An online film journal for Indian Cinema
Director Mira Nair’s latest feature is somewhat of an uneven film but it is an important one in the context of post 9-11 cinema. Based on the best selling novel by Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist re-situates Nair’s Diasporic gaze to a post 9-11 geopolitical context in which commerce, politics and religion are intertwined. Given Nair has always been caught between two cultures, she has naturally been inclined to favour the social outsider in many of her films. This was a precedent set in her earliest films especially Salaam Bombay! in which Chiapau’s (Shafiq Syed) arrival in Bombay positions him as an outsider attempting to adjust and fit into the new environment around him. Chiapau’s desire to make enough money so he can return to his village in order to pay off his debts makes him a creature of survival but Nair’s later films such as The Namesake (2006) saw a shift to Diasporic anxieties to do with belonging, identity and a wider existential search. Sometimes it can be critical to have read the original source material when viewing an adaptation of such significance. Unfortunately I have not read the novel upon which the film is based but it may be worthwhile comparing the two and considering what compromises may have been made in the adaptation process. Nair says it took five years for the film to get made since financing kept falling through. The difficulty in attracting adequate financing can be attributed to the film’s supposedly controversial and commercially unappealing subject matter, that of contemporary Pakistan.
This is certainly Nair’s most ambitious film to date and its rich, sympathetic depiction of Lahore echoes similar Punjabi sentiments evident in her most successful film, Monsoon Wedding (2001). In fact, Nair’s husband has referred to the film as ‘Monsoon Terrorist’. Given the dire security issues in Pakistan, which makes it an impossible place to film in, Nair found an area in Delhi to act as a replacement. Although the film has a global feel to it, taking place across a number of cities including New York and Istanbul, it is Lahore that offers Nair the opportunity to deal with her own ancestral connections and prescient ones to do with America’s hegemonic foreign policy towards Pakistan and its people. This is why Nair chooses to use a framing device in the form of an on going dialogue between Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) and Bobby Lincoln (a journalist turned ‘spook’ working for the CIA played by Liev Schreiber) because it becomes an extended symbolic exchange of ideological perspectives between America and Pakistan in regards to foreign policy. The story of Changez sees him become a successful financial analyst at one of the top firms on Wall Street but after September 11, anti Islamic sentiments triggers a reawakening within him concerning his direction and place in American society. Changez’s decision to return to Lahore and teach at a university makes him an enemy in the eyes of an American government that acts with impunity when it comes to protecting western interests. Given the references to Ahmed Shah Masoud, a potential future leader of Afghanistan who led the resistance against the Soviet Union, it is clear to see that Changez is represented as a potentially transformational figure with an intellectualism that would appeal to the youth in Pakistan.
Riz Ahmed does a splendid job in the lead role and continues to show great range as a leading British actor with an increasingly international profile. Intellectualism as resistance is a theme evident by his father who is a famous Punjabi poet and the rejection of his exploitative role as a financial analyst condemns capitalist ideology as a form of internal oppression that inevitably leads to a loss of identity. In the film, two particular moments stand out in the opening half which probably explains why the film struggled to attract financing. Nonetheless, they are exceptionally significant ideological moments since Nair daringly allows us to see the reaction to 9-11 through the gaze of a Pakistani male. Such subjectivity is important as it has barely registered in many films that have tried to depict the so called war on terror. The first moment concerns the pleasurable reaction of Changez as he watches the planes crashing into the twin towers in his hotel room. I’m not sure if this moment breaks a taboo but it certainly offers an unsanctioned truth about the way a lot of oppressed people around the world reacted to such events and its a moment that will more than likely have some reviewers in America condemning the film for even attempting to humanise a Pakistani like Changez. The second moment concerns the the xenophobia which was rife in the wake of the attacks. On his way from a business trip, Changez is detained at the airport and dehumanised when he is strip searched by the security. Such open and discriminatory persecution is really the beginning of the end for Changez and his American dream. Both of these moments are critical in delineating the alienation of Changez from his environment.
Nair’s films are also important in their use of music. The Reluctant Fundamentalist returns to a similar musical pattern of a film like Monsoon Wedding which saw a fusion of classical and contemporary music on the soundtrack. Nair taps into the contemporary Pakistani music scene which over the last few years, sponsored by The Coke Studio, has produced some eclectic and innovative collaborations between old and new artists. The film opens with a lengthy traditional Punjabi Qawwali (devotional Sufi music) ‘Kangna’, performed by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, which is used to underline the middle class tastes of what seems to be a progressive Pakistani family. Interestingly, the film opens with the professor Anse Rainier and his companion exiting a showing of Pakistani director Shoaib Mansoor’s most recent film Bol (Speak, 2011), a portmanteau of stories that depict the oppression faced by Pakistani women on a daily basis. Bol is used predominantly to anchor the events within a contemporary Pakistani landscape and remind us of the centrality of Lahore as a key milieu in the narrative. Perhaps the most ideologically significant deployment of contemporary Pakistani music is when Changez leaves his job and makes the decision to return to Lahore. This sequence is juxtaposed to the introspective song ‘Mori Araj Suno’ (Hear My Plea) which makes explicit use of the poetry by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of Punjab’s most famous and revered poets. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a radical leftist who used his poetry to criticise the state of the nation and Nair makes a striking parallel here by juxtaposing the song with Changez’s transformation from capitalist to eventual teacher. Nair and all those involved especially the writers should be praised for their refusal to demonise Changez and let the film reach a conclusion that opens up a space for a dialogue and discourse that lets the Pakistani male become an active symbol of social and political change. I have still have a suspicion this one will end up in my end of year list since I find both Mira Nair and Riz Ahmed to be inspirational figures.