There is no other way to say it – The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a clunky, undercooked hot mess that absolutely wastes its culturally relevant subject and favors heavy handed moralistic arm twisting over nuance and subtlety. Quite frustrating, seeing as the gaffes in the film overshadow its most important plus point – a great performance from its lead Riz Ahmed.
Director Mira Nair takes every word of every page of the 2007 book of the same name and makes it as superficial and melodramatic as humanly possible. While the book was known for its open ending that left the true nature of its protagonist ambiguous, the film version pretty much milks the tempest in the teapot. Riz Ahmed stars as Changez, a Pakistani man who leaves his family behind to become a top dog at Wall Street but is disillusioned by the post 9/11 atmosphere in America. He is routinely selected for random strip searches at airports and harassed by cops on the street simply for being brown. His unstable American girlfriend first puts up some offensive art gallery about his Pakistani heritage and then leaves him.
Until this point, it is fairly easy to sympathize with Changez, but then Nair takes an unintentionally hilarious turn by drawing parallels between the ideals of Wall Street and religious extremists. The cops that arrest Changez are straight out of a B-movie, almost parodying the characters they play. There are dozens and dozens of closeups of Changez’s face in turmoil but Nair never goes beyond the surface level obvious issues, let alone delving into the religious fervor of fundamentalism. The film is framed as a flashback, where Changez is narrating his story to a CIA agent posing as a writer while the CIA monitors the meeting, ready to spray bullets if things go bad – a plot device that is incredibly crummy and illogical and exists sorely to render the illusion of the film being a thriller. The agent (flatly played by Liev Schreiber) is aware of Changez’s extremist views and Changez’s story is meant to justify his actions, but Nair throws in a sappy curveball in the end that negates the whole point of the interview. Add to that the horrible performances from Kate Hudson as the crackpot girlfriend and Meesha Shafi as Changez’s sister who only wants ‘a loft in SoHo, a weekend in the Hamptons and big, American boobs’ to settle down after marriage. Moreover, every subsequent scene has different tone, lighting and music, robbing the film of any semblance of a flow.
The real problem though, is the clumsy establishment of Changez’s tipping point where he finally leaves America and returns to Pakistan – he has a realization when on a Turkey business trip a writer shows him his father’s book of poetry and says that foreign corporations are eating into cultures and devaluing humanity. Changez’s big transformation has the nuance and effectiveness of Hrithik Roshan in ZNMD climbing out of the sea and crying. Riz Ahmed is a fine actor but it’s about time he moved on to different roles – he has played the racially discriminated Muslim in The Road to Guantanamo and even parodied the same in the hilarious Four Lions, both of which are vastly superior to this film.
(First published in MiD Day)