Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist: A Tale of Two Cities.

On January 27, 2011, in Lahore, an American man named Raymond Davis was arrested for murder. He claimed to be an embassy employee and that he had shot the two young men at point blank range with his (illegal) 9mm Glock in self-defense. American officials were unwilling to confirm this. They were also unwilling to produce the driver of a vehicle which, in attempting to extract Davis from the scene, had jumped the median of a road, killing two bystanders.

Nobody was shocked when, months later, after diplomatics relations between America and Pakistan had frayed to dangerous levels, that the US admitted Davis was CIA and then paid blood money to the relatives of the men he killed in order to get him out of the country.

Just to be clear, these aren’t spoilers for The Reluctant Fundamentalist - the Raymond Davis incident actually happened. In real life. And American viewers should keep this in mind as they settle in to watch Mira Nair bring Lahore, Pakistan and New York City to life in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

We are not so innocent.

Based on a novel by Moshin Hamid, whose new novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia has just come out, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of Changez (Riz Ahmed, cornering the hottie jihadi market), trying to mind his own business while the world collapses around him. Most of the film takes place in flashback, as Changez tells his story to a journalist (Liev Schreiber) and we find out together how he went from a high powered Wall Street quant to a teacher at a Lahore university.

And like Changez has to reconcile his life in East and West, director Mira Nair has the unenviable task of trying to get The Reluctant Fundamentalist to play to both audiences at the same time. If she’s too sympathetic to Pakistan, she risks having the film ghettoized as “Asian cinema” but too sympathetic to the American side and the film becomes yet another A Mighty Heart.

Nair solves this by playing both sides at once. She opens the film begins with a qawwali, “Kangna,” which plays while we’re introduced to Lahore and begin to glimpse our characters. Is the song a familiar one that some of us previously downloaded from the Coke Studio Pakistan site or is it foreign and sinister sounding? Is the dark skinned man with the beard a villain? Or is the villain the hash-smoking white journalist? And one of the first images we see is a poster for the 2011 Urdu-language film Bol, a film that most Americans watching The Reluctant Fundamentalist won’t have heard of. The reference is both an insider nod to the South Asian audience and a footnote for non-Asian audiences, saying, “Look this up after you watch my film. Pakistan isn’t just three letters at the end of the phrase AfPak.”

Nair plays along with the American side of the fence until, driven by circumstances outside of his control, Changez finds himself growing angrier and angrier at the way he’s being treated. At the way his country is being treated. And we’re pulled along with him. There’s no question at the end of the film who the real villain is here. She is a sharp filmmaker and The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a sharp film, while the narrative really pushes the film forward, as we try to figure out who exactly Changez is, nothing feels rushed. And all the characters feel human, even if not all of them are very good humans.

And even the humans add to the East-West pull of the film, drawing familiar faces from both sides of the globe. Vapid Hollywood starlet Kate Hudson (in a bad bottle brown dye job) plays a vapid trustafarian artist. Hudson’s character is exactly as loathsome as her romantic-comedy persona and it’s immensely satisfying to see her called out on it. Hollywood also contributes Liev Schreiber, excellent as always, and Kiefer Sutherland, who is surprisingly subtle as Changez’s Wall Street boss. But the real surprise from stateside was Nelsan Ellis (True Blood) as Changez’s American friend Wainwright. Ellis and Ahmed share a nice chemistry and you get a real sense of their bond, as visible outsiders on Wall Street.

From India come art house staples Om Puri (East is East) and Shabana Azmi (Fire) as Changez’s parents. Pakistani singer Meesha Shafi plays Changez’s filmi sister, who, in one of my favorite scenes, gets razzed by her family for her acting. They teasingly tell her to try her game in Mumbai. Finally, young Immaduddin Shah (Naseeruddin Shah’s son) steals a couple of scenes as one of Changez’s students. Shah makes the most of his short screen time, offhandedly delivering a line about not being able to protest America before lunch with panache.

But the real star is Riz Ahmed, who plays Changez quietly, biding his time, and making the contrast that much bigger when he finally explodes.

And what happened to Raymond Davis? He got into a brawl over a bagel store parking spot in Colorado and was sentenced to two years of probation.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, will be available ON DEMAND starting April 30th, and coming to the DC area next weekend. For more information you can check the official site. But do check it out if you get a chance!

1 comment:

Chrism929 said...

Thanks for your review. I was wondering how the book could possibly be translated to film, as it's all told in interior dialog (aimed at the reader, and much of it ironic) and I have to say you give a much better sense of how the movie works than the other reviews I've read, probably because you have a much better understanding of the material. So you also give me a better sense of whether I want to see it (I do now). For anyone interested in reading the book, I'd like to recommend it; reviewed it here: (skip the first part; then there's a brief review of the book plus some other related links and info).

(PS hope this comment is legible; the Blogger preview feature gives it some very strange formatting.)

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