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Reviews

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Jeremy Clarke

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Directed by Mira Nair; Certificate tbc;  128 mins.

A foreign professor is kidnapped on the streets of Lahore, Pakistan; the terrorist extremists behind this act threaten his execution. A call is put in to journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) who visits a tea house on Lahore's University campus to interview academic Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed). As they talk, student riots threaten to flare on the campus. But does Changez' radical reputation mean he has links with the kidnappers? And is Lincoln more than the reporter he initially appears to be? The interview proceeds, punctuated by a flashback revealing Changez' journey through life and how he reached his present position. As these two parallel narratives unfold, the deeper motives of the characters are slowly exposed, layer by layer, an onion coming apart to reveal its inner core.

Pakistani-born Changez is the high born son of respected, Lahore based Pakistani poet Abu (Om Puri) whose family struggles to maintain an outward image of wealth as their bank balance dwindles. On leaving higher education, he secures a job as a business analyst in the Wall Street firm Underwood Samson, under Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), who sees in the young man a hunger that will drive the latter's career to great heights.

Changez' meteoric rise is interrupted by the events of September 11, 2001 on a business trip to the Philippines. Seeing the second plane hit the Twin Towers on his hotel room TV screen, he experiences a brief moment of awe, of exhilaration. Returning by air to the US with Cross and other colleagues, the colour of Changez' skin leads to his being strip searched at the airport as part of the new, post-9/11 security measures. 'He's with me,' protests his white boss, to no avail.

The world has changed: Changez' status in the US has changed with it so he's now a threat from outside. With this shift, Changez enters a crisis of personal and global identity and values, unsure where it will ultimately lead him...

This may be the first post 9/11 movie to explore not so much the historical phenomenon and its immediate aftermath but rather where we are now - a decade on - from the dual perspective of inside the American dream and outside in the disenfranchised Muslim world. Director Nair (Salaam Bombay!, 1988; Monsoon Wedding, 2001) hired writers to develop the screenplay from Mohsin Hamid's novel, determined to accurately reflect the environments of both corporate Wall Street and well-to-do Lahore. To portray both sympathetically, as she has, is a remarkable achievement - all the more so in a big budget, high profile movie.

You dread to think of what might have become of this adaptation in other hands. One prospective writer suggested the word 'fundamentalist' be dropped from the title. After all, Nair's remarkable vision challenges accepted audience demographics. Successful in its attempt to bring Western and Muslim worlds together on the screen, it also engages as an effective, character driven political thriller.