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Pakistani questions the ‘fundamentals’ of the American dream

Updated May 27, 2013
Riz Ahmed stars in Mira Nair's film adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist". — Courtesy Photo
Riz Ahmed stars in Mira Nair's film adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist". — Courtesy Photo
Riz Ahmed as Changez Khan. — Courtesy Photo.
Riz Ahmed as Changez Khan. — Courtesy Photo.
Riz Ahmed and Liev Schreiber. — Courtesy Photo
Riz Ahmed and Liev Schreiber. — Courtesy Photo

Mira Nair’s film adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist was always going to be a daunting task – ultimately the end result was somewhat of a mixed bag.

Changez Khan, played brilliantly and earnestly by Riz Ahmed, is a college professor in Lahore, suspected by the CIA of having ties to a local terrorist organisation and its involvement in the kidnapping of an American professor.

We find a defiant Changez sitting in a tea house across from Bobby Lincoln, a sweaty and red-faced American journalist played by Liev Schreiber, questioning him about his possible involvement in the kidnapping

Driving into flashback, we learn that Changez was not always the fiery college professor teaching revolution in Pakistan. He was raised in a family headed by his father, an Urdu poet with dwindling fortunes, and thus had to work hard to eventually find his way to Princeton.

The film unfurls in a non-linear manner and a narrative that is interlaced with a series of incidents that are at times stale and predictable and at times quite real and intimate. The script does not delve as deeply into his psyche as might be hoped, but operates superficially on the situational complexities of the plot.

Changez emerges as a straight-talking Ivy League go-getter who loves the US, and its "level playing fields,” and impresses his way into a job at a Wall Street valuation firm run by Jim Cross, a smooth corporate tough guy played with a sly urbanity by Kiefer Sutherland, who appears as less of a character and more of a symbol of American capitalism.

At the firm, Changez’s stock rises as a brilliant analyst, with a keen eye for ruthlessly cutting the fat in businesses and increasing their profitability. And with it come the luxuries of a life in New York and a six-figure income.

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He meets and falls in love with Erica, a bohemian photographer mourning a dead lover. Their courtship is one of the highlights of both the novel and the movie, and Kate Hudson brings believability to her character, despite her significantly diminished role.

Nair's Changez though, becomes both a replacement and an exotic accessory in Erica’s life, “the ultimate downtown status symbol,” he later realises, which is a tragic departure from Hamid's novel, where she plays as much of a defining role as the events of 9/11 in changing his life's trajectory.

It isn't an accident that Erica is “America” missing one syllable.

In a startling scene, Changez allows a smile to cross his face as the 9/11 attacks unfold before him on television. “David had struck Goliath,” he says.

Changez finds himself as an outsider despite his Wall Street cred. He is predictably searched at an airport in silent humiliation and the post 9/11 xenophobia starts to seep in to his life. He starts to grow a beard in apparent rebellion. And while the scenes are filmed well, they feel a touch tired and clichéd after 11 years since the event.

And thus begins Changez’s battle for identify. After 9/11 people around the world had to choose sides, rekindling George W. Bush’s appalling, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” but as Changez says, "I didn't pick a side — it was picked for me."

With his sense of belonging shaken, Changez’s life begins to spiral out of control as the work that he does coupled with the political climate of the time starts to smack of American hubris. He finds himself caught in the limbo between the attraction of what he thought was a free society and his loyalties to his roots, all laced with the pain of a romance gone afoul.

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Finding nothing left for him in New York, he returns to Lahore, where he becomes a professor, instantly popular amongst his students, and eventually finds himself the object of suspicion by the CIA — an unenviable position to be in even in the best of times.

It’s plain to see that Nair went to great lengths to ensure the authenticity of the settings. The smooth flow of the visuals, though often broken with the unsteady hand-held camera work, is still appealing. Her use of music to drive the emotion has always been one of her strengths and it’s true in this case as well.

But the changes between the novel and the screenplay are unsubtle and contrived, and the unseemly attempt to make it more suspenseful robbed it of its depth and its intimacy, and many fans of the book are surely destined to be disappointed.

Hamid's novel is a personal story of a young man falling in love with a country and a woman, and how it all goes awry just as fast as it happens.

But despite its shortcomings there are many aspects of the movie that salvage it, most notable of which is Riz Ahmed's stand-out performance.

Although unwieldy at times, and suffering from a tinge of heavy-handed and simplified metaphors about being Muslim in post-9/11 America, the film is nonetheless a relatable exploration of the immigrant identity in the US.

"The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is playing across theatres in Pakistan, including the Atrium, Cinepax and Cineplex in Karachi.