A young Muslim man, once a lover of America and now estranged. An act of terror that reverberates halfway across the world. And a cat-and-mouse hunt, with the American authorities hoping to find the bad guys before it's too late. Throw in a deeply moving love story and lush scenes of Lahore, and you'll have the building blocks of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the latest film from director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala). Based on the novel of the same name by Mohsin Hamid, it's the coming-of-age tale of Changez (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani boy from a once-prominent family whose meteoric rise through the ranks of Princeton and Wall Street is abruptly altered by the tragic events of 9/11. The film—which toggles back and forth between Changez's backstory, including an affair with the wealthy, haunted Erica (Kate Hudson), and a present-day hostage crisis involving a kidnapped professor and a CIA manhunt—tackles the powerful themes of home and exile, of the global “war on terror,” and of the questions a young man must ask of himself and his conscience. The Daily Beast caught up with Nair and her film's stars to talk about the movie—which is out this Friday in the U.S.—and why Changez's tale is more relevant than ever today. Excerpts:
As Changez, Riz Ahmed transforms before the audience's eyes from a hopeful, happy undergrad to a hard and calculating leader. He and Kate Hudson talk about their characters' doomed relationship and the ripple effect of 9/11.
The Daily Beast: So how’s your experience been so far promoting the film?
Riz Ahmed: There’s a lot to talk about. There’s almost like an embarrassment of riches. It’s not like, “Oh, what do we say?” It’s like, we’ve got four minutes to talk about love, and coming of age, and family, and nostalgia, and like the Pakistan-American relationship, and the global financial crisis…
Can I ask you guys a question I’ve been dying to know: Do you think Changez would have gone back to Pakistan if Erica hadn’t broken up with him?
RA (to Kate Hudson): What do you think? I don’t really see it as she broke up with him. I see it as like…
KH: It imploded on itself.
RA: It kind of collapsed in on itself. And that’s because I think it wasn’t on solid ground. They’re both in a place—I think so much about love and relationships is about timing…
KH: And inner conflict. Struggle.
RA: I don’t think either of them were in a place where they are on solid ground to commit to someone else. I kind of feel like getting to know who you are and being happy with yourself is a lifelong journey, but you’ve got to be relatively solid in you before you can be solid with someone else. And I think both of their senses of self is really shifting, and so the timing was never going to work out.
KH: Shifting, or in Erica’s case, stagnant. Unable to sort of get over the tragedy of what she’s dealing with or has been dealing with. So I think the answer is no. He would’ve gone back.
There’s a scene, which was so powerful, where Changez is watching the Towers collapse while on a business trip. What are your memories of that day?
KH: I was living in New York at the time. I wasn’t home, I wasn’t here—I was travelling, and I was supposed to come home on the 12th, and obviously couldn’t. But I remember thinking to myself—I remember walking outside and hearing nothing; there were no planes in the sky … it was almost like a global prayer, like people in silent prayer. There was something very heavy about it for me, and I think for everybody, which is that you knew at that moment that we were experiencing a defining moment in history … everybody felt connected in a sense that this was a game-changer in so many aspects.
RA: But it’s not even just the direct impact of the event itself on people; it’s the way that we peg the story of our lives around certain kinds of tent-posts. It’s that thing of like, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” or whatever. Whether or not it actually had a direct impact in your life there and then, I mean it did on everyone psychologically, but it’s become a marker, hasn’t it? And for Changez, I think it’s interesting that, whether 9/11 happened or not, I wonder whether he would’ve stayed in the U.S.
That’s a great question. What do you think?
RA: I don’t think he would have. And that’s because for him, too much of the drive towards going to America and working in finance was dealing with certainties rather than embracing the messiness of poetry and the kind of chaotic nature of Lahore. Too much of that is die-hard rebellion. And I think he’s actually setting himself up for a classic prodigal return, you know. And in a weird way, his rebellion is to go and get a great job on Wall Street, because he comes from kind of the opposite of that. So I feel like, here’s a prodigal story, and 9/11 is a catalyst that accelerates that. But isn’t it interesting how we kind of attach weight to events and how we allow them to push our lives in one direction or another?
What has been your experience of audiences’ reactions to the film? What do people want to talk about?
