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Three days before terrorist attacks toppled the World Trade Center, Indian director Mira Nair won the Golden Lion for best picture in Venice with her warm family comedy Monsoon Wedding.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on the novel by Mohsin Hamid, is just as colorful; convincingly rooted in Pakistan, its generally gripping drama painfully confronts the great cultural divide in people’s thinking created by the tragedy of 9/11.
Meant to be thought-provoking, William Wheeler’s screenplay also aims to attract international audiences, presumably by sliding the book’s casual meeting between a militant Pakistani professor and an American reporter into a Hollywood framework familiar to the point of cliché. How much this will effectively broaden the audience after its bow in Venice and Toronto remains to be seen, because it is still a serious-minded film whose politics demand soul-searching and attention.
Certainly Nair’s vision of the cultural differences between East and West is a lot more subtle than an Islamic-American tolerance-telegram like My Name Is Khan; on the contrary, the first part of the film builds suspense by blurring the right/wrong line between a suspiciously bearded young prof with burning eyes, Changez Khan (British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed) and seasoned Yank scribe Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), who seems to have all the cool values.
The place is Lahore and the action kicks off with the abduction of an older American professor by an al-Qaeda-like political group, setting the scene for tension and violence. In a dazzlingly edited kidnapping scene, the teacher steps out of a movie with his wife and is spirited away while Khan participates, Godfather-style, in an ecstatic Sufi music concert with a group of family and friends.
The latter’s involvement in the crime is clearly suggested, and he initially emerges as a villain. But when the journalist meets him for an interview in a cheap student hotel, surrounded by Khan’s protective and menacing entourage, the Pakistani’s first words are, “Looks can be deceiving.” And so it turns out as he recounts his life to Bobby in long flashbacks, from his outstanding academic success at Princeton to being hired as a financial analyst at a famous Wall Street firm.
His brilliance and ruthlessness make him the pet of his employers, and for every company he dismembers, promotion follows. While in New York, he meets sophisticated photographer Erica, played by a red-haired Kate Hudson, who turns out to be the boss’s niece. This unnecessary coincidence is a warning light that their relationship will hit all the most easily foreseeable notes, including her inability to forget a dead boyfriend and his wanting to give his parents grandchildren. The absence of chemistry between the two may underline their cultural diversity, but certainly doesn’t enliven the scenes they share.
More intriguing is the strange bond that links the young analyst to his boss and mentor Jim Cross, played with sinister intelligence by Kiefer Sutherland. Riz Ahmed is relaxed and appealing even in the negative role of his star pupil blindly pursuing the American Dream. Only later, after 9/11, is his conscience shocked awake by the change of attitude in America and the humiliating treatment his name and nationality earn him. A business trip to Istanbul, where he is asked to shut down a 30-year-old publishing house, marks a decisive stage in his inner journey towards his cultural roots.
As a wave of xenophobia washes over America, the balance between Changez and Bobby in Lahore begins to shift. About the only doubt most viewers will harbor is just how far Khan has allowed himself to be drawn into the militant radicalism of his university.
Nair is extremely careful not to demonize the American or the Pakistani but rather to suggest how much they have in common, had politics not put them on opposite sides of the table sipping tea, but inches away from a loaded gun.
Not as magnetic a presence as Ahmed, the scruffy Schreiber turns the role of the expat journalist into a complex, convincing character with solid reasons for the choices he has made, proving an apt catalyst for the final stages of Changez’s transformation.
A fine supporting cast that includes Indian stars Om Puri and Shabana Azmi and Turkish actor Haluk Bilinger are subtly on target. Lensed between New York, Atlanta, Pakistan, India and Istanbul, Declan Quinn’s confident cinematography coupled with Michael Carlin’s dense production design give the film an unusual international realism.
Though born in India, Nair sidesteps the clichés in depicting Pakistan as a place with its own rich cultural tradition and warm family life. Judicious, never banal musical choices by composer Michael Andrews enrich the exotic soundtrack, which concludes with a song by Peter Gabriel.
Venue: Venice Film Festival, Aug. 29, 2012
Production companies: Mirabai Films, Cine Mosaic Production in association with the Doha Film Institute
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Live Schreiber, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Martin Donovan, Nelsan Ellis, Haluk Bilginer, Meesha Shafi, Imaad Shah
Director: Mira Nair
Screenwriter: William Wheeler based on the novel by Mohsin Hamid
Producers: Lydia Dean Pilcher
Executive producer: Hani Farsi
Director of photography: Declan Quinn
Production designer: Michael Carlin
Costume designer: Arjun Bhasin
Editor: Shimit Amin
Music: Michael Andrews
Sales Agent: K5 International
No rating, 128 minutes
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