Film review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Riz Ahmed plays the central character

I went to see The Reluctant Fundamentalist, writes Hasina Patel, because I was curious to see how it dealt with the whole issue of “fundamentalism.” I have a personal dislike for the term “fundamentalist” due to it being used loosely at home whilst I was growing up, and because I come from a traditional Pakistani background.

The label became something which I detested even further post 9/11. So I had to go and see a major mainstream film which is one of the few with a Muslim protagonist tackling the post 9/11 world.

And overall I liked it – it was well-acted, complex and nuanced, although it didn’t really deal with the central character’s “Muslimness” very well.

Anti-western rhetoric 

The film begins with the lead character, Changez (Riz Ahmed) a professor from Lahore University notorious for his anti western rhetoric, agreeing to meet American journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) after numerous requests. Lincoln, highly suspicious of Changez, links his willingness to be interviewed to the kidnapping of an American academic which occurred only 24 hours before and his links to a fundamentalist “terrorist” group.

Changez opens up the interview with a friendly reminder that things do not necessarily appear as they seem and wants the journalist to listen to his story – the whole story, his pre-radical life and his reason for his current stance on global politics. Changez tells Bobby how he was a promising student from a middle-class Lahore family that was once rich and gained a place in Princeton and the chance to achieve the American Dream. His father holds a gathering with the alcohol flowing in Lahore, despite being illegal, and the devotional music being performed highlights the artistic and liberal nature of his family.

Changez tells Bobby of how he was hand-picked by a top corporate firm before graduating to work as a financial analyst by Kiefer Sutherland’s character. So Changez builds a life for himself, excelling at work and winning respect. He falls very fast and very hard for Kate Hudson, despite her emotional issues. She is Changez’s boss’s niece, a fragile artist, and believes him when he jokes about her having to wear a burkha in Pakistan.

9/11

During a business trip to the Philippines, Changez’s ruthlessness in business is established and this gets him a fast-track to a promotion. As he sits in his hotel room joyful and tearful, he sees the news of the World Trade Building being attacked. The scene changes back to him telling Bobby that his first reaction was awe at the audacity of the attack, using the term “David struck Goliath.”

The film then shows the reactions of the US to the attacks, with immigrants being attacked, Changez being very uncomfortably strip-searched at the airport and then falsely arrested and interrogated by law enforcement who ask him if he had combat-trained in Afghanistan. Even at work he has to listen to the ignorance of his colleagues about Islam and Changez realises his suit and tie are not enough to protect him. Previously he had come to think of himself as “American” and was now starting to feel like the “other.”

His relationship with his girlfriend begins to unravel even though he is very much in love with her. She accuses him of being attracted to her because she was from an affluent background and fails to understand why he is upset. The scene in the exhibition of her photos is uncomfortable because it feels like his privacy has been denied, and his words and images used to highlight his “otherness” to a (mostly) white non-Muslim audience.

Bobby continues to question his involvement in the kidnapping as Changez questions Bobby’s presence in Pakistan. The flashbacks are interspersed with a CIA team watching them and the backdrop of social unrest in the city. The conclusion of the film involves a tragic turn of events and an impassioned speech by Changez about resistance and changing the world for the better.

Effective direction

Mira Nair’s direction is effective, and it can be said without a doubt that the film is nuanced because she herself is a woman of colour aware of the complexity of the post 9/11 world for Muslims. It is nice to see the CIA not shown as “heroic supermen” and making mistakes, as it was refreshing to see a complex Muslim protagonist that carries the story. The film has so many elements that speak volumes about race relations in subtle ways. However, there is an absence of Islam – with the exception of the leader of the terrorist group referencing the Quran and a visit to a mosque. The film focuses much more on race, identity and belonging as opposed to faith and religion.

Mira Nair herself has said that getting the film made was a struggle because it is about a Muslim protagonist. However, Changez is not portrayed as particularly “Muslim.” His “Muslimness” is mitigated in various ways such as drinking alcohol and his girlfriend, perhaps to make him relatable to a non-Muslim audience.

But ultimately, the film is engaging and Riz Ahmed’s performance is compelling, even when we are unsure of who Changez is. The film explores the struggle for Changez to fit in, meet expectations and finally find himself in the midst of the war on terror.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is currently showing in cinemas throughout the UK.

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