The Reluctant Fundamentalist, directed by Mira Nair 2012
Starring: Hanluk Bilgner, Riz Ahmed, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland, Kate Hudson
It’s an evening during le joli mois de mai and I’m off to see Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (henceforth: TRF). I wait on the platform at Berri. The train on the other track has not moved since I got here. People accumulate on the platform. Still no train. Something must have happened. Do I see a deserted knapsack?
That sort of stuff doesn’t happen in Montreal but happens in the USA every few months. Does Canada have any blood on its hands? We don’t have any Laughing Bombers, no Al Qaeda brothers. Of course things have happened here. The screechy voice announces that we will be rolling soon.
I’m meeting Carlos Perelmann a Montreal filmmaker originally from Lima, and Michael Silver, a novelist and screenwriter. A late train isn’t a big deal; still, it’s becoming increasingly common to engage the “T” word in response to any change in the public transportation routine.
As I see Carlos and Michael, I tell them that our Kolkatan engineer, chronicler of counter-hegemonic struggles world-wide, poet and dramaturge, is unable to come as he isn’t keen to see another 9/11 aftermath film. In fact, he couldn’t come due to a previous commitment to his reading group, which incidentally, was not heavily moved by Mohsin Hamid’s book.
Hamid’s important work, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) inspired Mira Nair to develop a film that approaches the ecstasy of The Battle of Algiers. Pontecorvo’s masterpiece, made forty-six years ago, chronicles the life of Ali La Pointe – a street thug who slowly evolves into a mujahid – at the same time giving us a picture of how the leading tacticians of the Front du Liberation National defeated the French in Algeria. The American armed forces use Pontecorvo’s film to train troops heading to areas of the world that have large quantities of raw materials.
Unwittingly or not, Nair has carried Pontecorvo’s civilizing flame to Lahore. TRF is informed by this work, but the film does not fully absorb, or perhaps a better formulation would be “adapt,” the anti-colonial stance that resides in every frame of The Battle of Algiers. In TRF Pontecorvo’s lower-class Ali becomes the upper class Lahori, Changez. Upon his return to Lahore he effortlessly lands a job at an institution resembling Government College or Forman Christian College. Protagonists, whose affluence is inextricably connected with the exploitation of peasants and workers, never fall hard. In fact, they simply cannot fall at all – money and class always cushions them on a wide variety of levels.
Via connections at his university, Changez becomes a mujahid who is addicted to moderation; in the end, he infelicitously sides with the CIA. Changez’s life story is an unpersuasive model, with an un-compelling, emotionally irrelevant conclusion.
Mira Nair might respond with the following: the world is not black and white, the character’s life is permeated by historical, cultural, political and class-oriented complexities, and, when people take sides for morally decorative reasons we should not see them as failures.
I read Hamid’s TRF when it first came out; while watching the film I could not recognize some of the key scenes. Manifestly, Nair has used the novel as a starting point, leaving the main story-telling device undisturbed: a whiz kid Pakistani student goes to Princeton and climbs to the top. Slowly, he starts to see, from his office window on the 53th floor of a New York skyscraper, the occidental Rub‘ al Khali.
He returns to the ancient city of Lahore, where, in this beautiful, mind-expanding place a pretend-journalist-CIA agent (brilliantly acted by Liev Schreiber) interviews the protagonist (brilliantly acted by Riz Ahmad). The interview is recorded on an Apple iPhone placed on a table in a student restaurant-café. The whiz kid’s exegesis informs the CIA pretend-journalist why he came back. Depicted with Nair’s confident, stunning directorial control, this section of the film is as thrilling as the innovative opening credits: the titles, in English, are revealed right to left letter by letter, playfully superimposing the scriptic rules of languages written left to right. The opening Qawwali is such an engrossing musical vortex that one immediately falls into the revelation: Changez shows moments of commitment to the struggle, but, at the end of the film, withdraws from it because fundamentalist Islam disgusts him as much as the fundamentalist economic solutions of the austerity-will-fix-it minutemen. Two fundamentalisms, both unacceptable.
