Global Journeys :: Mira Nair on ’The Reluctant Fundamentalist’
Even before she read the 2007 Mohsin Hamid novel upon which her new movie, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," is based, Mira Nair ["Salaam, Bombay," "Monsoon Wedding") was thinking about setting a film in Pakistan. Her father is from Lahore, the capital city of Punjab in what is now Pakistan, but the family ended up in India as a result of the partition that created Pakistan.
"The inspiration to make the film came from my first trip to Lahore in 2004," Nair told a roundtable of press at a recent interview that took place at a hotel near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a couple of weeks before terror came to Boston with the bombing attacks on the Boston Marathon.
"And it was actually born right out here at [a Harvard venue, the] Sanders Theater," Nair continued. "I was getting the Harvard Arts Medal and had two thousand people listening and in conversation with me and with John Lithgow. A young man in the audience stood up and said, 'I'm a junior here.' He was from Lahore. I had just made 'Monsoon Wedding,' and he said, 'How did you make this film about me?' Then he started to belt out a song I had used in 'Monsoon Wedding.' "
That chance connection led to an invitation for Nair to visit Lahore. Though she'd grown up in India, and getting to Pakistan was not something that could be done "easily or often," as she put it, Nair knew the lore and songs of Pakistan and had some familiarity with the culture. "When I went there, it was just dazzling," the filmmaker recounted. "Going there was just like being in an embrace -- incredible largesse, incredible artistic expression, incredible refinement. So unlike the Pakistan that you or I read about or think we know.
"So the first inspiration came from this meeting and traveling to this Pakistan that we don’t know," Nair added. "Then, six months later, I read Mohsin’s book, and I immediately loved it because it not only gave me that opportunity to make this modern film, but also was a dialogue with America -- a dialogue with both places I have loved and known intimately. And especially being here in this last decade post-9/11, it’s very disturbing because what you see in the movies and the newspapers is always, literally, a one-sided conversation.
"It’s not a conversation," Nair corrected herself. "It’s a monologue. It’s ironic, because the book is actually a monologue from the other side. Changez speaks, and the American never says a word. But in our adaptation I wanted very much to have that complex view of the human being in both characters - not two flags, but two real people."
In the film, Changez (Riz Ahmed), formerly a high-powered Wall Street professional, and CIA agent Bobby Lincoln (Live Schreiber) engage in a tense discussion in a Lahore café. To the CIA agent, the pieces fit together in an obvious way: An American citizen working as a professor at the university in Lahore has been kidnapped; Changez, now a professor at the same university, has gained a reputation for "firebrand" anti-American speeches. With student protests quickly escalating and CIA forces preparing to move in for a violent confrontation, Lincoln hopes to convince Changez to give up the location of the kidnap victim.
But Lincoln’s assumption is that Chnagez is the terrorist sympathizer that everyone thinks him to be. Changez, in relating his story, casts doubt on this notion: He was a student at Princeton, and, after that, a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist who wanted nothing so much as to rise to the pinnacle of elite financial power. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 made him, as a native Pakistani, suspect for no reason other than his religion and his skin tone. The taint of suspicion crept into everything from his professional life to his relationship with a Manhattan artist. In the end, the constant sense of being viewed as an enemy helped to drive Changez out of America. But here the question mark burns bright as a neon sign: Does that in itself make Changez an enemy of the country he fled?
The movie’s drama is superficially spurred along in a manner reminiscent of a procedural, but deeper narrative currents take a hard, uneasy look at prejudice and fear in the aftermath of those terrifying attacks.
Asked about the subject of Islamophobia in post-9/11 America, Nair responded, "I wanted to re-complicated what has been treated in such a reductive was, you know, the good guys and the bad guys. I wanted to make sure that I made a movie that presented both sides, but in which you or anyone would see ourselves. But," Nair added, "the kind of profiling that Changez goes through in the movie, I just went through yesterday morning."
The director, who resides in East Africa, went on to explain that as she was entering the United States at La Guardia airport, she was subjected to a pat-down by a TSA agent -- "Spread-eagle, being patted down completely intimately in front of all the passengers who were coming and going." Once she had finished with the pat-down, the agent took off her gloves and put them into a machine.
"And the machine beeps," Nair recounted. At that point, as the director told it, the TSA agent raised something of a ruckus. " ’Oh my god, it’s an alarm! This woman is alarming!’ And she yelled that to her supervisor across the airport, and so everyone, of course, looks at me. And so of course the supervisor comes."
