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Creeds both sacred and secular

17 May 2013

by Stephen Brown

Mentor, mentee: Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland) and Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) in The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Mentor, mentee: Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland) and Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) in The Reluctant Fundamentalist

THERE is a danger that the word "fundamentalism" has become entirely associated with religious beliefs. It entered our language in only 1923, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, and, oddly enough, it was associated with the rise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of modern Turkey, someone famed for his secular reforms.

Mira Nair's latest film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Cert. 15), strongly questions limiting the term to those with a religious outlook. Based on Mohsin Hamid's novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it examines the impact on us of belief systems of all kinds.

In 2010, amid student demonstrations in Pakistan, Professor Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) is ostensibly being interviewed by a journalist, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), based there. In fact, the local CIA, suspecting that Changez has been involved in the kidnap of a Lahore-based American, has set this up. Changez previously lived in America. After an Ivy League education, he worked on Wall Street, riding roughshod over all and sundry in attempting to become rich.

The narrative (one shared by many others) by which he lived his life equated "success" with money-making. His mentor is Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), who hires him. Erica (Kate Hudson), the girl seen on his arm and in his bed, has, of course, to be beautiful; for that is the other fundamental story that gives him meaning.

By the time of the interview, all that has changed. In the aftermath of 9/11, the cosmopolitan United States, previously made up of "huddled masses yearning to breathe free", takes on a fundamentalist xenophobia. A Pakistani (any Pakistani?) is under suspicion, transformed overnight into a potential Muslim extremist.

This is a cat-and-mouse kind of film. Has Changez, nursing his wounds at the way he starts being treated, been radicalised? It is not that simple. The faith of Changez's father (Om Puri), for instance, does not fit into any stereotypical perceptions of Islam or its political applications. A film such as My Name is Khan, for all its endearing qualities, is an extended critique of American paranoia and boorishness.

Nair's interests focus on sifting the underlying beliefs that make us who we are, whether these are fundamentalist notions about money, or achieving political aims through terrorism. Her other films (Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay) often provide us with a non-Western perspective on issues that affect us all.

In this case, her film attempts to understand how any of us ends up with the beliefs, secular or sacred, that we hold dear. As a narrative, it can be a little choppy, but this helps to make it both thrilling and thought-provoking.

On current release.

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