Starring Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Keifer Sutherland, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri
Directed by Mira Nair
The dubbing does subject the content to some tonal drubbing. And one wishes the Indian distributors had just let the characters speak the way they felt. Misguided vocalization cannot take away from the power and inner strengths of Mira Nair’s newest work.
The abject isolation of an individual as he or she grapples with the shifting emotional and cultural dynamics of a society that doesn’t have much patience with dilemmas of the diaspora, is a recurrent theme in Mira Nair’s remarkable oeuvre.
It could be that sassy street boy Krishna in Salaam Bombay peering resentfully into the rolled-up windows of the rich and the privileged as they whisk away his unrealized dreams. It could the high-flying Amelia Earhart kissing the clouds as she flies that plane in splendid solitude in Amelia. Or it could be Tabu in The Namesake struggling with a language and culture in America that never could be her own even after decades of trying to build a home away from home. These are all Mira Nair’s fractured people, seeking and receiving a healing touch by tapping into their own emotional and spiritual resources.
In The Reluctant Fundamentalist (TRF) on several occasions, Changez (played with a fabulous flair freed of flamboyance by Riz Ahmed) reminded me of Tabu in The Namesake. The same blown structure of a life swept away by forces that the individual fails to control in spite of a great inner strength. The same desolation and dereliction masked in unquestionable dignity.
Changez, to begin with, is a Pakistani pursuing that nebulous state of bliss known as the American Dream in New York. Life’s darker reverberations catch up with Changez after the fateful date of 9/11 when America’s relations with the Islamic world altered radically (if one may use an ironic pun). But it wasn’t just the Americans who grew obstinately wary of all things ‘Khan’. The Muslim individual too lost his bearings and often his visa, vis-à-vis the Western hemisphere.
This is where Mira’s moving lyrical account of a life torn apart by a strife that he has no control over, acquires a relevance beyond all the 9/11 (and its desi counterpart the 26/11) films we’ve seen. For the first time we get to see, and yes, feel what it is like to stand on the other side in the crippling war that America has waged on the ambivalent world of militancy and terrorism.
The terror that stikes within the persecuted cornered Islamic individual has resonances that cinema has never before studied and captured so vividly. We can see right through Changez and we are most of the way, one with his journey into a restorative self-actualization. Mira’s majestic (e)motion picture opens up the polemical debate from Mohsin Hamid’s trenchant novel on Jehad and its ramification on the Asian and Western world, so that we are left looking not just at Changez’s life fall apart after 9/11. We also get a telescopic view of the entire socio-political and cultural relations between the Islamic world and the West come apart at the seams.
The view is disturbing yet magnificent.
While in Mira’s The Namesake we heard Tabu’s scream after tragedy struck her life with savage finality, in TRF the screams are stifled and subverted into visual and emotional images which emerge slowly. In a display of languid luminosity. The beautifully arranged drama with camerawork and music that are exquisitely evocative and apt, moves forward at a gentle unhurried volition creating a cocktail of pain and beauty mixed in a way that it is tough to tell one from the other.
A lot of the credit for the spiral of gathering despair and ultimate redemption that builds up in this sagacious saga must go to Riz Ahmed whose Changez is a tall stately dignified victim who never serenades self-pity or cultural surrender. Ahmed plays Changez with great dignity.
Of course Riz is lucky to have an actor as unassumingly accomplished as Liev Schreiber to lend Changez’s jagged saga a patient ear. No performance, not even one as nuanced and moving as Riz’s, could work without the co-star’s attentive reactive presence. We know Liev is listening. So are we.
Cleverly, the film casts politically savvy actors who bring to the screen an effortless back-projection and understanding of the complex theme. Whether it’s Shabana Azmi and Om Puri (alas, too brief in their appearances) or on the Caucasian front, Kate Hudson and Keifer Sutherland, the actors KNOW. And they let us know that they know without making a song and dance of it.
Declan Quinn’s cinematography confers a tremendous state of grace on the troubled life of the protagonist. It’s as if the camera doesn’t lie even when the characters do. And this film with its leap of time and space, moods and climates couldn’t have been easy to edit. Shimit Amin brings a sense of cascading crisis into the narration. Seamless stress is the term that would best describe the editing pattern.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a film of whispered understated resplendence and quiet accomplishments. There is a bedrock of haunting pain in the narration buried too deep for tears or words. Unless the words happen to be the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
And if at the end of this enlightening journey into the heart of a man who never turned to terrorism in despair, we feel Changez to be a poet whose wounded words pierce our sensitivities like shards of glass, then blame it on the world that we have inherited from generations of warring cultures and nations.
Thankfully, cinema as powerful as this heals even as it opens up old wounds. The Reluctant Fundamentalist makes us look within ourselves for answers to the chaos in the world around us. The view may not always be comfortable. But it’s the truth about the politics of modern civilization.
What we see is what we regret.