But even as the supervisor was on his way, Nair recalled, the agent continued to cry out, " ’It’s an alarm! It’s an alarm!’ Loudly -- really loudly, because she had to make him hear. So he comes and he tells her quietly, ’You know, it might be the gloves. I’ve found these new gloves are kind of sensitive.’ So she takes the gloves and puts them in another machine, and sure enough it’s the gloves. Then she comes back to me and says, ’I’m so sorry, ma’am, we have to start over.’ "
Nair noted that the TSA personnel were "just doing their job," but could not help noting that their job means assessing people based on a limited set of criteria. She worried a little about what this means for her son, who, when he was younger, "was taken into a room and questioned where we could see him. And now he’s 21..." Whatever the young man has to endure to enter the country is now not only out of his mother’s hands, but out of her sight as well.
Nair identified another aspect of American thinking that, obvious as it is to the rest of the world, often escapes our own notice. "I was in the middle of a conference call with India, and when they finished, I said to the man, ’Can I just resume my conference call?’ He says, ’Honey, it’s six a.m. Who are you gonna conference call at this hour?’ I said, ’You know, there are other countries in the world, and other time zones.’ "
That level of myopia is reflected in "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," which finds Changez striking up a relationship with a lovely young artist named Erica (Kate Hudson). Much as Lincoln is unable to see Changez as a nuanced young man instead of a hardcore jihadist, Erica finds raw material for self-expression in her relationship with him, but fails to understand the man himself.
"I have confronted this for years, where very well-meaning people make so-called art, really believing they are holding out an olive branch of understanding," Nair said. "But it lacks the humility of knowledge, of really understanding the layers of a culture that a person comes from [although] it is done with all kinds of good intentions."
The very title of the film, and the book it’s based on, has implications far beyond the issue of terrorism. As a Wall Street analyst, Changez begins to doubt the very meaning of the work he does. The "fundamentals" of making a profit are not so very different from the fundamentals pursued by zealots in the name of a prophet: They involve another kind of reductionism, in which human value is reduced to dollar amounts.
"And it’s global," Nair noted. "The global world is a different world. It’s not just coming to America to seek your fortune; your fortune, in [Changez’s] case is the whole world." As an analyst with a talent for finding ways to streamlining and cut costs, Changez travels to businesses around the globe. Often, his proposals involve putting people out of work -- sometimes, large numbers of people, whose livelihoods are sacrificed to the graven idol of the bottom line.
"I really see it as a coming of age story, in the sense of him finding out who he really is," Nair reflected. "But today, it is a global journey. The penny drops when he sees that the human being is the one who is forgotten in both [legitimate business] and in what is known as the industry of terror."
Kiefer Sutherland plays Jim Cross, a senior member of the firm for which Changez works. Seeing in Changez another outsider with talent and drive, Cross, who grew up poor, goes out his way to mentor him.
"I like the Jim Cross character, because he actually is the best of America, in the sense that he doesn’t care whether it’s post-9/11 and this guy is a Muslim employee with a beard," Nair said. All the matters is that Riz is "an amazingly, brilliantly ruthless, tactician when it comes to what they do." Cross’ blindness to anything but potential represents, to Nair, "the openness that we all have benefitted from here in America, in a very serious way." That said, "People make their own temples, and for him that is a hermetically sealed world of profit and of [success]."
The global journey Changaz undertakes crosses more than borders; it crosses mindsets and modes of being. In star Riz Ahmed, Nair found a talent up to the task of embodying both a privileged Princeton grad and a Pakistani willing to dare to hope for better things for his nation.
"He’s an extraordinary actor," Nair said of Ahmed. "The other thing you have to understand is, it’s like asking an Italian American to play an Italian. My barometer for authenticity is very high: You have to convince me [on every count], the dialect, the accent of how a Lahore [native] speaks English, and how a Lahore person speaks Urdu, and then of course that nice patina of the Ivy League -- the savvy that he has to have, and the confidence to be the one who beds the Kate Hudson character."
To help prepare Ahmed for the role, Nair turned once more to her friend from Lahore. "He is this. He’s from Lahore, came to Harvard, he’s lived this world. We had him to the dialogue, which we recorded for Riz for the accent. We didn’t have a dialect coach."
Similarly, to prepare for his scenes set in America, Ahmed immersed himself in the environment inhabited by his character. "He came to New York a few weeks before the shoot, and he [lived in] the whole Pakistani Wall Street analyst world. He hung out with these guys night and day for weeks. Some scenes came out of that interaction. He absorbed it all, and he really is an amazing actor," Nair recounted.
"But [a movie] is a huge thing to carry on a young person’s shoulders, and opposite amazing actors like Kiefer Sutherland and Kate Hudson... and here he was. I hope he’s going to be lauded for it."