The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on the 2007 novel, explores a young Pakistani man’s drive to achieve the “American dream” while almost completely disregarding his own culture and country of birth. Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) graduates from Princeton (summa cum laude, no less) and lands his dream job with Underwood Sampson where his job is to effectively dismantle suffering businesses in order to increase productivity, or rather, increase profits. Changez is analytical, sharp, hard-working and beyond ambitious. Actually, Changez is the dictionary definition of ambitious.
Unfortunately, all of this changes on September 11, 2001. Up until that moment, Changez was swiftly climbing the corporate ladder (becoming the youngest associate with Underwood Sampson) had a blossoming relationship with his artist girlfriend Erica (Kate Hudson) and was relishing his ability to achieve the American dream and the fast-paced lifestyle that comes along with that achievement. However, the events of 9/11 force Changez to realize he is just as expendable as so many of the individuals he displaced during the “restructuring” of companies he broke apart in order to increase their market value. Now, his ethnicity and religious beliefs are scrutinized, analyzed and used against him. When we meet Changez, he is in Lahore, Pakistan under investigation (ie. being harassed) for his supposed involvement in the kidnapping of an American professor from the same university where he, himself, now teaches. He recants his time in America to an American journalist (Liev Schreiber) who has been trying to get an interview with him for some time.
It is difficult to like or dislike Changez. He is charming, attractive, and driven. Overall, he appears to have the demeanour of every other person on Wall Street, well, the countless film depictions of individuals who work on Wall Street, and any real dislike of him relates more to his occupation than anything else. The theme of appearances not always being what they seem runs rampant throughout the film with only the main character truly having difficulty realising this or maybe he just doesn’t want to see it. As I said, he is sharp and analytical… except when it comes to his own life. For example, he continues to pursue a relationship with Erica even though she is still in love with her recently deceased boyfriend. In order to maintain his relationship with her, Changez willingly invites Erica to pretend that he is her former boyfriend. I was a little stunned when the words “pretend I’m him” were uttered but as the film continued, it was quite clear that Changez was inclined to do almost anything in order to fuel his pursuit in obtaining the American dream, despite his true feelings.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a sad love story. It is about the main character’s love for a country, a country that he has greatly romanticized. That is, the American reality is never as good as the American dream. It is only when his beloved country turns on him after 9/11 that Changez begins to realize that he is no longer in love and it seems as though he now wonders if it was only ever an infatuation. He is conflicted because he wants to make it work, but also wants to finally be true to who he really is, not the version of himself he currently presenting. While working in Turkey, Changez is confronted by the owner of the publishing company Underwood Sampson is currently dismantling. The owner, attuned to Changez inner turmoil, tells him “when you determine where you stand, colour will return to your world”. These words resonate with Changez and convince him that he needs to stop chasing the American dream. We see him unceremoniously leave his current job, maybe-girlfriend and New York life to return home.
Mira Nair’s (Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, Monsoon Wedding) direction is always stunning and captivating but it is Riz Ahmed who enthrals the viewer. Yes, he is attractive but Ahmed’s appeal relates more to his ability to wear the array of emotions his character endures throughout the film. While, yes, this is the point of acting, Ahmed’s character always has his true feelings being masked by what he thinks his feelings should be and the ability to display that emotional conflict is a testament to Ahmed’s acting strength as well as the intriguing story unfolding before the viewer.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is currently playing at Fifth Avenue Cinemas.