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“We Walked the Tightrope with Grace:” Mira Nair on The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Mira Nair lounges casually on the edge of a bed in her downtown New York hotel room. Between sips of tea, she asks, “Is this okay?” as if the informal atmosphere might throw off the professional nature of our meeting. (It doesn’t.) To borrow Nair’s own sentiment, which she uses to describe the way she aims to feel on set, the director looks “at home in the world,” comfortable even when promoting a movie that’s designed to be unnerving. Based on Mohsin Hamid’s international bestseller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Nair’s eleventh narrative feature, and a milestone in a filmography that also includes numerous shorts and documentaries. Homing in on the ambiguous arc of Changez (Riz Ahmed), its titular figure, who goes from Wall Street superstar to disenchanted (and targeted) Pakistani professor, the movie is the sort of which there aren’t nearly enough — one that explores the delicate, and often cruel, circumstances of our post-9/11 world from the perspective of someone who isn’t a born-and-bred, red-blooded American. Co-starring Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, and Kate Hudson, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is packaged as entertainment, boasting thrills, globe-trotting scope, and cross-continental romance, but what lingers are its core ideas, which feel like an antidote to so much of what’s been made about similar themes.

For Nair, a New Yorker and a native of India, the movie carries a lot of personal resonance, and it marks yet another chapter in a career rich with cultural expression. From Mississippi Masala to Monsoon Wedding (which is bound for Broadway in 2014, with Nair at the helm), the 55-year-old director has, however unconsciously, used her work to bridge a gap between East and West, coloring our film landscape in the process. In an industry that’s still tough for women, let alone women of color, she’s a certain success story, and as we chat, she dishes about the challenges of adaptation, her own post-9/11 experiences, and her continued desire to capture “the density of life.”

The Reluctant Fundamentalist's writer/director, Mira Nair
The Reluctant Fundamentalist‘s writer/director, Mira Nair

Filmmaker: The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one of quite a few notable novels that you’ve translated to the screen. What are some of the challenges of adapting something versus visualizing an original story?

Nair: Well, I think a book is a springboard for a director’s imagination because cinema is another medium, and you really have to have a point of view of the book. In my case, with this film, I hoped to distill the spirit of [The Reluctant Fundamentalist] — the kind of tightrope and mind game that Moshid Hamin, the author, plays, where you don’t quite know: “Is he or isn’t he?” It’s the question we asked ourselves while adapting. The audience must always wonder. That is the thriller of this book, of this movie — the human thriller, I call it. It’s about that mutual suspicion that we have of each other. So we wanted to preserve that. But there was a whole third act that I added to this adaptation. It’s a monologue in the novel, and in the movie, we had to create [American journalist] Bobby Lincoln’s character [played by Liev Schreiber] from scratch, because he doesn’t say a word in the book, and the film’s events take place 10 years apart — the backstory and the modern-day story. So much has happened in those 10 years in life — as a reaction to 9/11, as a consequence to that reaction, all kinds of things. So we kept having to absolve that. Whether it’s the killing of Osama, or Raymond Davies shooting people in cold blood, or the Times Square bomber — all this stuff was around us, and was very much a part of what we were trying to say about how we perceive people, and how little we know of them. We constantly were dealing with that — the third act. What does Changez do when he goes back to Pakistan? What does he become? So each novel, of course, poses its own challenges, but you have to have a point of view that helps you decipher how to tell it. This one was the most ambitious and most demanding, because it took three years to adapt.

Filmmaker: Yeah, there’s a lot of talk about this being your most ambitious film — five cities, three continents. Logistically, was there something specific that was most daunting? And, moreover, with that scale, how do you maintain focus on the nuances of the story?

Nair: Well, we were wedded to the scale, to this global landscape, because at its heart, the film is, amongst other things, an examination of the war against fundamentalism. What Changez does as an economic fundamentalist is equally or more important than the fundamentalism of what becomes terror. So what he does as a Wall Street man, who goes to the Philippines and shuts down factories and goes to Istanbul and shuts down publishing houses and creates greater profit — we had to show that world. We had to show how we are interconnected. So really, whether a person is on Wall Street pressing a button on people he’ll fire, or whether it’s a drone that goes down on someone we’ll never see, it’s that same idea of, as his father tells him in the film, “With one stroke of your pen you fire people that you don’t know, but you’re feeling empathy because you’ve just fired this man in front of you.” So that was very important. And in achieving that, of course I worked with my brilliant producer, Lydia Pilcher, who’s been with me for the last 20-plus years. What we are good at doing is getting the biggest bang for our dollar by being superbly prepared, firstly, and then being at home in the world. So what we did with this film is we took our heads of department, like a band of seven to 10 people, and we went to all these cities, whether it be Atlanta or New York or Istanbul or Delhi or Lahore, and we worked with local crews in all those places. And some of those crews are with me, like in India they’ve been with my movies for 25 years, but most of them are not. Still, everyone climbed on board because they wanted to tell this story. Every one of us has been affected by different facets of this story. It was grueling because the money was so short, but I never wanted you to know that when seeing it. We never sacrificed the scope. We sacrificed our bank accounts! [Laughs] My subtitle is Poor but Free!

