A radical departure for director of The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Mira Nair's latest film takes a poignant approach to the political thriller, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 September, 2013, 11:28am

PINPOINTING WHERE A film sprang from isn't always easy, but Mira Nair knows exactly how The Reluctant Fundamentalist began. Born and raised in India, the 55-year-old director had never been to her neighbouring Pakistan - despite her father hailing from Lahore - until seven years ago.

"It was dazzling," she says. "The ocean of refinement that I saw - the culture, the music, the poetry and the fashion, all of it - was very interesting, in terms of what we don't hear and don't see about Pakistan. Even in the subcontinent, we don't know this."

Immediately, she was inspired to "tell the world a contemporary tale about Pakistan", one that countered the media-fed imagine of the country as a hotbed of radicals and terrorists. "I really think that very little is known about Pakistan in the US, except what we read about the drones, the beheadings and the hijackings. People worry about anyone going to Pakistan. But it is an extraordinary place."

So when, months after her visit, Nair came across Mohsin Hamid's book The Reluctant Fundamentalist, she felt it was the perfect "platform" to express her feelings about the country. The story of Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), a bright, articulate Princeton University graduate rigorously pursuing the American dream, "gave me [the chance of] a dialogue with America," Nair notes. "We are shown many films from the American point of view, but we never see the other side of the coin."

The film largely unfolds in flashbacks, as Changez tells his story to an American journalist called Bobby (Liev Schreiber), who may or may not be a CIA operative. Changez climbs the Wall Street corporate ladder, and dates bohemian photographer Erica (Kate Hudson), but this life comes to a halt after the 9/11 terror attacks.

The subsequent anti-Muslim feeling in the US encourages Changez to return to his native Pakistan. He starts lecturing students in Lahore - but is he now dangerously radicalised?

"For me, the challenge was to make my first thriller," says Nair, whose films include the celebrated Salaam Bombay! (1988), Mississippi Masala (1991) and Monsoon Wedding (2001). "I call it a human thriller - a thriller that becomes a coming-of-age story. That's what I was going for."

Nair says the key was creating three-dimensional characters: "If you feel you understand, know and love Changez, that will go miles beyond you seeing him as a Pakistani or as a Muslim. You have to feel his beating heart."

British actor Riz Ahmed feels the film deals with one man's attempt not to be "defined by the labels that are thrust upon us" - nationality, family background or political ideals.

"These are all ideas, concepts and forces that are bigger than us," he says. "I think the main theme of the film is Changez's attempt to negotiate his way around these obstacles and find his story, despite the centrifugal forces that are pulling him in different directions."

Ahmed was obsessed with getting the role of Changez: "I stalked this project like a sad case," he says. He had devoured the book long before he knew about a possible film adaptation. He rang up the publishers "like a silly little boy" when he'd finished it, to see if the rights were available. They weren't, but he discovered Mira Nair, a director he admired, was making the film. "It's corny to say it, but it's literally my dream job," he says.

Born in London, to parents of Pakistani origin, the 30 year-old Ahmed had previous played a Sheffield suicide bomber in Chris Morris' satire Four Lions. What's more, he has experienced racial prejudice himself, when he was pulled over in Britain's London Luton airport, in an incident that prefigured the scene where Changez is detained at a US airport. The incident occurred after he made his debut in Michael Winterbottom's 2006's docu-drama The Road to Guantanamo, playing one of the Tipton Three - a trio of British men detained in the notorious US prison, Guantanamo Bay.

Returning to London Luton airport with the real-life Tipton Three, after the movie's premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, Ahmed was held, initially denied legal access, and aggressively questioned. "I wouldn't describe it as a detention, because it wasn't official," he says. "It wasn't officially logged. It wasn't procedurally legitimate. It was actually just an illegal abuse of power by a couple of guys. It was very relevant to draw on that experience [for the film]."

Nair, who "wasn't aware" of the incident when they met, had considered more than 200 actors in three continents before she found Ahmed. However, things got off to a bad start.

Three weeks before the shoot was due to start in New York, his US visa was denied. "It's very hard to overturn that," says Nair. "They don't ever tell you why. We had to go through a lot to make sure they looked at his application again and allowed him in."

Calling in a favour from a White House official she'd met to assure Ahmed's smooth passage into the country, Nair didn't let the experience enlarge any anti-American sentiment. Witness Schreiber's role - "an American character of conscience", as the actor himself puts it.

"I felt it was very important that someone represent that, as I felt that there was a danger of the characters being marginalised for the purposes of an alternative perspective. So I was trying very hard to find the perspective for Bobby that was as complex, redemptive and compassionate as Changez was," says Schreiber.

Schreiber was in New York when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. "I didn't think it was a Muslim act. But I'm sure there were people in America who felt that way. My reaction to September 11 had very little to do with the people who perpetrated the crime. My reaction was all about New York, because I'm a New Yorker. It was a very powerful time in New York," he says.

Hudson calls the attacks "a defining moment in our history", but she thinks The Reluctant Fundamentalist is more about the "human connection" between people. "You get into the political side of it, or into the cultural differences, and you start forming opinions - where you stand, or how you felt," the actress says. "Then, right when you start to form an opinion, Mira sucks you in with the humanity of the characters."

Nair hopes that those living outside Pakistan will "recognise the universality of humanity" - something that has not been done in that part of the world. This is a small step, but it's a unique step, because both sides are, I hope, presented with the same degree of intimacy and familiarity," she says. "I hope that they recognise themselves in a part of it."


The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens on September 12