Indian director Mira Nair’s new feature, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is a poignant and vivid tale about what can occur when the process of American enculturation goes sour. There is, of course, no shortage of films that depict the joys, challenges and indignities of the immigrant experience, including several stellar entries in the subgenre from just the past decade (Journey From the Fall, Sweet Land, Golden Door, Goodbye Solo). On the surface, Nair’s film appears to be more prosaic than these works, wrapped as it is in the familiar constituents of the romantic melodrama and the globe-trotting thriller. Yet The Reluctant Fundamentalist is also more brooding and sharp-elbowed than its cinematic kin, a tale of angst and dissolution rather than assimilation. Just as So Yong Kim did so marvelously in her feature In Between Days, Nair focuses on immigrants’ alienation as they attempt to acclimate to an adoptive homeland. What makes The Reluctant Fundamentalist so distinctive is its unmistakable resemblance to a tale of relationship disintegration; the film is, in essence, the story of a breakup, one which is rooted in intensely personal qualities but which has broad geopolitical ramifications.
Adapted from Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel of the same name, the film depicts the initially exhilarating but ultimately dispiriting American experience of Lahore native and financial wunderkind Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed). Hailing from a well-to-do but diminished family—his father, Abu (Om Puri), is a secular poet of some renown—Changez makes the leap to Princeton and then to Wall Street in 2001, where he becomes an analyst at white shoe valuation consultant Underwood Samson. Quickly singled out as the firm’s rising star by his superior Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), Changez is tasked not only with assessing the financial worth of troubled companies, but with developing possible cost-saving measures (e.g., identifying which workers should be fired). Meanwhile he tumbles into a romantic relationship with lively but troubled photographer Erica (Kate Hudson), who is just beginning to emerge from the emotional shell she had constructed about herself following the death of her previous boyfriend.
The promise of the American Dream seems to lie before Changez on a silver platter. Then, while he is abroad on assignment, Islamic terrorists attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, and his meteoric rise to the commanding heights of the West begins to stall. When he returns to New York City, he is waylaid by airport security and humiliatingly strip-searched, in a discomfiting foreshadowing of the erosion of his privileged position. Over the ensuing year, ethnic slurs are tossed in his direction, his tires are slashed by enraged workers, and he is mistakenly arrested in a street scuffle. When he returns from a holiday visit to Pakistan with a beard, whispers fly behind his back at Underwood Samson. Yet Changez’ growing disenchantment with America is a product not only of encounters with post-9/11 jingoism and racism, but also of his own gnawing doubts about his choices. He is increasingly distracted by guilt about his firm’s predatory character and by anxiety about his family’s life under a nuclear shadow back home. Eventually, the revelation that Erica has obliviously exploited Changez’s nationality for her artistic ambitions leads their relationship to an agonizing end, and also sets into motion his final break with America.
As in Hamid’s novel, the film adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist—scripted by the author, Ami Boghani, Rutvik Oza, and William Wheeler—presents Changez’ tale in flashback as he relates it to an American at a Lahore café. The novel is written exclusively in Changez’s polite, precise voice, and it at times suggests that the narrator’s tale is, if not exactly unreliable, at least self-serving and subtly manipulative. Hamid never identifies the edgy, menacing American across the table from Changez, and the book’s conclusion is pointedly cryptic. Nair’s film is less formally daring, expanding the framing narrative into an elaborate (if mostly unremarkable) ticking-clock suspense scenario. A decade after his tribulations in America, Changez has evolved into a politically outspoken college professor in Pakistan. He has also recently been flagged as a person of interest in the kidnapping of an American academic, prompting investigative reporter Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) to track down Changez for an interview. While the latter recounts his tale, the CIA and the Pakistani police begin to close in, prompting an escalating protest from Changez’ students and local allies.
Nair’s feature takes to heart the feminist adage that the personal is political, exhibiting a profound absorption with the process of Changez’s transformation from a would-be American corporate ace into a political lightning rod for Pakistani nationalism. Crucially, the film does not portray Changez as a mere reactive figure, hardened by the betrayals of a malevolent America. The portrait is more complex: while his run-ins with institutional and casual racism play a role in upending his comfortable life in New York, his growing awareness of the cold-hearted nature of his profession is just as significant, as is his discomfort with Erica’s inability to move on from her deceased lover. Moreover, Changez’ trajectory from Pakistan to the U.S. and back is governed as much by who he is as by what happens to him. He carries with him from Lahore a cluster of traits—self-conscious economic insecurities, nationalistic pride, a sense of familial obligation, and a latent religiously-inspired abhorrence of violence—that collectively propel him back into the embrace of his homeland.
This holistic perspective on Changez’ relationship with America enables a remarkably evenhanded depiction of how assimilation can go off-track, even for immigrants who attain everything that Americans themselves covet. While the film is in general agreement with Changez regarding the most objectionable aspects of the American character—militaristic meddling, cultural arrogance, corporate callousness—it also highlights the extent to which a poor fit between an individual and a culture can be rooted in real incompatibilities rather than personal failings. Changez ultimately decides that America is not for him, even though he professes that he still loves the nation and what it represents. (Jim, revealingly, reacts with desperation and hostility when Changez eventually resigns and announces his intention to return to Pakistan; like a romantic partner, the manager views his protege’s departure as a betrayal.) In this, The Reluctant Fundamentalist evinces a humanistic maturity that is lacking in most relationship dramas, where so often one partner is crudely painted as the culprit when the ardor fizzles and the bickering begins. Nair’s film allows for the possibility that it might not be Me or You, but Us: a partnership that seems promising at first may be revealed to be unsustainable in the long term.