Film Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

 Reviewed by Shahana Shah

Director: Mira Nair

Starring: Riz Ahmad, Kate Hudson, Shabana Azmi, Liev Schreiber

Based on the novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

If you forget the Erica of the novel and ignore the fake look and sound of the Lahore Mira Nair has created, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is not such a bad film. Riz Ahmad plays Changez with an elegance that is equal to his literary twin’s in the book.

Changez is a young businessman from Pakistan flourishing in the U.S. until two tragedies occur to undo his sense of belonging; 9/11 and the breakdown of his relationship with the woman he loves, Erica. His gradual journey towards what others see as a fundamentalist identity is a process of grieving and rebuilding.

Those who loved Mohsin Hamid’s novel are familiar with Changez’s sensitive, almost mystical yet elusive relationship with Erica and the eeriness of the narrative addressed to the American journalist interviewing him, channeled through its one-sidedness and ambiguity. The film conveys these aspects not in the original form as they appeared in the book but they are present in the rich musical mélange it offers.

The unique selling point of this film is the thankful absence of clichés in a story that meanders through a landmine littered with them. Changez’s dilemma is more profound and personal than a typical Muslim youth with a heart bleeding for his brothers and sisters in faith.

“Appearances can be deceptive,” Changez says to his interviewer Bobby Lincoln right at the beginning of his story. That sums up the progression of the film. The audience is led to misinterpret Changez’s text messages and snippets of his lectures at the university, and even the sides of good and evil that Changez and Bobby supposedly represent in the beginning are ambiguous. An unexpected accident towards the end brings the realization of the cost of misunderstandings and hasty assumptions that are bogging down the fight against the so-called fundamentalism.

Whereas Changez’s evolution and struggles are well-executed by Riz Ahmad some of the other characters did not fare so well. His boss Jim Cross and Nazmi Kemal, the old publisher with whom he has a life-changing conversation, are interesting sources of influence on a young man’s mind and ambition. However, Misha Shafi’s Bina is a superfluous character and brings nothing to the emotional experience of the film. Kate Hudson is a decidedly odd choice to play the tortured Erica, and a better chemistry than that which she has with Riz Ahmad would be required to convey the kind of bond Hamid had portrayed in the novel.

Finally the look of Lahore and the accents of Indian actors playing Pakistanis are jarring. Most Hollywood directors seem to think that if you make every male actor wear a prayer cap and play the azan over a shot of Delhi, you’ve got all you needed to turn India into Pakistan. The Lahore of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is only recognizable from file pictures from the 70’s.

The best points of this film are the music, the cinematography and Riz Ahmad, though you’ll have to assume his bad Urdu accent comes from Changez’s long years in the U. S. All in all, it would be a fairly interesting experience for Mohsin Hamid fans to revisit Changez’s existential dilemmas but they should be ready to overlook the inevitable disappointment or two that always crops up in films adapted from books.

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