RA: All kind of different things. It’s kind of amazing.
KH: I think the thing that seems to be what most people want to talk about … is the word ‘fundamentalist’. I think that seems to be the thing that Mira and, actually, the novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, brings up—the idea of when you strip everything down to black and white, that you lose sight of…
RA: What do you lose? You gain certainty, but at what cost?
KH: At the cost of humanity, empathy, authenticity. Human authenticity.
RA: At a screening in L.A. last week, a 60-something old white lady from the South got up and said that “[Changez’s] story is my story.” Because, she said, I always felt like an outsider. And I think she was talking about the class thing, coming from the South and going to live in Hollywood. I think the film resonates with a lot of people because it engages in two of the most dominant narratives of our time, which are the war on terror and also the global financial crisis …The reason it really resonates with people is because it’s about someone trying to live authentically in an increasingly messy world. We can all relate to that. We’re all multi-hyphenate in one way or another. We’re all hybrids; we live really eclectic, iPod-shuffle-type lives, so that resonates with everyone. They’re like, “I’m contradictory, too” ... The reason I think this is a timely film and one that will kind of stand the test of time is because it’s about that very modern condition of how do you embrace your complexity without, like, being confused as s--t.
Kiefer Sutherland plays Jim Cross, Changez's hard-driving boss on Wall Street who embodies a mode of life that dazzles the young man from Lahore—and then repels him.
The Daily Beast: There’s an intense scene where your character makes eye contact with Changez as he’s leaving the office, after he has quit. What were you thinking in that moment?
Kiefer Sutherland: There’s a very funny thing that actually pops into my mind… When I was about 15 years old, I had a Japanese friend … and someone had done something to me that I hadn’t liked, and I was wrestling with how to deal with that. And he had said, “In my culture, if a friend of yours does you wrong, you bury a stone. If they do you wrong again, or cannot confront that, you bury a second stone. If they do you wrong after that, you bury the third stone and they no longer exist. And that’s what I was thinking of—he didn’t exist anymore. I have not been able to practice that myself, because I don’t like the finality of that, but it was perfect for the character, and that’s what I was thinking of … Almost like a mercenary. It is that efficient, like you don’t exist.
Do you think Changez still respected his boss when he left, or do you think that he felt regret?
KS: I don’t think that he felt regret at all. He made the same decision in the hotel when he decided to protect the publisher. I don’t think he felt any regret at all, for his decision. I think he felt very sad that his life had gone the way it had—by all of the other circumstances, to be put in that place, because in fact he had done nothing wrong.
Were you in New York for 9/11?
KS: I was not. I was in California, I was on my way. It was about 5 in the morning, 5:45. I was on the way to go do 24, and yeah, I’ll never forget that morning.
What was your memory?
KS: A friend of mine who has since passed … phoned me up and said, “I don’t know if you’re going to go to work today. Turn on the news.” I turned on the news. The first tower had been hit. The second tower had not. I watched the second tower get hit. And I remember watching this couple, and in my head, they didn’t know each other. But they grabbed each other’s hands, and they jumped out of the building.Their choice was that or burn to death. And I phoned my ex-wife, told her that I loved her, and in a very weird way, my family got very close that day. I still think about it all the time, we talk about it every once in awhile. But I would be hard-pressed to say that there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about that because there’s so much crap we take for granted.
And having said all of that, the reason that I wanted to make the movie was that I hadn’t thought about 9/11 from this perspective. We spent all our time, and rightfully so—I’m not diminishing that by any stretch—but we focus on the victims in the Towers and the victims in the planes and their families and their friends and the loss of that. But there was a ripple effect, and the ripple effect is caused by racism and prejudice and ignorance and fear and a lot of other people's lives were hugely affected for all those reasons. And I hadn’t thought about it from that point of view. I was embarrassed when I read the script that I hadn’t thought about it—significantly—from that point of view. So I really wanted to be a part of this film.
Have you ever been to Pakistan?
KS: I have not.
Do you want to go now that you've made the film?
