Mira Nair and the Pakistani Dream

Published April 23, 2013

ABOVE: RIZ AHMED AND MIRA NAIR ON THE SET OF THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST

As the protagonist of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez Khan (played by Riz Ahmed) experiences the best and the worst aspects of the American Dream. Born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, Changez attends Princeton on a full scholarship, graduates summa cum laude, and lands a coveted job at a boutique financial consulting firm on Wall Street. He makes enough money to help pay for his sister’s wedding, travels around the world in first class, and attends charitable functions with his old-money artist girlfriend, Erica. Changez has joined the American elite.

Then two airplanes hit the World Trade Center towers in New York, and Changez is immediately dropped into another class—a class of otherness. It doesn’t matter that he’s returning from Malaysia clad in a designer suit and surrounded by financiers—as a young Pakistani man with a slight beard, he is singled out and strip-searched. Changez begins to wonder whether the American Dream is really something he wants and, if not, what “dream” should he aspire to as a Pakistani.  

Based on the short novel of the same name by Pakistani and British journalist Mohsin Hamid, director Mira Nair’s film is less ambiguous than the book. It has to be. The book is a one-sided monologue between Changez and an unnamed, mysterious American at a café in Lahore—not an easy form to recreate in a conventional film.

In Nair’s retelling, the shadowy westerner becomes Bobby (Liev Schreiber), an American journalist who has lived in Pakistan for over a decade, interviewing Changez about the kidnapping of an American citizen. As Changez tells Bobby his story, we are transported back to New York in 2001. Kiefer Sutherland rounds out the cast as Changez’s American mentor, Jim, and Kate Hudson plays the damaged Erica.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is not Nair’s first literary adaptation; in 2004, she directed Vanity Fair starring Reese Witherspoon and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and in 2006 she adapted Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake. We spoke with the Indian-born and Harvard-educated director while she was in New York for the Tribeca Film Festival.

MIRA NAIR: One of the first interviews I ever did was with Interview. 25 years ago. After Salaam Bombay!

EMMA BROWN: Really? I’m going to go look it up.

NAIR: Look it up! You’ll see how young I was… [laughs]

BROWN: I love going through the archives. It’s one of my favorite things about working here.

NAIR: It’s such a cool magazine, because they’re interested in the people I’m interested in.

BROWN: One of the things that really struck me in The Reluctant Fundamentalist is when Changez asks his students about the Pakistani dream, and what is the Pakistani dream other than to emigrate? Does it exist? The American Dream is so distinct and dissected. Even though I didn’t grow up in the US, I can’t really think of another equivalent.

NAIR: There has to be, you know? It’s all about what you are presented as truth. We are not given the whole picture on so many things in the world. That was what led me to make this film, in essence. Even personally, I was inspired by the first time I went to Lahore in 2004. It was nothing like what I had read about. I’m from India, I’m from 30 miles away, and still, I had no idea of the largeness of spirit, of the warmth, the music, the contemporary art—the creative expression in Lahore is astounding. And that’s why the question arose in the writing. What about the Pakistani dream? Mohsin [Hamid] just told me the other day that he was at this literary fest in Lahore a month ago and [there were] 25,000 people in the audience, young Pakistanis, many of them probably the first time being educated in college and learning another language, English, from their Urdu native language. They’ve all come to this literary fest to speak to and meet authors, who had written something of their reality. And eaten it! Loved it. Embraced it. Wanted more. And that’s the Pakistani dream. People want to know. And the Internet makes them want to know beyond borders. But emigrating is not the answer; you have to start where you are. We feel a palpable need to address that, both in life and also in the movie.

BROWN: Did you want to make the film because you wanted to make a movie set in Pakistan?

NAIR: Yes. When I first went to Pakistan, I was just inspired by this modern view that you don’t even see or know about. But my father also came from Lahore before the partition of India and Pakistan—he returned to India before the partition. He became a civil servant and he raised us in India, speaking Urdu, knowing the music, knowing the poems of what is now considered Pakistan. So, when I went there, it was like going to the land of something I had known, but never seen. As an Indian director, we usually only tell tales of the partition. We don’t know beyond that. So, it was my springboard to wanting to do that. Then I read the book, about 18 months after my trip, and it just possessed me. Not only was it that opportunity to speak about modern-day Pakistan, it was also a dialogue with America, which I really think we desperately need because we have only had a monologue from here, so far, about the other parts of the world that we impact with foreign policy, and guns. Also, I feel it’s about time we go beyond that “us “and “them” approach and go into the more complicated layers that we all live with. Like we say in the movie, we are more than these things. Mohsin and me have lived in these two cultures specifically for half our lives— there’s a place from which you embrace that multiplicity and you want to use what you’ve learned in what you make.

