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The Reluctant Fundamentalist

By Philip Martin

This article was published June 7, 2013 at 3:07 a.m.


Changez Khan (Riz Amed) and his artistic-minded girlfriend Erica (Kate Hudson) star in Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Indian-born director Mira Nair has always explored the friction points between East and West, dealing with the experience of the subcontinent diaspora in Mississippi, London and New York, as well as that of Westerners (and assimilated Asians) in the East. It’s not difficult to see what attracted her to Moshin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Terrorist - but unfortunately the film she has made of it is a less satisfying movie going experience than a strident, if globetrotting, cautionary tale. Despite the best efforts of some fine actors, it lacks the grace and finesse of Nair’s best work.

Without having read the highly acclaimed novel, it’s impossible to say whether the problems lie in the source material or the translation, but there’s something a little too obvious about the title character’s journey from a tall-building capitalist in Manhattan to bearded pro-jihad intellectual in a Lahore teahouse. This is another lesson on the ways terrorists are made, on the unintended consequences of security fetishes and racial profiling.

It begins with the abduction of a visiting American professor in Lahore. A Jewish-American journalist, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber),considered sympathetic to Pakistani causes, is sent to interview an intellectual suspected of ordering the kidnapping, the freightedly named Changez (a variation of “Genghis”) Khan (a very good Riz Ahmed). Lincoln meets Khan in a teahouse surrounded by radical students, where the academic spins out the story of his life, beginning by telling him he is a “lover of America.”

In flashbacks, we see Khan as the son of an aristocratic but struggling poet, who worries that Western-style materialism is corrupting Pakistan. Yet his son leaves Pakistan for Princeton and becomes a Wall Street financial analyst specializing in corporate downsizing. He revels in the good life but - after the 2001 terrorist attacks - finds the America he loves suddenly illiberal and inhospitable. Men who look like Khan are now suspect.

On a business trip to Istanbul, where he’s supposed to fire the head of a publishing company, Khan is taken aback when the old man accuses Khan of being “a janissary” - a slave impressed into military service against his own people - for America. This epiphanic moment pivots the film, as Khan is moved to reconnect with his homeland and its culture and turn against the seductive and corrupting values of the irreligious West.

It’s a solid if not terribly original schematic, swinging between the bright, almost Gatsby-esque glamour of New York and the mobbed streets of Lahore, professionally realized with an emphatic score and solid performances (Kate Hudson has the thankless task of providing Khan a superfluous romantic interest), undermined by pedestrian rhetoric and a curious refusal to engage the specifics of Islamic fundamentalism - the script barely mentions religion. Are we supposed to imagine that the specifics of ideology don’t matter as much as the certainty of the acolyte? Maybe, but The Reluctant Fundamentist is ultimately too muddled and diffuse to have much of an impact - Nairs’ visuals are arresting, but the film feels too much like a case study. Despite some promising moments, it never quite coheres into a convincing story. It’s worth seeing, perhaps, for its technical values and the way Schreiber and Ahmed play off each other, but it ultimately feels like a missed opportunity - like a pedant groping for a profundity beyond his moral ken.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist 84 Cast: Riz Ahmed, Liev Schreiber, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Martin Donovan, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi Director: Mira Nair Rating: R, for language, some violence and brief sexuality Running time: 128 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 38 on 06/07/2013

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