Have you ever visited Ground Zero in New York before? When entering the National September 11 Memorial, you go through a number of security checks, much like at the airport, and once you enter, the gravity of what has happened instills a silence in you. You are transported, and life outside the memorial no longer exists. The only noise you can hear apart from your breathing is the water falling in to the depths of the big black pit of the reflection pool.
As you make your way slowly around the reflection pools, you notice all the names; the names of loved ones and rescue personnel lost in this tragic loss of life etched into bronze panels in the stone, to be remembered and honored for generations to come.
Now, consider this. Have you ever wondered what it was like to be labeled as ‘other‘ in a place you considered home, during a time of great anxiety and fear in the United States? The Reluctant Fundamentalist, made it’s debut in 2012 at the Venice Film Festival, and then in America in April 2013, just after the Boston bombings, where many of the film’s themes were brought in to question. This film is based on the book published in 2007 by Mohsin Hamid, and examines the Muslim identity and how it was transformed in the aftermath of 9/11.
The director, Mira Nair, (who also directed Vanity Fair, Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake), explains that The Reluctant Fundamentalist is “an investigation of the myopia, the short-sightedness, of how the West sees the East and how the East also sees the West, and the break down of communication between these two parts of the world”. Nair, who has grown up in both New York and India, notes that she has “seen America converse” with the world, but “it is always a monologue, and never really a conversation”. The result? You are of a mindset in which you believe that “the ‘other’ is truly different from you…not a human being”. This political thriller is a brave endeavor to express “genuine human dialogue,” as well as “to create a dialogue” between “the Americas, and the subcontintenal world, the Islamic world”.
Mira Nair tells the story of Changez (played by Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani Muslim immigrant in the United States who attended Princeton, graduated with a degree in Finance, and secured a job as an analyst with a top Wall Street firm. However, after 9/11, just as the towers come crashing down, so does Changez’s life. A “victim of prejudice and profiling”, in the aftermath of 9/11, he is driven away from his adopted homeland. How is he driven away, you ask? After being harassed numerous times, he has no choice but to leave the US and his American dream to go back to Pakistan. He is interrogated and made to strip until he is naked in the airport while an American officer searches every inch of him. His tires are slashed while he is at work. He is wrongfully arrested, and he is discriminated against because of his choice to grow a short beard – to the point that his colleagues are telling him to shave because his image is not right. Worst of all, 9/11 creates a huge cultural divide between Changez and his girlfriend (played by Kate Hudson), who makes a mockery of their relationship, in what she thinks is a masterpiece at her art exhibition. Changez’s American dream had quickly become a nightmare as “he is transformed from a well-educated, upwardly mobile businessman to a scapegoat and perceived enemy”. We see Changez 10 years later, a Professor at Lahore University in Pakistan. When an American academic working in Pakistan is kidnapped, Changez is blamed for the disappearance. As he succinctly puts it when confronted by an American journalist working for the CIA…“Yes, I am Pakistani. Yes I am Muslim. But that is not all that I am.”
Further, when the American journalist asks him why he is hiding if he is innocent, Changez responds saying, “Guilty people hide, but so do people who feel hunted”.
Mira Nair directs this film, not to condemn America, but rather in hopes of explaining that “What we are doing wrong, is not knowing…the humanity of the other side”. The haunting, but powerful words of Changez are embedded in to your memory long after the film is over: “You picked a side after 9/11. I didn’t have to, it was picked for me.”
Check out the trailer here:
For more information about the film, have a look at the IFC Films page or either of these interviews with Mira Mair.