As his story unfolds in the Lahore restaurant, the film’s editor takes us into the belly of the burra shaitan, and then to Istanbul, the setting of a key scene. In this city of architect Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa’s Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya (a church architecturally altered into being, unpropitiously, since 1453, a Mosque; subsequently, transformed into a museum in 1935) the whiz kid’s murderous right-wing values are changed during a conversation with the Turkish publisher who tilts the Lahori completely away from corporate America.
Changez’s role was to the make world’s exploited people even poorer, he’s an economic hit man. Hanluk Bilgner, who plays the pivotal Turk, speaks English, drinks white wine, and has more physiognomic gravitas than Changez. He gently tells Changez that money isn’t everything: as a financial analyst from Jahiliyyah, he should not close down his “unprofitable” publishing house. The scene is masterfully precise. Just enough lines are spoken to imply that people who have sold out can somehow be pulled into a life of resistance. Changez had had continual doubts about America when he was working for the super rich who are not admired in so called “developing” countries. The words of the Turkish intellectual eventually help to transform him into a nascent mujahid who, in time, proves to be perfidious. Towards the end of the film, he gives crucial information to the CIA agent, possibly ruining an operation.
After the most important lunch of his life, on a sunny day with a blue sky, gulls cawing and diving into the Bosporus, Changez takes a ferry from Istanbul in the direction of Üsküdar where Asia Minor begins. Changez, like Mira Nair, has one foot in the West, the other, in the Asian land mass. Many such devices are used as story propellants. However, the scenes with his American girlfriend should have been constructed with the same manner of understatement as the life-changing lunch with the Turk. Nair shows us a few sexual scenes, which are illustrative, not transporting. The obligatory dance scenes are painlessly short – the dancers wear costumes made by Pakistan’s best designers.
Nair’s sprawling, pan-Islamic picture of the post 9/11 era renders Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty (2012) a shallow and uncritical work set in the Islamic world.
Most American mainstream directors, due to deep subconscious ideological commitment, are illiberal, provincial and tribal. They are patently unable to make cinematic works that are critical of America’s adventures in the Islamic world.
TRF does not end like Pontecorvo’s film. The Algerians won, and the French lost: the last scene shows an unarmed woman confronting a French tank.
Perhaps, in a subsequent film Nair will be able to tell us how the great game started. Who threw the first stone? Was it Mohammad? Was it Charlemagne? Was it 9/11? Who made them do it? Did Mohammad make them do it? Can Pakistan’s military intellectuals or politicians salvage Pakistan? Mira Nair, director of Salaam Bombay (1988), is well placed to address these questions in a conventional cinematic form. I cannot think of another director in America who is as well prepared as she to so do.
What exactly is in this revealed faith that shifts Changez into ugly neutrality and finally to siding with the CIA? His evolution suggests that he sees Islamic fundamentalism and economic fundamentalism as the same thing. Does social and political transformation for Pakistan not reside in resistance to the kabeer shaitan despite the CIA being terrifically present in Pakistan’s obsequious military?
Nair might reply: there is a tactical error in depicting in-your-face, declarative politics in cinema, however, activists and artists do do this, usually from safe places. Recall the Rushdie affair of the last century.
Changez’s choice is one we all face – should one get directly involved or remain on the side lines? Most of us would play it safe, using the Web as a source of information and activism, as well as organizing protests to confront our governments. The choice that Changez has been offered is not as safe as organizing a demonstration in a Western country – he’s been asked to contribute to a life-threatening operation.
Mira Nair shows us the Changez in all of us, but not without provoking a few latent questions: Are we duped by her magnificent filmmaking into thinking that the protagonist is juggling the Roman proverb Pecunia non olet (money does not stink)? What is the point of having him flirt with the Taliban? Would it have been wrong to depict Changez evolving into a mujahid who likes Chopin, The Clash, ham sandwiches with Dijon, Notorious B.I.G, Chris Hadfield, Jennifer Lopez, chemistry, and a modernized interpretation of Islam? Is class betrayal at the root of this drama? In giving the CIA agent crucial information on an operation does he not betray Pakistan? Perhaps this film is not about Islam and the West at all, but about the universal conflict between classes.
(For details on the film please see the Internet Movie Data Base)