan and New York for example. However, despite tiny story arcs in TV shows like 24 and Homeland, this is the first time that a mainstream American film shows a Muslim point of view of post-9/11 America.
Where Nair succeeds is in the look and the sound of the film. As Changez flits between the distinguishable worlds of New York’s money and sex, and Lahore’s familial duty and religion, production designer Michael Carlin refrains from going extreme on either side, showing both sides neither as black nor white. Neither is the office block that Changez works in large, spotless and magnificent, nor is his Pakistani home lavish or poverty-stricken. Carlin delivers a great balance and an effective international realism, complemented excellently by Michael Andrews’ musical score of Sufi qawalis and subtle soundscapes.
With the additional talents of Kiefer Sutherland and Indian stalwarts Om Puri and Shabana Azmi in tow, Nair has put together quite a cast (including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Chandrachur Singh – whatever happened to him after the 90s?).
However, casting Kate Hudson for the role of Changez’s love interest may have been a misstep. There is hardly any chemistry between the two characters, and there is no reason for the viewer to root for them to be together. Or even any impetus to be apart. Though the Pakistani characters are well drawn out as devout Muslims who also indulge in a spot of alcohol, unfortunately the overnight-racist Americans tend to come across as one-dimensional. The only exception to this is Sutherland’s Gordon Gekko-like boss, who hides a soft spot for Changez behind his steel exterior. The interaction between the two of them is electric.
The ending of the film leaves the viewer with an open-ended question, which unfortunately does not leave as great an emotional impact as it should due to the laborious journey that it has taken to get there. Changez is ultimately a passive protagonist. This does not make for great drama, and it would have been good to at least see him lead the film’s final scenes.
The greatest failing however is that of the structure, with the film using the same narrative device as the novel, as Changez explains to Bobby how he came to be who he is and where he is. The scenes dart between modern day and 2001 too often and uncomfortably jar with one another, pushing the viewer to repeatedly leave one plotline for another and leaving very little in the way of mystery.
From the beginning, we know Changez is going to leave his life in America behind. Whether he has become a fundamentalist or not however remains compelling, but the overall efforts that Nair has taken to ensure that Changez remains a likeable character works against him, not providing him with the depth he deserves for such an important story.
Ultimately, Nair sticking so closely to the novel becomes the film’s weakness. The rule of film is a very different beast to that of novels, and when adapting it is important to remember that at the end of the day… you’re making a film.
The film was screened at the recently concluded BFI London Film Festival.
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