Filmmaker:  The film is impassioned, political, and potentially polarizing, but it’s also accessible. Did you ever wanted to push further with the incendiary nature of the story? Was there anything that you pulled back on in order to make the film more accessible?

Nair: No, no, no. This film is made with full creative freedom. No one is censoring this movie. That was imperative. I mean, look at the film — it can easily be watered down into a piece of tame fluff. And that’s not the point. The point is to re-complicate the world. The point is to refuse to make reductive characters. We are complicated people and the world is complicated, even more so than we are. And it was meant to be unflinching about that complicatedness, but to be made with as much love, and grace, and delicacy, and heart, and experience,  as I could bring to it.

Filmmaker: The most provocative scene is probably when Changez sees the 9/11 attacks on TV, and says he felt “awe” instead of sadness, and he remarks on the “audacity” and “brilliance” of the act. Could you briefly discuss the delicate nature of filming that scene — of keeping Changez likable but conveying that blunt, realistic point of view? 

Mira Nair: You see, it was a horrific act of huge proportions, 9/11. And there were many reactions to that all over the world. It was the most shocking part of the book — that Changez has a sense of awe. But I’d also seen that in reactions in different parts of the world. Because so many parts of the world paid the consequences of what happened after that. So it was a very important and tough scene to film, but I thought it was important to be unflinching about the fact that it is a complicated reaction, because he contextualizes it to Bobby, his American counterpart. He says, “Surely it could be something that you must feel when 100,000 are killed in Afghanistan, or Baghdad, or such cases.” So, as I said earlier, I’m so tired of being shown the good and the bad — the good guy and the bad guy — and the sort of schematic divisions. Like he says in the movie, “I am Pakistani, I am Muslim, I am these things, but I’m more than these things.” That’s the point from where I come. That we are more than these things. We are not just reduced into this or that. And in that not-reducing, in being as complicated as we are, we should own it. We should not shy from it, but contextualize it — hope that we learn something from that. But it was a very delicate moment. We walked that tightrope with, I think, grace.

Filmmaker: The film offers an analysis of the post-9/11 ugliness of American patriotism, which really hasn’t died down. Even now, God forbid you be a Chechnyan — or a Czech — living in America in the wake of Boston. As someone of Indian descent living in New York, can describe your own experience of weathering that shift? Surely you felt the effects.

Nair: Sure. I mean, this city of New York, which I regard as one of my homes, is a place I’ve never felt anything but at home in. And post-9/11, I remember feeling definitely observed, like The Other. And also cautioning — my father-in-law used to be taken out for walks around the neighborhood with my 10-year-old son at the time, and we were concerned whether it would be all right. Things like that. Besides the fact that, then, you kept seeing other manifestations of it, like, when my son turned 16, he was questioned at immigration with his parents next to him. And then when he’s 18, he’s taken away from us into a room where I can see him, but I’m not with him. And now he’s 21, and you just don’t know what’s going to happen. Even last week, I had such a nasty encounter at La Guardia airport, just because I beeped because of these bangles that don’t come off. And the routine, it wasn’t a strip search, but the most thorough search you could ever imagine with a blue glove. The woman, a security guard, shoved the blue gloves into a machine and it started beeping. And she yelled across the airport to her supervisor, who was on the other side, pointing at me spread-eagled in front of everyone and saying, “This woman is alarming!” She repeated it three times. And the guy ambles across and says, “I think it could be the gloves because they’re kind of sensitive, the new batch.” And she takes the gloves and puts them into another machine, and it’s the gloves. I just think profiling of groups of people…we really must learn from that. Look where it got us.

Filmmaker: You’ve branched out in your work to create some more Western-type movies, like Hysterical Blindness and Amelia, but, primarily, you’ve created a substantial filmography telling stories of your native region of the world. Do you feel like you’re giving a certain voice to that region, or that you’re leaving some sort of cultural legacy on film?

Nair: [Laughs] Oh, God, no! I’m just living my life and expressing myself. No, no. I’m not so important as to leave legacies or think of legacies. The idea is to think of today, not to think of the future. I live in the present. But I have always gotten courage from being distinctive. I cannot be like you, and I don’t want to. Instead of wanting to blend into things, I want to remain who I am. And remaining who I am is many things, because I live in many places and I am a creature of many experiences. So I always aspire, in my work, to capture the density of life. The layers of it. The fact that it’s never black and white. And I love that about living. And I hope that my films speak to that. I’m very happy with this film, and I hope the press will support me. It was made with such grueling effort. I don’t get to say this too often as a filmmaker, because so much can happen between your inspiration and your realization, but this is, at the end, exactly what I wanted to be.

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