One of the things Mira Nair has proven so very capable of in her films is an ability to portray tangible, multidimensional characters. She takes us through a great journey: getting to know a character’s situation, beginning to understand them, empathizing with their struggles, doubting their motives, questioning their loyalty to others or fearing what they might do next. This forms a genuine connection between Nair’s viewers and characters that only great storytellers are capable of achieving.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist takes us through this same journey. This time we watch a young man struggle with his identity, unsure of which part of the world he fits in. Like many young people in this globalized, modern world, this man is eager to retain the land he came from, but yearns to fit into the land that seems to hold his future. Changez is Pakistani. He goes to America for a chance at an education, a career and financial stability. Changez attends Princeton and eventually finds himself a financial analyst at a big-time firm. He’s great at his job, he gets the attention of his supervisors and peers, and begins to fall in love with a freethinking American photographer.
Before we learn of any of Changez’s background though, Nair places preconceived ideas into our head about who exactly Changez is. Choreographed to an awesome qawwali musical number, the opening credit sequence of the film shows Changez, played by British actor and MC Riz Ahmed, at his family home in Lahore exchanging secret phone messages with another Pakistani man and monitoring a B&E at the local university. At the same time in Lahore a man gets taken in the middle of the street and thrown into a car by masked gunmen, leaving his wife screaming for help.
This is when the story begins. Via Changez’s flashback told to a local American journalist, we’re taken through Changez’s life that starts sometime in the late 90s when he’s graduating from Princeton, through the events in New York on 9/11, to where he is now—back in Lahore teaching a university class on revolution. The film oscillates between the interview of Changez with the journalist at a Lahore tea shop and flashbacks of Changez’s life in New York City. The American journalist Bobby Lincoln, played by Liev Schreiber, interviews Changez to learn if he knows anything of the kidnapped man who happens to be an American and fellow university professor.
What we find in this interview is how Changez’s views of America evolved over the years: as he moves up the economic ladder and finds great success in his work, and then falls in love with Erica (Kate Hudson) an American woman who chooses to flaunt his otherness through pictures. He learns his success in America has done the opposite of pleasing his father, and then suffers the devastating racism and prejudice that many who came from the opposite side of the world incurred in the immediate post-9/11 America. Changez struggles with the two worlds he should be able to identify with, but is completely lost and alone, especially in America where he’s constantly singled out as the bad guy.
Scenes between Changez and Bobby are completely mesmerizing, as tension builds over which person can be trusted the least. Each one of them has secrets, and while we don’t get a complete background on Bobby, through dialogue we learn enough to know why he’s so interested in Changez and why he doesn’t trust him.
Ahmed gives an amazing performance as Changez—every look, smirk, sneer or half smile revealing so much of what his character is going through in each moment of his life. Schreiber helps provide the real thrills, that are ever so subtle yet ever so stimulating. Hudson as Erica brings out a different side of Changez that further complicates his struggle with losing who he is as he essentially negotiates changing everything he is just for her. In a tender moment between the two Changez reveals to Erica that hearing his own voice doesn’t sound real to him anymore. His loss of identity is heartbreaking.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a gratifying film that wades through the individual battles a person can have with just himself. It brings to light the idea that the American dream may not be everyone’s dream. Changez asks a great question to his Lahore University students: “Is there such a thing as a Pakistani dream?” Their silence weighs heavily until the last second of the film.