I FINALLY GOT around to seeing “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” a year after it more or less rose and fell without much of a trace. And today, Remembrance Day, seems an appropriate time to write about it.
Now here’s a movie that comes with some pretty solid creds: the book by Moshin Hamid was shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize for 2007 and the film is directed by Mira Nair, whose “Monsoon Wedding” and “The Namesake” were solid, well made, engaging stories. It also has a cast of A-listers: a black-haired Kate Hudson as the love-life (but finally playing – awkwardly – against her usual ditzy-blonde persona), Kiefer Sutherland as a ruthless money-driven captain of industry (so nice not to see him torturing people as he did every week on “24”), Liev Schreiber, who is one of the finest stage actors but whose film roles seem stuck in B-lister nonsense (“Wolverine”, “Salt” etc) and Riz Ahmed (A British actor and rapper according to IMDB) as Changez, the protagonist.
The story follows the life of this young, poor but patrician Pakistani, as he aculturizes to his adopted country of the US, first as a student at Princeton, and then as a brilliant, and typically ruthless New York financier. His world falls apart just after 9-11 when, to a jittery, shaken US, he is no longer seen as some rich, well-dressed New Yorker, but as a potential co-jihadist. Twice we see him arbitrarily ‘arrested’ and humiliated by racist authorities (Ms Nair is scrupulous to make one of his tormentors Black. This was a time when religion and brown-ness was far more fearful than that old crime of being born Black).
Taunted as much by his poet father (the ever dependable Om Puri) for his choice of career (as inhumane as the same treatment he finds himself subjected to by authorities defending ‘freedom’) as by both his own new-found epiphany of being no more than an outsider no matter his business success, and of being secretly thrilled at the image of the falling Twin Towers (which he finds “bold”, “creative”, “daring”), he quits the job and the faux-life it offered him and returns to Pakistan, newly radicalized.
This is his story – a story within a story – which he tells to an American journalist living in Pakistan, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber). “Don’t judge me until you’ve heard my entire story”, he tells Bobby. But Bobby isn’t listening to him out of empathetic curiosity, he’s playing him along, guided by a battalion of eavesdropping CIA Agents, in the assumption that Changez knows and will reveal the location of a kidnapped American academic.
There’s an American philosopher called Stephen Heath who says that “the prime function of ideology is to construct subjects” (for instance, he notes, the IRS don’t see you as a husband or wife or employer, they see you as a taxpayer). The trap in which Changez finds himself, and which the movie explores, is finding the balance between identities. We see how this young man: brilliant financier, loving son, patient lover, passionate fan of America is repositioned ideologically as a proto-Jihadist ‘subject’. To his dismay, he feels that his lover (a White woman – Kate Hudson) sees him solely as a Pakistani; his father he thinks, sees him solely as an exploiter of labour. Changez’ ego cannot deal with this fragmentation of his personality, of his super-ego. So he constructs a persona to re-acculturize with his new life in a changed world: he becomes the reluctant fundamentalist.
But his shift from proto-American financier to Pakistani academic is perceived by CIA ideology as signifying a radicalization; one that simply isn’t based on truth. Bobby, the journalist, assumes his guilt and fails, as Changez had implored, to judge him only after understanding his full story.
This failure leads to tragedy and death (as it has on the bigger stage)
As you’d expect, the story is deftly directed by Ms Nair; she contrasts the two worlds – the pre 9-11 world of New York which is a world of possibilities and hope with the post 9-11 world in the same city: now one of wariness and fear – with the two Changez’ : the clean-shaven go-getter and the bearded (or masked) cynic.
And yet, though the movie opens many doors and embarks upon many themes, most of these are never resolved. So you come away entertained but ultimately unsatisfied.
At one point, Changez asks his students, “I was part of the American dream; and I knew what that was, but,” he asks them, “just what is the Pakistani dream?” It’s a great question – but never resolved or even pursued.
Changez is mentored and shaped by two key personalities: Jim Cross, his financier boss (Sutherland) and Abu (his father – Om Puri); commerce v culture; profit v poetry. Indeed, it is upon being presented a translation of one of his (impecunious) father’s books of poetry by a publisher he’s about to put out of business, that he has a change of heart. So poetry wins the day? Does his father – as artist – represent a kind of honesty that Jim Cross lacks? Is the new changed quasi-radicalized Changez more honest with himself? And how do these ideas play into the bigger narrative that suggests that it was America’s Islamophobia that tipped him over the edge?
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is potentially a five hour movie that Ms Nair tried to cram into two. She keeps the drama propelling along nicely, but very much to the sacrifice of intellectual depth and substance.