What happened in Boston this month was a reminder that the aftershocks of terrorism and violence are widespread — not only do they harm the victims and their families, they have a profound effect on our nation's perception of itself, and on the way we treat one another. So, it's oddly fitting that Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist premiered at the TriBeCa film festival this month — and seemed to at once sum up and delve deeper into the many issues that have plagued the post-9/11 world in matters of nationalism, security, and human decency. "The film is many things, it's a political thriller, it's a love story, it's a coming of age story" — but as Nair says, it's essentially "trying to heal a divide that is so deep between two parts of the world," and as Riz Ahmed told us last week, it's guaranteed to get people talking.
Though the film is about one Pakistani man's experience in (and later, exiled from) corporate America before, during, and after 9/11, it's also implicitly, perhaps inevitably, a story about America's changing identity. Yet, it remains deeply personal, and Ahmed predicts the same will remain true of the viewers. "I don't think it'll be received differently from one country to the next, rather it will be received differently from one person to the next. I think the response will be very personal, rather than defined through a national lens." And that message is more important than ever right now. In the confusion of the post-Boston investigation and media reporting, we saw racial profiling abound, and prejudice flourish — evidence of Ahmed's idea that "we're living in an era where we've somehow dehumanized each other into an "us" and "them" rather than just people." Nair, who went to school in Boston herself, said the bombings were "a terrible reminder of the global suffering that happens, even when it isn't locally in front of us. We should really take heed and not jump to conclusions, and not racially indict a group of people for the acts of one — but we're seeing that hatred already in the last few days."
Ahmed himself hasn't been immune to that, either. As a Brit growing up in a Pakistani family, he's had first-hand experience with some of the obstacles faced by his character Changez, a Pakistani immigrant who comes to New York to work in finance. He's been pulled aside and questioned at airports. But he recognizes that, as "dehumanizing and frustrating" as that is, "at a certain point you have to stop being angry and start talking. I think this film is apart of why this dialogue is taking place."
Casting directors met with hundreds of young, aspiring Pakistani actors in search of the right face for the part, but it wasn't until they had nearly given up that Ahmed entered the picture. And it's lucky he did — his performance, not to mention that face, is one of the film's best assets. But he didn't achieve that kind of nuance by taking the easy way out. "I was definitely able to draw on my Pakistani heritage, but I kind of feel like it was a false sense of security for this character, because reducing this character to the sum of his heritage is exactly what this film is about. It's about getting away from that kind of thinking. So, I couldn't rely completely on the fact that we shared similarities on paper."
Avoiding the easy way out is a good way to describe the film as a whole. It's stretching multiple genres, and constantly moving between them. In this case, medium and message are united in a very intentional way — just as the film makes the point that we, as humans, should look deeper than superficial labels like race or religion, so it tries to avoid those labels for the work itself. Sometimes that's successful, sometimes it's not, but overall it's undoubtedly a film worth watching, especially for the spotlight it puts on a talented rising star like Ahmed. He's clearly thought in great detail about the character, about the film, the cast, the crew, the locations...everything. It's a refreshing quality to find in the endless stream of round tables and phone interviews. Though, to be fair, he did admit to one slight imperfection when we asked him about Mira Nair's infamous 5 a.m. yoga sessions: "I usually didn't wake up in time."
Photo: Courtesy of Cine Mosaic.