New York-based Indian director Mira Nair was well-placed to helm a big-screen adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist – and thankfully hasn’t disappointed. In this post-9/11 drama, the world of business and the unremitting pursuit of wealth are juxtaposed with religious extremism. The story’s main focus is the mutual distrust between East and West and how feelings of alienation can lead to fundamentalism. Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) comes from a cultured, yet struggling Pakistani family. He wins a scholarship to study at Princeton and lands a job as a financial analyst on Wall Street.
Changez’s mentor, tough, uncompromising Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), admires his ambition and his bravado in the face of hardship, and swiftly promotes his protégée. When Changez begins a relationship with the beautiful artist-cum-photographer, Erica (Kate Hudson) it looks as though he has his life mapped out. As Changez freely admits, he loves the US and all it has to offer. Then the terrorist attacked of 9/11 occur and Changez’s charmed existence begins to unravel. He finds himself regarded with suspicion from all quarters and subject to interrogation, arrest and body searches. His one constant is Erica, but she’s still grieving the loss of her childhood sweetheart and appears reluctant to settle down in the near future.
Meanwhile, Changez is becoming increasingly disillusioned with the amorality of his work. Forced to face his demons and fearing Erica’s lack of commitment, Changez decides to return to his homeland where he becomes a popular university lecturer. However, here too he is treated with suspicion and once again becomes the unwillingly subject of western scrutiny. When he agrees to be interviewed by Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), an American journalist, Changez is forced to make choices that are to change his world irrevocably. Nair keeps us guessing as to how sinister/innocent Changez really is and whether he has become a violent jihadist or is actually at risk himself because of US paranoia.
Despite his awe and unsettling sense of pleasure at the audacity of 9/11, Changez retains our sympathy. This is largely down to Ahmed’s nuanced portrayal of a man who is, by turn, arrogant, naïve, ruthless and moral. The Americans are similarly flawed, from Schreiber’s shabby, sweaty journalist turned spy to Martin Donovan’s gung-ho CIA operative. Erica, too, is frustratingly self-centred in her betrayal of Changez’s trust. As well as highlighting the contradictions between one’s home and sense of identity, Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a timely reminder of how distrust breeds hatred and discrimination begets violence.
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