The Reluctant Fundamentalist – review
The Guardian - Wednesday 29 August 2012
Venice film festival opens with Mira Nair's story of an idealist torn between Islamic radicalism and American capitalism
The awful inevitability of Kipling's non-meeting of east and west is the subject of this movie by Mira Nair, which begins the 2012 Venice film festival, adapted from the 2007 novel by Mohsen Hamid. It's a sweeping and heartfelt tale of divided loyalties and reversion to type, in a world where the complacent ideas of globalised capitalism were shattered by 9/11.
This is bold and muscular storytelling with a plausible performance from Riz Ahmed in the lead role – though there is something flabby and evasive in the inevitable equivalence it winds up proposing between Islamic fundamentalism and aggressive American capitalism.
Ahmed is Changez, and if ever a character had a significant name, it's this one. He's a charismatic firebrand professor in Lahore, spreading anti-Americanism among his excitable students, under surveillance by the CIA and suspected of having something to do with the recent kidnapping of an expatriate American academic. And yet when Changez starts telling his life story to American journalist Bobby (Liev Schreiber) we see his troubled life unfold in flashback.
Changez's ideological training camp was a Wall Street corporation: as a bright Pakistani immigrant to the US he gets an Ivy League scholarship and is fast-tracked into a high-flying Manhattan job, mentored by a beady-eyed Gordon Gekko figure, Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland). Mira Nair shows us that here is where Changez learns to be ruthless, internationally strategic, and fanatical. As an investment analyst, he travels the world showing businesses how to maximise profit – with cut-throat layoffs. But then 9/11 happens and Riz Ahmed shows us, in a flash, Changez's response – the response he cannot suppress but which is soon supplanted by horror at this mass murder.
He grins. He is thrilled at the terrorists' spectacular audacity and the way they have humbled the mighty US. A micro-second later, he feels revulsion at the carnage – and unease at his own unguarded reaction – but cannot forget that initial, visceral response. Later, in the paranoid and besieged atmosphere, he is picked on in New York for the colour of his skin; defiantly he grows his beard, refuses to conform. Crucially, he has been having an affair with a young woman, Erica (Kate Hudson), who is still mourning a lost love whose place he has been trying to take: Changez has been a Fake American Boyfriend. The inevitability of his return to Pakistan and embrace of radicalism is obvious: but the movie tells us that the nature of this radicalism has been dictated by America.
It is significantly in Istanbul – the world-historic border of faiths – that a disillusioned publisher tells Changez he is a "janissary": a fighter against his own side, like the Christian boys captured and trained to be warriors by the Ottoman empire. And these warriors, for mysterious reasons of self-hate, are the fiercest of all. It could be that Mira Nair is playing on the significance of the word "janissary" in the history of western imperialism and south Asia. Winston Churchill memorably justified his hostility to Indian self-government on the ostensible grounds that Muslims would be threatened: "An army of white janissaries, officered if necessary from Germany, will be hired to secure the armed ascendancy of the Hindu."
But having established this balance of fundamentalisms, does the movie just retreat into a copout? And what, ultimately, is the nature of Changez's reluctance as a fundamentalist? Is it simply down to each of the two sides of his personality feeling guilt about the other? Or is it that Hollywood rules dictate that Changez has to be a nice guy: a "reluctant" hero? It is a rather feeble liberal-humanist note to end on, but there is fascination in this story of an idealist, torn in two by history.
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