Scenes of a lavish evening party being held somewhere in Lahore, Pakistan, crisscross with ones of an American entering a cinema with a female companion. As the party continues, our main character, Changez, paces around, not really paying attention to his surrounding, his mind seemingly occupied with something else as he talks on his cellphone. The scene cuts to the American again, and as he is walking out of the cinema, a group of men grab to kidnap him, heartlessly toss the screaming woman to the side of the road, and escape. The woman pleads to the bystanders for help, only to be ignored. We return to the party, and Changez’s mother asks if everything is all right, and he says yes.
After that opening sequence, we are now in daylight and we meet Bobby Lincoln, an American journalist who has been living in Pakistan for some time, long enough to be able to speak Urdu. He has an appointment with Changez at a local tea house, believing that he is somehow linked to the kidnapping of the American, who is a professor teaching at the same university as Changez— also a professor. Now both are seated comfortably in the packed tea house, and Bobby wants to go straight into business and discuss the recent events. However, before Bobby could start recording, Changez insists that he promise to listen to the whole story, not just bits and pieces.
As the two men converse in Lahore in 2011, we are shown flashbacks all the way from ten years before, when Changez was studying in Princeton. Changez was a young man with a promising career in a big finance firm. His work involved evaluating and increasing a company’s worth, making it perform in the best possible way, most of the time streamlining it, cutting off unnecessary labor, or down right close a whole branch office. He focused on the fundamentals, making sure a company had what it needed and just what it needed. He had an American girlfriend, and all in all was living the American dream. But then 9/11 happened and things started to change.
At 130 minutes long, the movie builds Changez’s character naturally, making us understand his emotions, keeping us guessing about the outcome. Changez seemed like an ambitious young man back in 2001, happily living his capitalist dream in New York City. Yet in 2011, he is back in Pakistan, teaching at a local university, questioned if he is a part of a radical revolutionary group. We understand his frustrations and his decision to come back to Pakistan, but we worry about his present situation. Has he really gone down that path?
The Reluctant Fundamentalist presents worldly, political issues in a relatable human story, a human dialogue. We get to experience post-9/11 through the eyes of someone who involuntarily got his side picked for him. I guess it’s an interesting theme that doesn’t feel wholly new and would reoccur in movies to come, however it is interesting. Yet, the first thought that came to my mind when I watched the trailer was that the movie aims for huge things but will likely fail to accomplish them. And in a way, the same thought occurred after finishing the movie. Well, it didn’t fail that much, but it sure came short. It was good, but it could have been great.
With a premise as interesting as that, and a leading actor like Riz Ahmed, who individually carries the movie, The Reluctant Fundamentalist could really have been something special. Alas, there are some things that just hurt the movie, subsiding it into something rather lukewarm. There’s a scene where Changez is in a room with other newly-recruited financial analysts and asked by their boss and mentor, Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland) to evaluate the value of a hypothetical company. While the others are busy presenting big numbers, Changez, you guessed it, says that the company is worth nothing. There are just too many cliché scenes and dialogues that it becomes hard to elevate the movie to the level it aspires to be. It must not have been easy to adapt the movie from the novel and they spent 3 years to develop the script, but it’s such a shame that they couldn’t find other (less cliché) ways to aid our characters’ stories. There are also some gestures of the characters that are supposed to throw us off from the truth, but really, they couldn’t have been more obvious. Another mistake is, of course, Kate Hudson. She is so horribly miscast in the movie, one can’t help but think that she’s hired because of her star power and nothing else.
Director Mira Nair worked with frequent collaborator, cinematographer Declan Quinn, and the cinematography is definitely one of the movie’s strongest points. Shot with a limited budget in 47 days in five countries, the filmmakers succeeded in presenting such a lush picture, embracing the Asian richness beautifully on screen. However, there are some (at least three) editing oddness that were quite disturbing. I don’t know if those are intentional or if there was something wrong with the cinema where I saw the movie. These weird cuts really make me look forward to the DVD release.
The opening sequence is one of my favorite things about the movie. It has weight, it holds our attention, and it builds the atmosphere incredibly well, no doubt thanks to the music performed by the musicians, a family of 12, shown at the party scene. It sets a good start for the audience. Apart from that, the scene where Changez finds out about the planes crashing into the twin towers for the first time is also very, very interesting.
The star, though, is Riz Ahmed. He appears in every frame, the one figure that keeps us attached to the whole story, and he has done an amazing job. Nair spent 1.5 years looking for her leading man, initially hoping that she would find a native Pakistani, and I’m glad Ahmed got the part in the end. I first saw him back in 2010 in Four Lions, and it seems like he has been doing a lot of indie films (he also raps, by the way) and I hope this movie will open more doors for him in the future.
Two weeks before Ahmed was supposed to shoot in the US, his visa was declined. It shows how in reality, the things shown in the movie still happen a lot today, and it’s great that a movie like this gets to be made.