In Moshnin Hamid’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, his Pakistani protagonist, dapper business analyst Changez, abandons the excess of the US after facing increasing fear and loathing in the wake of September 11.
Returning to Lahore, he becomes a professor of finance at the local university, but his involvement in a local uprising is soon called into question. Changez finds himself recounting his version of the previous decade’s events to an ambiguous, unnamed American.
Monsoon Wedding director Mira Nair, working from a script by Ami Boghani and William Wheeler, explicitly identifies this shadowy figure as journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber). Could they have chosen a more stars and stripes name?
Lincoln may or may not be directly involved with the local CIA outfit, while Changez may or may not be fomenting anti-American sentiment in a charged, political environment at the university. Nair also throws in the kidnapping of an American professor for good measure.
While the insertion of the more traditional thriller aspect is a little by the books, Riz Ahmed (Four Lions, Trishna) as Changez brings depth and the oscillating sympathy required for this most complex of protagonists.
Told through a series of flashbacks, we see Changez’ promising start in the States as he graduates from Princeton on a scholarship and scores a lucrative career with an odious Wall Street firm, sparking up a relationship with troubled photographer Erica (a subdued Kate Hudson).
Their fraught relationship mirrors the changing attitudes to Changez following the attack on the twin towers. Returning from overseas business, Changez is subjected to a dreadfully invasive strip search. It’s a devastatingly powerful set piece, with stunning cinematography seeing his harrowed face framed by the reflection of the towers’ destruction in the security office glass.
On the streets he witnesses foreign cab drivers frantically purchasing flags to register their patriotism, while in the office he overhears heated debate as one colleague, who doesn’t know the name of the Quran, criticises ‘their book.’ Even as he is considered for an associate position, he’s asked to trim his beard and blend in.
Discussing this demand with an African American colleague, Wainwright (Nelsan Ellis, True Blood’s Lafayette) points out that Ahmed’s abundant beard is freaking people out. When Ahmed responds that it reminds him of where he comes from, Wainwright says jerk chicken does the same for him, but he’s not smearing that all over his face. Ahmed retorts, pointedly, that maybe he should.
Identity is at the heart of this film. Where do Changez’ loyalties lie? When a case of mistaken identity leads to him being arrested, this further hastens his decision to leave, as does a disastrous fight with Erica over appallingly misjudged subject matter at her latest gallery opening.
All this is interjected by the increasingly fraught interview with Lincoln several years later, engaging the viewer in a masterful ‘is he or isn’t he’ debate. Has Changez’ experience of hatred and bigotry in New York led him to swear allegiance to those who seek to destroy that bastion of capitalism?
Perhaps heavy-handed in places, few would deny that the greed of Wall Street and the States’ aggressive imperialism played at least some part in the tragic events of that game-changing day. The resulting political violence in Pakistan simmers in the build-up to the final showdown at the university as tensions boil over.
While a more nuanced hand may have tightened the film, the sterling central performance by Ahmed is captivating. Schreiber is an interesting foil, while back in the States, a slimy turn from Kiefer Sutherland as Ahmed’s repugnant boss is spot on.
Om Puri provides one of the film’s few moral compasses in a welcome but sadly minor role as Changez’ father, published poet Abu. He despairs at his son’s chosen career, essentially reaping mass redundancies to make companies more profitable. Challenging Changez’ lack of empathy at his sister’s wedding, Changez pushes back, pointing out that his career helped pay for her big day.
A compelling tragedy, there are big, bold questions at the heart of this film that, more than ten years on from September 11, raise a mirror to the festering anti-Muslim hatred bubbling under Australian society today.
Stephen A Russell