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THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST
DIRECTOR: Mira Nair
CAST: Liev Schreiber, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Riz Ahmed, Om Puri
CLASSIFICATION: 13 LSVP
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
MIRA Nair’s latest film is sort of a companion piece to her earlier The Namesake. Both deal with the immigrant’s experience in America and the concomitant search for identity. But, while The Namesake gave us a meditation on what it means to be an American in the late 20th century, The Reluctant Fundamentalist gives us a character who rejects that experience as anathema to holding on to his identity.
The reluctant fundamentalist of the title is Changez Khan (Ahmed, pictured), charismatic and a real go-getter who initially sinks his teeth into the experience of being a financial analyst on Wall Street. Life changes for him post 9/11 as he now suddenly doesn’t fit into the American Dream and has to decide who he really is in a world that wants assimilation, not cultural diversity.
The film is framed by Changez telling his story to an American journalist, Bobby Lincoln (Schreiber), as the world outside the Lahore cafe they’re sitting in is about to go up in flames, courtesy of rioting students.
The conflict of ideologies between his home country and the one he wants to live in plays out pretty much as the conflict of the needs of a thriller – which this starts off as – and a character study, which it ultimately aims to be.
The scenes in which Bobby and Changez talk are the thriller part – fast-moving, nervous editing and jumpcuts with lots of action – but then the flashbacks are more fluid and evocative.
We see the moneyed New York set through his artist girlfriend Erica (Hudson) and his powerful boss Jim Cross (Sutherland) and the cultured side of Lahore through Changez’s poet father and his family as he tells a story of hope and disappointment.
Where Namesake was about detail and dwelt lovingly on little things like the look exchanged between an old couple, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is broad and sweeping as we travel between Lahore, New York and Istanbul.
A long-time Nair collaborator, cinematographer Declan Quinn, as always, uses a vivid palette, but differentiates between the cities and uses some beautiful music, as part of the story (Sufi folk music performed for the Khan family) and a Bollywood-worthy music montage in New York.
Nair never really goes for the jugular though, never criticising the American view of Islam as a holy terror and over-simplifying the real fundamentalists who Changez meets as very much on the fringes of society, rather than with possibly a valid viewpoint.
Ahmed gives a nuanced performance as a man who has several facets, who gracefully moves through various worlds, languages and cultures and cannot understand why those around him can’t do it as easily.
But the rest of the characters don’t come off as well-rounded, with the Americans especially coming off as one-sided and dismissive of his experience, and several sub-plots are simply left dangling.
If you liked The Namesake or Reign Over Me you will like this.