Film Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Dense, ambitious, consistently interesting but sometimes murky cross-cultural, cross-continental exploration of the roots of extremism, prejudice and revenge. A harder edge and sharper focus might have had greater impact, but the Mira Nair’s film

With a big cast and many locations (Atlanta, New York, Delhi, Lahore, Istanbul), The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the biggest film yet from director Mira Nair (Vanity Fair, Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala). Also onscreen are challenging ambitions (an attempt to humanize fundamentalism and extremist tendencies) and a sizeable budget (not your usual $5 million to $10 million indie).

The story, adapted from Mohsin Hamid’s more minimalist novel, unfolds as two connected stories: One begins when Lahore-based American professor Rainier (Gary Richardson) is kidnapped in 2011 Pakistan, and some Americans there, most importantly Bobby Franklin (Liev Schreiber), a journalist with the city’s English-language newspaper, and American government operative Ludlow Cooper (Martin Donovan) take acute interest.

Scanning a bulletin of suspect Pakistanis, Bobby finds the name of Changez (Riz Ahmed), a young Princeton-educated Lahore native and current “person of interest” who became a Wall Street financial shark before returning to Lahore as a university professor, where Rainier teaches. Changez, who has a loyal following of student activists, is suspect and his family is watched and harassed. Bobby wants Changez’s story and the professor’s release, as his captors threaten death unless a ransom is paid. (Both Bobby and the film’s plot recall the real-life Daniel Pearl case.) Changez readily cooperates and he and Bobby meet at a dark tea house where Changez shares his eventful life in America.

Flashbacks reveal his triumphant pre-9/11 Princeton and Wall Street days. As a financial whiz with a downsizer’s if not a killer’s instinct, he rises quickly at a Wall Street investment firm under mentor Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland). Here is where he absorbs the importance of “fundamentals,” which he’ll use in later life.

On the romance front, Changez meets photographer Erica (Kate Hudson) in a Hollywood meet-cute but brief encounter in Central Park (except for exteriors, Atlanta doubles for Manhattan). He accidentally reconnects with her at her uncle’s (Victor Slezak) posh East Side manse and romance blossoms.

Cross takes his mentor on a trip to the Philippines to deal with a big business challenge, during which Changez axes hundreds of employees at a company losing money. While there, September 11 happens and the Pakistani gets the news on TV. His most vocal reaction is not about the tragic losses but the brilliance of the operation (“I felt awe and genius”).

Changez soon senses his otherness because he’s a Pakistani national and Muslim. At airports he’s pulled aside for humiliating searches, people eye him with suspicion and colleagues grow cold, except for the more tolerant Whitaker (Nelsan Ellis), an African-American analyst who may know something about prejudice. He tips Changez that “they don’t like your beard.” Even Erica pulls away, which further motivates Changez to quit his job and return home.

A business trip to Istanbul in 2002 requires Changez to fire publisher Nazmi Kemal (Haluk Bilginer), whose company is hemorrhaging money at Changez’s firm. But he won’t do it. The young man quits his job, returns to Pakistan, finds a good teaching job, and reunites with his warm family, including father Abu (Om Puri), who is a well-regarded poet, and mother Ammi (Shabana Azmi).

His teaching assistant Sameer (Imaad Shah), the most charismatic among the anti-American activists, is one of many Pakistanis furious at the American presence in their country. Sameer and his activist cohorts seem not so different from the U.S. and French protesters of 1968 who raised fists and more. As Bobby accrues facts and Changez and Professor Rainier’s fate unfolds, things grow a little cloudy, as does the CIA’s place in this equation.

Beyond so many concerns—and they’re difficult ones—are matters of assimilation, paranoia, family and romance. That’s a lot for one plate, as are the many characters who flow through this drama. But, like a plentiful, colorful array of masala, the abundance is worth exploring.