Changez (Riz Ahmed) is living the American dream; at the top of his class at Princeton, The Pakistani is snapped up by an elite 'valuation' firm. He thrives on the energy of New York, and his infatuation with the beautiful Erica (Kate Hudson) promises entry into Manhattan society at the same exalted level once occupied by his own family back in Lahore. But in the wake of September 11, Changez finds his position in his adopted city suddenly overturned, and his budding relationship with Erica eclipsed by the reawakened ghosts of her past...
Some people crave fidelity. Accordingly, while watching The Reluctant Fundamentalist, some fans of Mohsin Hamid’s novel will be horrified by the substantial changes made by the novelist in tandem with director Mira Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler. But despite the gasps of purists, on the whole, the modifications are positive and enhance the adaptation cinematically, making it an engaging exploration of the journey of radicalisation and the question of how far an activist should go to express their political beliefs.
an engaging exploration of the journey of radicalisation
The lead character, played by Riz Ahmed, is Changez, a professor at Lahore University who has been known to inspire Islamic-flavoured political fervour in his students. After multiple requests, Changez has consented to an interview with Pakistan-based American newspaper columnist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber). Uppermost in Lincoln’s mind is, does this sudden willingness to speak have anything to do with the kidnapping of an American academic from Lahore University in the last 24 hours?
Changez opens the interview with the reminder that things are often not what they seem and outlines his pre-radical life. He starts as the poor, but promising student from a once-rich Pakistani family who manages to get into the United States’ prestigious Princeton University. With a savvy and ruthless mind for business, he is to parlay his financial studies into an enviable job as a financial assessor with a New York-based multinational corporation.
Things are going swimmingly as Changez is overseeing (with the supervision of Kiefer Sutherland as his smarmy boss) the retrenchment of hundreds of Filipino factory workers, when the audacious attack on the World Trade Center on the 11th of September, 2001 occurred. The world changed and this film wisely beats around the Bushes and the Bin Ladens by focussing on the swing into security overdrive that became the world’s new normal.
Persuasively, the film shows why corporate prosperity and status would not be enough to protect a Pakistani man from a nation’s knee-jerk political reaction and its degrading self-defence techniques, like racial profiling. What follows dramatically exaggerates but accurately reflects the experiences of many West-residing Islamists by eloquently expressing the dilemma of a man who found himself straddling two worlds just as they were moving further and further apart. Changez’ relationship with his American sweetheart, art photographer Erica (Kate Hudson), goes down the tubes and the rest of his American dream life goes with it.
How much audiences are willing to respond to Changez’ fall from (American) grace depends on their personal politics. Changez’s narrative is clearly his side of the story but the performance from Riz Ahmed is convincing and thoroughly coheres with the multiple transformations his character experiences.
Less credible is Liev Schreiber’s 'journalist’ Lincoln. Schreiber’s character has been given much more definition than the source material allowed and a mid-film twist even permits a clear idea of the pressures he’s operating under, but Lincoln never becomes more than a sketch. Not that Nair’s handling of the finale helps: Lincoln’s final revelation, rather than being an explosive revelation for an audience still clinging to Bush-era beliefs, feels too obvious.
All the other supporting actors are fine, and Indian film fans will get a special kick out of seeing film legends Shabana Azmi and Om Puri playing Changez’s parents.
Watch 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist'
Saturday 28 August, 11:05pm on SBS World Movies / Streaming after at SBS On Demand
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Director: Mira Nair
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Martin Donovan, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland