India-born, New York-based Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which opened the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday evening, looks at Islamic terrorism from a new perspective.
Five-time Venice veteran Nair – who’s Monsoon Wedding won the Festival’s top Golden Lion Award in 2001 – tells us the story of Changez (played by Riz Ahmed), a young Wall Street financial analyst and his soured American dream. Far removed from the confused cacophonous din of an Indian marriage in Monsoon Wedding or the American safari in Mississippi Masala or the genteel rumblings in Vanity Fair, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a take on how one is pushed into religious bigotry by an unfeeling society. Nair’s hero is no mullah or one who has been hardened in a fanatical Madarassa. He is a modern-day yuppie who flies to America to excel both intellectually and financially.
Adapted from Mohsin Hamid’s Booker-shortlisted 2007 novel, Nair’s latest work follows the life of young Changez, who leaves his family and home to study at Princeton, and finally lands a plum position in a top American firm as an analyst. But 9/11 changes just about everything, Changez’s love for America soon turns bitter. Arriving back in New York from the Philippines after an official tour, he is strip searched. The humiliation becomes unbearable when his American girlfriend, Erica (Kate Hudson), herself getting over the tragic loss of a boyfriend, displays shocking insensitivity in her art exhibition, where one of her messages reads, Down with the Burkha. Changez throws away an extremely lucrative job and returns to Lahore in Pakistan to take up teaching, completely disillusioned with a country that rejects him after welcoming him initially.
But life in Pakistan for Changez is not going to run placidly, and the film begins with a verbal confrontation between Changez and Bobby (Live Schreiber), an American journalist/CIA agent, who is asked to help when a U.S. academic is kidnapped. Bobby believes that Changez is involved in the whole sordid affair, conveying what Nair describes as mutual suspicion between the Indian sub-continent and Western world.
Although 9/11 works as the turning point in the movie, The reluctant Fundamentalist has more to do with personal compulsions, and as Nair said, her work ought to be seen as a “genuine dialogue” between the East and the West. The director, who grew up in India and has now made New York her home, spending more or less equal time between the continents, feels that hers is a story of contemporary Pakistan, “which is so different from what one reads in newspapers”.
Shot in Delhi, Lahore, Istanbul, New York and Atlanta, The Reluctant Fundamentalist has been scripted as a political thriller (interestingly last year’s Venice opener was one as well, George Clooney’s Ides of March) and treated somewhat akin to the Battle of Algiers – where both sides, French and Algeria, are given the same respect.
Arguably not Nair’s best shot, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a little too long with uneven performances (especially Hudson) in a plot that may have lost its appeal with time. Religious extremism may still be an issue troubling most of mankind, but 9/11 could well have faded from memory. The narrative is often laborious, and what could have been an intimate story opens up into an unwieldy canvas with far too many characters.
However, Nair’s effort to give the subject a new avatar in the form of a dialogue is interesting. In one of the movie’s early scenes, we hear Changez telling Bobby that he must hear him out completely, and it is through these two characters that the director lays the ground for the dialogue. And as Nair told a press conference soon after the screening in Venice, it was essential that this process continued.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Venice Film Festival for the 15th year)