Directed by: Mira Nair
South Asian directors making films in the West seem to have the expectation of them to tell stories related to their own origins, and Mira Nair has mostly done precisely that, with films like Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel. Coincidence or not, I won’t comment, but her more successful and acclaimed films have been stories of people from the Indian sub-continent. Another novel adaptation, Nair latest film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, takes us to Lahore, Pakistan, a city she has a personal connection with.
Following the kidnapping of an American professor from Lahore University, American journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) meets with Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), another professor at the same university, who is suspected of being a fundamentalist. Told as a dialogue between these two characters, The Reluctant Fundamentalist follows the story of how Ahmed’s character, a successful financial analyst from Wall Street ended up back in Lahore and possibly involved with a terrorist group. The film’s screenplay (Mohsin Hamid, Ami Boghani and William Wheeler) has added a lot to Hamid’s 2007 novel, which was told as just a monologue, as Changez Khan tells the American his story. Nair and her screenwriters have understood the importance of adapting and adjusting the story to the form they wanted to tell it in, and for once being unfaithful to the source material pays off.
The gradual change in Changez, from the kid with the American Dream coming true to a man who has suffered injustice really comes across as believable, being both well written and acted. Riz Ahmed himself is a British Asian, and his Urdu dialogues aren’t always as delivered perfectly, nor is the accent realistic, but this is not something majority of the audience would even notice, and these are minor faults in an otherwise remarkable performance. I really hope this gets him more recognition with bigger and better directors. Kate Hudson as the American girlfriend Erica (and as a brunette) works better than it should. Her character has also been expanded from what it is in the novel, giving us more of the full and happy life he had, before it slowly disintegrates. Given that the story is being told, what we see of the character if Erica is a little two-dimensional, but Hudson manages to leave her mark all the same. Its possible she may not be remembered just for rom-coms after all. Indian actors Om Puri and Shabana Azmi make a nice addition to the cast as his parents.
I quite liked the use of Pakistani songs throughout, and the music itself has the required effect, but if they don’t subtitle them, non-Urdu speakers will miss out on some wonderful and often very relevant lyrics. (The screening at the London Film Festival I attended had some subtitling issues, so I can’t say for certain they have or haven’t done this). There’s also a beautiful eulogy at the end, written by Javed Akhtar, that, rather poetically, sums up the film.
I’m not a fan of Mohsin Hamid’s novel, mainly for the way its told, but I was curious to see how a different storyteller would handle the same story. Mira Nair’s adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist goes to show that handing your work over to someone else is sometimes the best thing to do. The film version allowed me to appreciate the story more than when I read it, which I think is a real accomplishment. Whether you’re a fan of the book or not, the film is worth watching.
I give it ★★★★.
The Reluctant Fudamentalist releases in the US on Friday 26th April, and in the UK on 10th May.