The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Changez Khan: Why are they harassing my family?
Bobby Lincoln: I don’t speak for the authorities, but it seems safe to assume – you’ve become a person of interest.
Changez Khan: And they make these assumptions based on what evidence? How do I… how do I become … uninteresting?

The above is one of the key dialogues and questions offered for your consideration in the brand new film from Director Mira Nair called The Reluctant Fundamentalist. A young man from Lahore, Pakistan comes to America to study in the mid-late 1990’s. He’s successful at Princeton and is later hired as a financial analyst by Underwood Sampson – a job described as one of the most desired in the entire world.

You have 20 minutes to convince me why you belong at Underwood Sampson

You have 20 minutes to convince me why you belong at Underwood Sampson

Changez Khan embraced and loved America. As he put it to Jim Cross played by Kiefer Sutherland at his recruitment interview while still at Princeton, In America, I get an equal chance to win. And whether you hire me or not, JimI am going to win. He meant of course the American dream – a successful career, a beautiful trophy wife, tons of money and everything else that came with it.

Gangez: Whether you hire me or not JIm, I am going to win. Jim: Good fucking answer.

Changez: Whether you hire me or not Jim, I am going to win.
Jim: Good fucking answer.

And he was well on his way. His career at Underwood Sampson was fast-tracked. His girl friend Erica (Kate Hudson) was the niece of the head of the firm. Then came 9-11. Changez was off in Manila on a business trip with his colleagues when those unforgettable events happened. He learned of them while watching TV in his hotel room that very night.

After that, things changed. It’s not like Changez Khan’s star fell out of the sky, and crashed and burned. No, it was nothing as dramatic as that. But when the Underwood Sampson team returned from Manila later that month, it was Khan who was culled from the disembarking group.

Immigration Official: Are you an American citizen or a foreign national?
Changez Khan: A foreign national.
Immigration Official: May I see your passport please?
Immigration Official [looking at the Pakistan passport] Step over here…
Changez Khan: Is there a problem?
Immigration Official: Follow me please…

Which led to a full body search. And that was only the beginning.

Mira Nair has directed a forceful and gripping film. The film is adopted from the novel of the same name written by Mohsin Hamed. Yet, despite the fact that the film is so very involving, it is ultimately flawed and a bit shallow. Nair, and her script writers Ami Boghani, Mohsin Hamed, and William Wheeler apparently have taken a rather slender novel – basically a monologue spoken by the Changez character and opened it up into a number of story threads braided together.

The story of the difficulties facing Islamic people living in the US in the post 9-11 era is not remote or unique as thousands and thousands of immigrants living in the USA had the same things happen to them. Khan was faced with difficult choices. His parents were not altogether happy with his work. To others, he was different – even at Underwood Sampson, he began to notice that things had changed. He no longer worked in a cubical. He now had an office. But there was a growing chasm between he and his colleagues. Was it jealousy, resentment, or fear. Or was it all of the above?

There’s a second story – the one of a Wall Street firm which specializes in increasing the value of its client firms (for healthy fees) by downsizing these corporations. This does not make Underwood Sampson, Masters of the Universe, rather it paints them as corporate sharks who are unable to see, or care, about the effects on other human beings when downsizing is put into play.

There’s the romance angle – between Changez and Erica – Kate Hudson has the role and she seems miscast – a downtown artist – who is still struggling with her own personal demons. The relationship of Changez and Erica seems to lack chemistry, and Erica herself seems a bit underwritten. Not to mention that Kate Hudson is nearly unrecognizable in dark hair.

Then we have the story of Bobby Lincoln, a journalist living in Lahore. Is he a journalist or something more? When we first meet him, he’s a loading up a pipe with hashish. A fact that is later hurled back at him during his interview with Changez.

Obviously Bobby Lincoln is more than a journalist, and we do get to hear his story. But most of the time, Liev Schreiber, as Bobby, is doing nothing more than listening to Changez’s story.

I didn't have to. It was picked for me.

I didn’t have to. It was picked for me.

During the interview with Bobby, Changez learns about why Bobby is in Lahore, and then he makes a key statement about himself. You picked a side after 9-11. I didn’t have to. It was picked for me. This is the tie in to the film title – The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Of course all this is woven around the pull of Changez’s homeland. This is a man who may have left Pakistan to embrace and enjoy the opportunities the West provided him, but he is still a Pakistani. His story is the central one of the film. He’s played exceedingly well by Riz Ahmed. We want to root for this guy, and we want to trust him – yet he isn’t so easy to truly like. He enjoys his work as a staffing surgeon (one who figures out where and how to downsize). Can we really like a shark? He’s also a greedy and selfish guy. I’ll give Riz a ton of praise for his work in this film.

Likewise, you will appreciate Kiefer Sutherland as Changez’s boss. He is subtle, and underplays his role. While dressed in well-cut suits and hidden behind big framed eye-glasses – you will still see his ‘sharkiness’. The real shortcoming of the film is that this character doesn’t get enough screen time.

The film was shot in New York, Atlanta, Lahore, Instanbul, and New Dehli. It has the looks and feel of an expensive film. I particularly liked the way the film was edited. In fact the opening scene was actually a cross-cut between a musical recital and a kidnapping of an American college professor right off the streets in Lahore. We watch and listen to the piece of music called Kangna performed by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammed. While I don’t know what the music was about, it was absolutely stunning to watch. The passion of the singers cross-cut with the horrific abduction was the film’s highlight for me. At the recital, Changez’s Dad, played by Om Puri says – Divine music … sweetens the sting of death. But if nothing else, this scene was hypnotic and mesmerizing.

But after that the film has no place to go but down. It’s not a failure, and it has much to recommend. Changez reaches a crossroad when he is asked to gut a Turkish publishing house. Can he do it, will he do it? We will also hear a statement made by Changez teaching assistant Sameer. Poetry is serious too, the most transcendent poetry is by definition political.

And this is where Nair has lost her way. Is the film about geopolitics? Is the film about people living in America who are unable to resist the call of fundamentalism? Is it a romance drama, or is it a political thriller complete with CIA listening posts and heavily armed CIA operatives on a collision course with destiny on the street of Lahore? I think the film includes all of the above and as such has spread itself too thin.

Rather than simply leaving us with some provocative questions to ponder, Nair has tacked on an action sequence to end the film. While the tension is ratcheted up, the scene  doesn’t work very well visually. It seems almost like a distinct grab of a commercial aspect to attract more viewers. While I’d rather have some definite answers to the questions posed by the story – the reality is that Nair doesn’t have the answers – more likely no one does – and her whole point was to start a conversation. Which is exemplified by this quote from Changez:

Yes, I am Pakistani. Yes, I am a Muslim. But that’s not all I am.

Three point five zero is the rating. While the film has opened in just a limited number of theaters – it is available as an on-demand film from your cable company. I paid $7.99 for a two-day rental.

Check out the trailer.

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