We speak to director Mira Nair, Riz Ahmed and Liev Schreiber about their provocative film about Islam in America.
22 May 2013 - 4:01 PM  UPDATED 1 Oct 2020 - 2:59 PM

That Indian filmmaker Mira Nair and Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid are both long-term American residents made the filming of Hamid's book The Reluctant Fundamentalist a poignant experience. This was particularly the case for New York-based Nair, whose father was born in Lahore, where the film is set.

"The film asks how we see ourselves in this increasingly sad divide between the East and the West"

The story tells of Changez (Riz Ahmed), a brilliant Pakistani Wall Street financial analyst who despite having met Erica (Kate Hudson), the woman who may be the love of his life, goes back to Pakistan following the backlash of the 9/11 attacks. We experience the events via an interview, which takes place in a Lahore café between Bobby, Liev Schreiber's journalist, and Changez, the reluctant fundamentalist of the film's title.

“We made the film 11 years after Sept 11,” explains Nair, who has won a stream of awards for her films Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding. “It was necessary to let a decade pass before I approached the subject. In truth, my desire to make the film came from visiting Pakistan for the first time six years ago. As child of modern India, I was not one to cross to the other side, to the place that was once one country. But since my father was from Lahore and was raised as a Lahori, what was once Pakistan is in my blood. I know from living half my life in India the misconceptions about what it's actually like in Lahore.

“Also,” she continues, “we usually don't see that elegant dialogue with America which the book provides. It's about how in the global landscape of today a young man finds out what he is in love with. The film asks how we see ourselves in this increasingly sad divide between the East and the West.”

The continually probing 55-year-old admits it's now the time to examine the horrific 9/11 events more objectively. Given that our interview took place before the Boston bombings, she's not wrong.

“I hope the film helps open up a conversation in the spirit of these two cultures that goes beyond the prejudices that appear in the press and in the politics of today,” she says. “Moshin and I have both been educated in America and have gone back and forth and now live between two worlds. I hope to transmit our intimate knowledge of these two worlds in the film. I really believe that in spite of what George Bush once said: “You're either with us or against us”—which is part of what propelled me to be a bridge-maker—there is a middle ground, not just in America but in the whole world. Many people are tired of the state of affairs now.”

Hamid was together with Nair at the film's Venice world premiere and reflected her views.

“It's important to keep in mind that there isn't one America; there are 300 million different people living there and there are many different points of view, different ways of living and as viewers of the film, they will react differently,” he says. “A large part of my book and indeed this movie is about trying to take away those sorts of labels—'This is an American', 'This is a Pakistani', 'This is a Muslim'—and to show people as individually formed unique human beings and not just stereotypes.”

British-born Ahmed (from Four Lions and Michael Winterbottom's Trishna and The Road to Guantanamo), who is of Pakistani origin, was perfect casting as Changez.

“I loved the book and stalked this project like a sad case,” admits the fast-talking 30-year-old Oxford graduate and sometime rapper. “I often don't have the attention span to finish books. I get to about page 120 and then I find something else, but this is a book you read in one or two days. Like a silly little boy, as soon as I finished it I phoned the publishers and asked if anyone had the film rights and they were like, 'Go away!' When I heard Mira was doing it I was like, 'Oh my God, she's one of my favourite directors'. It's very cheesy to say that, but it literally was my dream.”

Ahmed readily embraced the context of the story and became a willing collaborator with Nair.

“For me, the central theme of the film is someone's journey to define themselves on their own terms and not be defined by the labels that are thrust upon us,” he says. “Changez is trying to negotiate his way around these centrifugal forces. I feel like we all have that, we all are running from our families, but we ultimately find home in a version of life we grew up in or the reference points we grew up with.”

Liev Schreiber, who lived in India in his youth, turned down the one-dimensional role of Jim Cross, Changez's Wall Street boss (ultimately played by Kiefer Sutherland), and instead agreed to an expanded role as the interviewing journalist.

“I felt like Bobby was the only opportunity in the film to have an American character of conscience who would be as complex and redemptive and compassionate as Changez,” Schreiber says. “I was impressed by Mohsin's characterisations of people from the Muslim world and how they would be responded to, in particular by Americans and Western culture, because it's selfishly where I come from.

“Having met many Muslim people during the course of my life, one of the things that I liked about Moshin's writing was that he set the whole book essentially over a meal. One of the aspects of Muslim culture that I have always admired is that the guest is God. So that no matter who you are, or what your politics are, or what your past is, or what your history with that person is, when you are in their home you are treated with a tremendous amount of respect and made to feel very special. It was a great context for a conversation because it allowed the opportunity for simple humanity to trump rhetoric. For instance, the notion in the book, which hopefully still is evocative in the film, is 'I understand you are upset and I understand how you must feel about all this, but please, before we go any further, you have to taste these sweets because they are the best in my province'.

“There is something about that which breaks through a barrier and I thought the book was very intelligent structurally and it was why I was interested in doing the film. I think at its best, it begins a conversation that hopefully people will continue on their own.”


Watch 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist'

Wednesday 7 October, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)

UK, 2013
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Language: English
Director: Mira Nair
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Martin Donovan, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland

The Reluctant Fundamentalist Review
An accurate reflection of post-9/11 realities.

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