Like the characters within its narrative, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is a highly complex movie.
It’s a thriller. It’s a love story. It’s a crippling deconstruction of a world divided by social, economic and religious lines. It’s a story about the dangerous and often confusing world we live in – and the people on both sides of these lines trying to make sense of it all.
Based on the 2007 novel of the same name, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” follows a Pakistani man named Changez (Riz Ahmed) who comes to the United States and realizes the American dream as he graduates from Princeton and lands a lucrative job on Wall Street. But just as earns financial and social success, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 change the way his adopted country views him and, in turn, changes the way he looks at the world around him. The movie plays out via flashbacks as Changez recounts his life, which includes his relationship with a damaged artist (Kate Hudson), to a journalist (Liev Schreiber) covering the kidnapping of an American professor in Pakistan. Changez is the prime suspect – but is he guilty?
When I sat down with Hudson and Ahmed at the Tribeca Film Festival, we were exactly one week removed from the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and injured more than 200. The details of this real life tragedy – involving foreign nationalists turning on the country that welcomed them to live, work and get an education – were far too similar to this cinematic drama to ignore.
David Onda: It’s an interesting and unfortunate time to be talking about a film like this. Have you thought about the events last week and how they relate to this film?
Riz Ahmed: People have been hungry for over a decade to talk about issues of fundamentalism – both political and economic. I don’t think the events of last week changed that. I think, if anything, people are just more eager than ever to just have a dialogue. I think that is one thing that this film does, you know?
Kate Hudson: That’s also why the novel is so widely used and seen on high school and college curriculums, because it does open up such an interesting dialogue.
Ahmed: I kind of feel like there is an urgency and a need for people to try and re-humanize the “other” and to try and tackle fear with empathy, and I think that’s the only way we’re gonna get to answer some of these really important questions. Why do people feel excluded from our society to the extent where they can perpetrate a shooting like Sandy Hook or a bombing like Boston? Or why do people feel entitled enough that they feel that they can, kind of, break the public bank, tear open the public purse as they did in the global financial crisis? These kinds of behavior are both products of fundamentalism of different kinds – which is when you kind of reduce things to just black and white certainties. Our job as storytellers is to kind of celebrate uncertainty and kind of blur the lines and say, “Reality is messy, people are complex.” This film is the journey of a young man who is trying to embrace his complexity.
Hudson: And the need for human connection – the importance of it. And you watch this young boy who’s sort of learning about who he is, with all of these things circling around him and that defining moment of history that everybody experienced globally, and it sort of becomes this catalyst for one young man’s journey to ask himself the big question of, “Who am I? Am I authentically representing the person that I want to be in the world?” And those are the themes that, to me, interested me so much in terms of working with Mira [Nair, the director] and why she wanted to make this film.
Onda: The movie very eloquently paints both sides of the picture – the East versus the West and the fact that everything is not always what it seems. Did you ever struggle to understand both sides of the picture?
Ahmed: I guess the idea and the realization is that there’s no such thing as two sides. It’s a simplification. It’s a dichotomy that we use to impose structure on messy reality, but there are not two sides. There are many different sides. There are 7 billion different sides, really. And people kind of draw these clean lines in the sand, and say “Well you’re on this side, you’re on that side, you’re with us, you’re against us.” But actually that just does away with everything that makes us human. That is a reductionist approach; you’re reducing people to the sum of their labels, and that’s what Changez is trying to fight in this. He’s a young man coming of age trying to maintain his complexity or navigate his complexity in the face of a rising tide of different kinds of fundamentalism – political and economic.
Onda: Riz, you were born in England but are of Pakistani descent. Have you experienced the kind of racial profiling Changez experiences in this movie?
Ahmed: My visa got held up indefinitely for this movie, for coming to the U.S. I was subjected to section 221G security check, which has happened to me in the past when I have come here for music tours. Sometimes they just indefinitely delay your visa, check you against terrorist databases and stuff. And it was kind of annoying, ’cause it meant the film was gonna fall apart. Yeah, I get pulled aside every time I fly to the U.S. Yeah, it’s a reality, it happens.
Onda: Kate, what is your character’s place in this story? Is Changez’s complicated relationship with her the thing that finally pushes him over the edge?
Hudson: Does she push him over the edge? Well, I think they actually push each other, in a way. I think that their relationship is really based in the two of them feeling like outsiders. My character, Erica, is obviously feeling massive amounts of grief and experiencing the kind of trauma that she experienced and feeling guilt and not feeling like she could ever really connect with anything. And then she meets this young man who she feels understands what that is… like two people searching for where they belong, but in completely different circumstances.
Onda: One of the most shocking moments in the film is when Changez appears to be almost satisfied by the events of 9/11 as he watches them unfold on TV. What do you imagine is going through his mind in that moment?
Ahmed: I think it’s a result of dehumanization, you know? In that moment he’s not thinking of people, he’s thinking of symbols. He’s thinking of these symbols of American power being attacked and he’s thinking of the audacity of that. He’s not thinking about the innocent victims that are in there dying. He was thinking – and I think – in that moment, it’s a moment that scares him consequently, because he realizes the danger of picking sides, of seeing in black and white, in that reductionist approach that dehumanizes anyone that isn’t you. And I think it’s a kind of instructive moment that goes to the heart of the film. It’s just, like, what we’re capable of feeling or not feeling when we stop seeing each other as people first.
Onda: Despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, the movie paints a beautiful picture of Pakistan and its culture that we don’t see very often.
Ahmed: That’s right, yeah. That’s something that Mira talks about a lot. There’s a Pakistan we don’t see in the news – there’s a Pakistan of poetry and amazing, thriving fashion industry and Asia’s biggest rock bands. No, seriously. So, it’s like a very cool, very creative place. The U.K. is to the U.S.A. as Pakistan is to India, in a way. Granted, there’s a bit few more nuclear missiles pointed at each other. But it’s the slightly edgier, punkier cousin to the regional superpower that shares the same language. So their cultural output is super-interesting and has to be a little alt to find a market amongst Bollywood’s kind of bling. It’s a really interesting place. You’re right – It’s not a heavy film. Mira says, “This film is not homework.” You know? Mira has an amazing eye for the sensual. She has an amazing eye for visually lush storytelling. And then on top of that you’ve got quite a moving love story, a really kind of edge-of-your-seat thriller element with Live Schreiber, and, yeah, you’ve got all these big questions. But the way they’re investigated, hopefully, is through compelling characters and moving relationships. So… don’t call this film heavy. [laughs] I’m just playing.
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is now available with XFINITY On Demand and limited theatrical release.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.