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
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
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.