BROWN: The end of the book is quite ambiguous; you’re not really sure where Changez stands.

NAIR: I was resolved to preserve the ambiguity of the book: the mutual suspicion of each other, that nothing is as it may seem. Is he, or isn’t he? These were the spines, the questions, that kept us on one throughline in the writing. That mutual suspicion reveals more about us, the reader, or the viewer, and what we bring to it. So, I hope that I preserve the ambiguity, that mystery, the sense of it being a thriller, but I wanted very much to have Changez speak to a group of people beyond himself about his philosophy, because I needed to hear that, that there was too much blood in this river. Because I feel that way—the endless militarization, this “us” and “them” approach has created, to my eyes, nothing but more war. When you hold a group of people who are so diverse responsible for a couple of people’s actions, or a smaller group’s actions, it’s a recipe for disaster. I’ve seen that for so long, and I want to break that cycle in some way.

BROWN: The word “fundamental” comes up twice—first in relation to Wall Street, and then in relation to a militant group. What do you think the similarities are?

NAIR: The fundamentals of money and the fundamentals of terror are actually deeply parallel in that, in both belief systems, the human being is subservient; is not important. This is Changez’s personal quest; he is understanding what he should do in the world and where he can be heard, or where he can matter. Where he can belong, perhaps. He’s brilliant at what he does [financial consulting], and he’s so modern in the sense that we all are from many places, and he embodies that with such fluidity, but what is he doing? With one stroke of his pen he is creating unemployment for unseen people across the globe, and creating greater profit for also unseen people near him. Is that what he must do? Then the old values of the family, who has always wondered what the hell is he doing, come back into focus. I think it’s a very apt question to ask for our times.

BROWN: How do you see the character of Erica? What is her role in the film?

NAIR: Erica is a struggling artist. She’s a young woman who struggles to express herself, both emotionally and creatively. While she’s open to the idea of love with Changez —and I think it is a genuine connection that they have—her art is not as deep and as layered a response to what she thinks might be a love offering. Slightly too often, I’ve seen this in the world, where people, out of noble intentions, think that they know something that they don’t really know. The entitlement that comes with it, that “I can interpret your world,” and “I’ll save you,” or “I’ll help you,” or “I’ll be your messenger”—it sometimes needs more humility. More understanding that you maybe don’t know what something means. I’ve seen that; I’ve seen cultures trying to be interpreted by others who have just come upon it. [Erica] was to hold a mirror to that kind of see-saw that can happen. I feel, very much, that they had and have a genuine connection that somehow the world will not help them continue.

BROWN: When Bobby first meets Changez, do you think he thinks that Changez is guilty?

NAIR: No. Because Bobby, if he believed that, he would not go in to talk to Changez. He would just bomb the place, like the rest of his people. Bobby is from within; he likes to think that he knows this community. He does not want that way of using power rather than using the mind. So I think he is not convinced. He has to be convinced. He has to find out.

BROWN: Is he another version of Erica’s character, then? “I understand your culture?”

NAIR: No. I think he knows more. He’s been there 12 years; he knows that it’s layered, that nothing is as it may seem to you. It’s because of his knowledge perhaps, that he would want to talk to Changez, man-to-man, like a human being, rather than in handcuffs. He won’t jump to conclusions. I really think that. It’s just that as things begin to unravel he loses his reason.

BROWN: Can become part of another culture? If Bobby stayed in Pakistan, could he become a real Lahorian?

NAIR: I am always intrigued by that question. Can a settler become a native? And I am always grappling with that question with the characters I have made in many films. I hate to say never, but it’s a very complicated place in the world and there’s a lot of heartbreak. I was trying to salute that in the film; when Changez says, “I see a man who has hash under his fingernails, and buys the women and the vegetables”—where is your family? Has your family even remembered you? Or have you forgotten them? That sense of being in limbo in your life, I have seen far too often.

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST OPENS IN LIMITED RELEASE ON APRIL 26 AND IS CURRENTLY SCREENING AT THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN NEW YORK.