The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Featuring: Liev Schreiber, Riz Ahmed, Keifer Sutherland, Kate Hudson, Om Puri
Director: Mira Nair
Writers: William Wheeler (screenplay); Ami Boghani & Mohsin Hamid (screen story); adapted from a novel by Mohsin Hamid
Australian release date: Thursday, 23rd May

Reviewers’ one-word summations
rolanstein: novelistic
Karen: meaty

An American academic resident at a Lahore university is kidnapped by Islamic extremists. In response to American intervention, students gather to protest in the streets outside a café in which ex-pat American journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) sits interviewing young Pakistani professor Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed). As Changez reflects on an earlier period of his life as a corporate high-flyer in the US, his relationship with Manhattan artist Erica (Kate Hudson), and the post-9/11 changes and realisations that soured his American Dream and ultimately drove him back to his home country, it emerges that both he and his interviewer may have hidden and conflicting agendas and perhaps even covert roles in the hostage drama that is unfolding as they converse.

Review 1: (rolanstein)
Pakistan is routinely portrayed in the Western press as dark, troubled and threatening, a dangerous and volatile backwater of a society infested with Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists. Indian director Mira Nair does not shy away from showing that side; the film opens with an American professor being accosted by a group of shadowy figures as he walks the crowded night streets. He is bundled into a car and driven off, his female companion flung aside, her cries of alarm ignored by onlookers.

The abduction is intercut with scenes of lavish spreads of food being brought around to an animated audience watching rapturous musicians performing sufi. This thrilling, mysterious and mesmerising music set to driving rock-style drumming features throughout the movie, along with colourful street and café scenes, beautifully filmed, that leave an indelible impression of a rich and vibrant culture – another side of Pakistan that should come as no surprise, but does nevertheless (testimony, perhaps, to the unbalanced picture the western press has projected for so long now).

These early scenes prefigure a major concern of the film: to peel back perceived reality, exposing the fundamental truth within. However, there is also a converse argument being put forward: that fundamentalism – the ideological variety – is dangerously reductive and dehumanising.

As an ambitious young business analyst working for a Wall Street organisation, Changez is instructed by his mentor Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland) to assess the value of client companies according to ‘fundamentals’. He is then required to implement changes and strategies that will maximise growth and profit potential. This often involves cutting staff, which he does dispassionately. He does not factor in the human cost, which is not part of his analyst mindset.

Changez seems set to achieve his American Dream. He is thriving in his career, and on a personal front, his relationship with local artist Erica is going well (it’s a bit of a stretch believing that, actually: there’s no chemistry between Riz Ahmed and Kate Hudson, and the latter seems miscast). Then comes 9/11.

Despite the horror of the event, Changez is able to step back and with an analyst’s eye acknowledge the “audacity and ingeniousness” of the attack. On one hand, this functions as a plot signpost pointing ominously to the direction Changez may take in the future, when he returns, disillusioned, to his home country. But it also suggests a parallel between the jihadist extremists responsible for the Twin Towers attacks and corporate America. Both adopt a fundamentalist approach that takes no account of human cost. The scale of the respective ‘collateral damage’ contrasts wildly of course, but the fundamentalist principles informing the respective actions are comparable in their ruthless disregard for anything outside their ideological parameters. In both cases, the cause is all and the end justifies the means.

Changez continues to pursue his American Dream unperturbed by the Twin Towers attacks, until he is forced into the realisation that he is now ‘other’. Passing through Customs with his colleagues on returning from a work assignment, he is singled out for a cavity search. He is spat on and his tyres let down. Plucked off the street by cops and interrogated. Even Erica begins to perceive him differently.

But it is not this rejection so much as a crisis of personal values and identity – the truth within – that calls him home to Pakistan, prompted by the sage words of a writer who is among staff he must cut during an assignment in Istanbul. Suddenly, the collateral damage he routinely wreaks in his work is personalised; suddenly, he is reconnected with the things that matter most – his home, family and cultural heritage.

