The Reluctant Fundamentalist arrives in theaters from director Mira Nair (Amelia, Vanity Fair), based on the bestselling book by Mohsin Hamid, and according to its helmer, the timing could not be better.
“The more you speak of that part of the world as the 'others,' the screaming mullahs rather than learning about a human being out there, the more we will experience these terrible wars,” Nair said in our exclusive interview.
“What was wonderful about The Reluctant Fundamentalist novel is that those characters had to be equally nuanced, equally complex and equally human. They could not be one toned down more than the other -- that’s life.”
Movie Fanatic met Nair and her star Riz Ahmed for an exclusive interview in Hollywood recently for a fascinating discussion about America and her views on the world, the media’s portrayal of our Middle East wars and why they feel that audiences are hungry for a discussion that so far, has only been one-sided... as teased in The Reluctant Fundamentalist trailer.
Nair, who is of Indian descent, was first inspired to make The Reluctant Fundamentalist when she took a trip to Pakistan… a year before she read the book. “It was a dazzling introduction to a place that you would never think would be like that. What the newspapers tell you and the reality of it are two different things. The refinement, hospitality and the art,” Nair said.
“Then when I read the book almost a year later, it allowed me to make a modern day portrait of Pakistan. More than that, in its bones, it was a dialogue with America. This is a dialogue that we desperately need. The fact that it doesn’t exist has led us to greater and greater destruction and war. I wanted to address that. If we don’t tell our stories with our characters and our voices, it will never happen. This was that chance.”
Ahmed felt three things about the book and the screenplay when he first read it. “One, it was a story that was incredibly rich. It’s a love story. It’s a story about politics and economics and the clash of conversation of cultures. Second, it’s not a story we’ve seen before. It tapped into a mirror giving a counter-narrative to a quite simplistic one we’ve been digesting post-9/11,” Ahmed said.
“Thirdly, on a personal level, this character was mind-blowing. So layered, so contradictory and rich. I fell in love with it instantly.”
Ahmed plays Changez, a man who we meet in 2001. He lives in Pakistan and absolutely adores America -- everything about it. He is about to graduate Princeton, all with an eye on his dream of working for a big finance company in New York City. When he interviews with Kiefer Sutherland’s Jim Cross, Changez immediately impresses him and our protagonist is beginning his life dreams.
Then, 9/11 happens and everything changes.
The country he adores turns on him and even his friends question his allegiance. It is a character arc that requires much from the actor. When asked where he started, he credits an iconic poet and his director.
“Mira was amazing in giving me some fixed starting points. Where I started was with a Pakistani poet named Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who’s not mentioned in the book, but he is all over the film. It was Mira’s decision to bring this light of humanism and social justice in South Asia and he is a master,” Ahmed said. “From that… everything followed on.”
The Reluctant Fundamentalist cast is astounding beyond Sutherland, with Liev Schreiber and Kate Hudson bringing A-list pedigree to the important film. Nair found all involved eager to get involved, with Sutherland even calling the experience an “honor.”
“In a way, a film like this has never been made or seen before -- an Indian director making a Pakistani film for starters. That has never happened,” she said and laughed.
“And to make a film where the central character is Pakistani, who is deeply supported by A-list Hollywood stars like Kate, Kiefer and Liev… the balance of power with what we’re saying with how the movie came together, is radical. The fact we made it with a global ambition was huge. We shot in four countries!”
Nair found her cast leaping at the opportunity to tell The Reluctant Fundamentalist story. “This story has not been heard. Nobody wants more war. They want to hold a mirror to our world right now. The first one attached was Liev, and then Kiefer,” Nair said.
“With Kate, it was an interesting story. She wanted to meet me and when we met, she was eight months pregnant. I started laughing. The movie was going to be shot in two months and that wouldn’t be able to happen. Then, the movie fell apart. But, then two months later… it came together and Kate had had her baby.”
After 9/11, many Americans looked in the mirror and said, “We need to know more about this part of the world.” One thing that stands out with this film and with the headlines today is that Americans still need to learn much.
“Because of the movies, the media spin, the politics, we have had only a monologue from this side of the world. If you look at even the more progressive movies that have been out, for instance, they’re all about American soldiers who go to fight for freedom and democracy in that part of the world,” Nair said.
The director recalls a certain Vietnam War movie that finally brought the power of the war home, unlike any other. “I remember being dazzled by The Killing Fields many years ago because finally after all the Vietnam movies, which were always from the American side, we finally had one from a Vietnamese character that could speak to us. That’s what Americans have sadly not been given a window to post-9/11.”
Ahmed believes that American audiences don’t simply want to see this movie, they need to experience it. “Rather than being a doctor who prescribes the medicine that Americans need to see this film, I’d think that Americans want to see this,” Ahmed said.
“There’s a hunger for American audiences to investigate an alternative view of a period of history. People will want to see this because it’s fresh eyes on something that involves all of us.”