Even first-rate actors are only as good as the script they are given. It is a pity The Reluctant Fundamentalist (TRF), which premiered in North America at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, does not take a more modern and less clichéd approach to the topical issues of identity and racism it explores. Directed by Nair and based on a 2007 novel by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid of the same name, TRF is the story of Changez (British actor Ahmed), a Lahori boy who makes it big in glitzy New York, only to see his American dream crumble into a post-9/11 nightmare.
The film begins with a musical evening at Changez’s parents’ home in Lahore. Qawwals play while Changez hands his uncle a glass of bootlegged scotch. Across town, an American professor is kidnapped while leaving the cinema. The next day, American journalist Bobby (Schreiber) interviews Changez in connection with the kidnapping. They meet at a local tea house, where a now-hardened Changez begins his tale of love and loss, through a colourful narrative that shifts back and forth between life at home and abroad.
The narration begins with the aptly-named hero landing a high-paying corporate job at Underwood Samson, the New York City financial firm, after graduation. He meets Erica (played by a decidedly miscast Hudson who looks many years his senior), an artsy photographer, on the street. It is soon revealed that Erica is Underwood Samson’s owner’s niece and something of an American blue-blood. A romance ensues.
The story is interesting but its cinematic execution lacks cohesion. One hurdle is the complete lack of chemistry between Changez and Erica, hence the contrived, melodramatic romantic scenes drag out what would be an otherwise gripping plotline.
However, there are moments of poignancy and self-realisation that do resonate with the viewer; such as when Changez expresses to Bobby the momentary satisfaction he felt upon hearing of the events of 9/11; and then later, Changez’s indignation and disbelief at being strip-searched by US border police upon landing at New York’s airport. The cast is top notch, with Sutherland as Jim, Changez’s coldly-efficient mentor at Underwood Samson, and the immensely talented Azmi and Puri playing Changez’s slightly-provincial parents with a strong eastern polarity.
This film has no shortage of unsubtle parallels. Changez’s relationship with Erica, who grows suspicious and rejects him after 9/11, is analogous to his relationship with America. His firm, essentially an asset-stripping operation, mirrors America’s widely acknowledged foreign policy of invading and stripping western-Asian countries. TRF, while difficult to fully engage with because of its overly-simplistic and mass-market approach to Muslim-phobia, is important for the same reason. It explains one particular side of post-9/11 Muslim ostracisation and the identity dilemmas faced by Pakistani’s living or studying in America very effectively.
As Changez says in one scene, he no longer recognises his own voice because it sounds fake and tinny, like someone who doesn’t come from anywhere. Despite its shortcomings, TRF is an important film, if a few years too late.
Fahrenheit 9/11 : Michael Moore’s view on how the Bush administration allegedly used the tragic event to push forward its agenda for waging unjust wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: A nine-year-old amateur inventor, Francophile, and pacifist searches New York City for the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father, who died in the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001.
Untitled : In Ahmed’s upcoming film, ex-lovers find themselves placed on the defence side in a terrorism trial.