All this is covered in flashbacks triggered by his recollections during an interview in a Lahore café with American journo Bobby Lincoln. It’s an awkward way to structure Changez’ story, and perhaps better suited to a novel than a film. The artifice of the structure is too noticeable in the relatively short time-frame of the movie, and the frequent switching to the past detracts from the tension of the present, rendering this thriller less thrilling than it might have been.

Really, it’s a work of ideas first, and a thriller second. But as the former, it is hamstrung by the film genre; the ideas in the mix are complex and far better suited to the novelist’s more expansive mode. Indeed, there’s a scene towards the end in which the case for humanism over extremist ideology is summed up in squirmishly flowery “literary” dialogue that is clearly authorial, relegating the character to a mouthpiece.

All in all, though, this is an ambitious, thought-provoking and timely work worth seeing, despite the migration from novel to film being less than seamless.

Review 2: Karen
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a complex construction of evidence against dichotomy in culture that nevertheless ultimately comes down to a binary choice for the main character.

Changez (Riz Ahmed) is a well-educated Pakistani who runs with princes and, in the subcontinent’s sharply delineated caste system, feels the sting of comparative poverty. He goes to college in America where his drive to succeed aligns perfectly with the American national psyche. Changez is the narrator of the story, which we learn through the many filters of his own words, time, and whatever cultural baggage we bring.

There’s an implied further filter, that of the character Bobby (Liev Schreiber), a journalist to whom Changez is telling his story, and who eventually records it; we can imagine that this tale is the novel by Mohsin Hamid that was made into a screenplay by Hamid, Ami Boghani, William Wheeler and Rutvik Oza and then filmed by director Mira Nair. Okay, I know you understand the process by which stories are turned into scripts and films are made, but it has a particular resonance in this film where themes of cultural identity, values, self perception and representation are central.

Values are particularly important. It’s no accident that the high-flying company that Changez is recruited to turns its dollar by “valuing” other companies. Changez proves his worth time and again with brilliant analysis and ruthless recommendations to strip staff and maximise profits; his mentor grooms him for a partnership.

He’s living the American dream, but Changez is actually opaque to his American colleagues. They struggle with pronouncing his name, but he’s a clean-shaven, alcohol-sipping, non-observant Muslim. He even has an American girlfriend, Erica (Kate Hudson); she, however, cannot commit to him because she is grieving for a lost love. This storyline must be read as metaphor – because otherwise it is meaningless peripheral trivia – but I found it obtuse and unsatisfactory.

Things change for Changez with 9/11 – though not in an instant: his reaction to it, which he explains to Bobby, shows that he must have been feeling some inklings of disillusionment with the US system. Previously able to get by unnoticed in America, he is now subjected to abuse and indignities. There are further catalysts, including a visit home for a wedding. Changez grows his beard, and although advised to lose it in order to fit the image of the aspiring partner, he keeps it.

The final straw comes in Turkey, when he’s required to liquidate entirely an unprofitable publishing company that has previously produced a translation of his father’s poetry. Here in Istanbul he visits a mosque, and wanders about on rooftops, considering his life choices.

He ends up back in Lahore teaching at a university, perceived and identified by CIA agents as a radical academic, but, as he patiently explains to Bobbie, actually using education as a moderate tool for change. It’s impossible, though, to remain untouched, and he fears for the safety of his family. Thus arises the framing device of the film, where in an atmosphere of campus riot, he must persuade the man he suspects can call off the heat that he is not aligned with the radicals.

The whole thing is absorbing from start to finish, and meaty ideas about the binary nature of fundamentalism, whether it relates to economics or politics, are explicitly raised, spiced with hypothetical drama, and roasted for us to chew on. There are extra full courses about culture and identity. It’s a massive buffet. You may have to step away and come back later – in other words, this is a film that’s worth seeing twice. And I haven’t even mentioned the fabulous visuals and music that make it so enjoyable to watch.

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One thought on “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

  1. I haven’t commented until now, Karen, because there wasn’t much to say – we’re pretty well lock-step on this one.

    My only departure from you is that I wouldn’t want to see it again. This doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. I just think it took on too much that is essentially the stuff of novels, and that reading the source text would give much better access to the complex ideas being grappled with here.

    LOVED the music.


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