Before we were “enlightened”, life was a grand drama in which violence, constrained by honour and religion, played a part. Ever since we’ve been confused. We oppose the death penalty and war, but legislate for the slaughter of the unborn and the unfit. The Reluctant Fundamentalist challenges these attitudes.
An American professor, Anse Rainier (Gary Richardson), is kidnapped in Lahore. A dishevelled journalist, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), meets the aristocratic Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) in a tea-house, to interview him about “Pakistan’s new militant academia”. As they talk, their true agendas are revealed, in a duel of words.
This movie celebrates cinema. The colours are rich and vivid; the soundtrack a blend of traditional qawwali (a style of Sufi devotional music), classical orchestration and modern pop. The camera follows events from the vantage point of an onlooker.
The movie is so confident in its medium that it often dispenses with dialogue, preferring to layer music, poetry and striking imagery.
The story has two levels. First is the thriller-style race against time to rescue Rainier, itself dominated by Changez’s “involvement”. Then there is Changez’s own story.
Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel, which inspired the film, uses the conversation as a framing device, but the film makes it much more. The story-within-the-story provides the psychological drama of a mental fencing-match, complete with telling thrusts and distracting feints.
Changez comes from a background of aristocratic poverty with an acclaimed poet Abu (Om Puri) as his father. After graduating from Princeton, he is recruited by Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland) to the financial consultancy firm of Underwood Samson.
Changez has a talent for “evaluation” — the ruthless capacity to see people as numbers and so increase profits — and quickly becomes the youngest associate in the firm’s history. He starts seeing Erica (Kate Hudson), a bohemian artist sort with more than a few issues.
Then the 9/11 attacks on the United States take place. Patriotism develops a protective edge, one motivated less by prudence and more by shock. The attacks seem so shocking that they “must” be the work of madmen.
The analyst in Changez sees the attacks for what they are — brilliantly executed acts designed to alter the geopolitical landscape. They are not the acts of madmen, any more than is making a third of a workforce redundant, forcing employees to lose their livelihoods.
They are the rational actions of lords of war engaged in a military campaign against an entire civilisation. They are savage and completely repugnant to anyone with a shred of common human decency; but they are no more incomprehensible than the conquests of Alexander the Great, whose blood is claimed to run through the veins of many in the Punjab.
The question at the heart of the film is whether or not Changez himself has taken such values as his own. His name is the Urdu version of Ghenghis. The blood of princes runs in his veins. His disregard for others, when necessary, is clearly shown. But, as he says at the start, “Listen to the whole story.”
This film is not anti-American — unless pointing out that drone strikes kill innocents, that American capitalism considers human beings as numbers on a balance-sheet, and that America was not the easiest place to live for persons of swarthy complexion after 9/11, is deemed anti-American. These are deft feints.
It is not profiling and prejudice that cause a change in Changez. Rather, it is the “evaluation” of a Turkish publishing house, a guardian of his traditional culture, that ignites the spark in him.
Similarly, the contrast between militant Islamic fundamentalism versus Western capitalist democracy (or should that be “democratic capitalism”?) is another feint.
The real contrast is between a traditional culture that values its humanity, its past and its future, and a modern, “individualistic” one that can only think of the here and now.
Erica is a disturbing mix of naïveté and narcissism, shown by her use of Changez’s confidences in her “art show”, and claiming that it is an “act of love”.
Jim Cross, always meticulously buttoned up in his expensive suit of “armour”, is gay. He hates his heritage and is “hungry” for success. The terrorist leader, Mustafa Fazil (Adil Hussain) surrounds himself with young men, whom he touches with a particular delicacy, while talking of “violence” and “love”.
The critics do not like this film. Some claim it makes capitalists and terrorists morally equivalent. Others claim it has lost its “ambiguity”, that we do not see how violent radicalism results from “Western imperialism” and “religion”.
One might suspect that the real reason is because the film rejoices in the fundamentals of truth, goodness and beauty, and does not accept that a man is the sum of his experiences. It challenges Westerners’ relativism and egotism, and reminds them that, if they are to stand for fundamental truths, then they too must, reluctantly, be fundamentalists.
Symeon Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).