KS: Pakistan’s a hard place to go to right now. I don’t know how Jack Bauer would do there right now ... But by the same token—I grew up in Crescent Town, in Toronto which is 98 percent Pakistani. First thing I learned to cook was a curry. So I grew up in the middle of a Pakistani neighborhood. [So] yeah, I would love to go to Pakistan [some day]. Even when we were in India, when we were in New Delhi, I was a stone’s throw away from Lahore, and I would have loved to have gone.
One of the things that really struck me about the film—specifically in the scenes that were set in Lahore—was that it showed these two sides [as embodied by Liev Schreiber and Changez] so drastically misunderstanding each other.
KS: I don’t think the two sides were misunderstanding each other, I think one was manipulating the other, because he knew where he stood, and the other, Liev Schreiber’s character, was misunderstanding everything based on protocol—the protocol was wrong. This was the problem. I mean, our reaction to 9/11 was to suspend our civil liberties … we suspended due process; we suspended everything. And I think if this tells us anything, that is not the reaction to have…when the shit hits the fan, it’s not the time to f--king get rid of all your rules. That’s the time to really enforce them. And I had the same reaction—I was angry after 9/11. But …our fear and our ignorance cannot dictate what we do. That’s the moment to take a real serious breath, step back, and assess what’s happened, and why.
What do you think of the reaction to the events in Boston? The timing of the film is rather uncanny.
KS: I think unfortunately the reactions were the same. And I hold the media sort of responsible. If you took a look at the covers from the first day to the fourth day, what they were saying was 180 degrees. You could feel a swell of hate for Chechnya … We have to stop with the hate reaction out of the gate ... And this is the thing we need to address. And hopefully, as the script had an impact on me, hopefully the film will have an impact on others—and even if it has an impact on one person, I’ll be grateful for that.
For their latest collaboration, diirector Mira Nair and cinematographer Declan Quinn brought the pulsating marketplaces and mansions of Lahore and the gritty, glittering landscapes of downtown New York, to life in sumptuous detail. Nair talks about drawing inspiration from her ancestral homeland and about the film's central metaphor.
The Daily Beast: The look for the film was amazing.
Mira Nair: The bolt of inspiration that inspired the movie was my first invitation to Lahore, which was way before I read the book. And I was just dazzled by what I met in Lahore—not only this immense largesse of spirit and hospitality and warmth, but great artistic expression, from music to fashion to painting to the beauty of the place. It’s certainly nothing like the Pakistan one reads about in newspapers, and it also had a deeper reaction from me, because my father came from Lahore—before the partition. So, you know, this poetry, this music, this was my culture—this language, you know. This was how I had been raised, and yet not seen it. So that was very powerful.
Those singers at the beginning of the film were so fantastic.
MN: They are like legendary. I’ve seen them every year at BAM. I cross oceans to see them, and they crossed a border to be in my film. They literally walked across from Pakistan to be in time for that shoot. Declan Quinn, the cinematographer and I have made maybe six or seven films together—and a lot in the sub-continent. He’s a real poet of light. And Lahore is a sister city to Delhi—so a lot of the architecture, a lot of the communities, a lot of the art deco bungalows—in Lahori and in Delhi, they’re the same. So you just have to find the pockets of it, and to honor it. But we also filmed in Lahore for the real streets. I mean, all of it, music, we made many songs with the poems of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who is a poet I adore … [but] the heartbeat of this film is equally American, and I went to the guy who did Donnie Darko, Mike Andrews, whose score I loved from that cult classic, and I asked him on the phone, I’d never met him, I was editing in Delhi, and I called him up and asked him, “How far east have you travelled?” And he laughed, and said, “San Diego.” And we just laughed, and I said, “Get on a plane now,” and he came and he was just blown away. He’d never been to this part of the world. It was a wonderful collaboration. Because I wanted it to be American. It has to go from Qawwali to rap to techno to back. Music does it better than any other dimension, so it was a great joy to be able to play with that.
Do you think Changez would’ve gone back to Pakistan if they hadn’t broken up?
That’s what Riz said also.
MN: Because, by then, he’s too aware of how the world sees him, and he actually feels more betrayed by that seeing than even by his—his girlfriend is the last straw. But … he questions his place in this world in which he probably will never belong. Also, he questions the place of what he does in that world—of the fundamentalism of money… with one stroke of his pen, he creates massive unemployment in the Philippines or faraway places, places he will never see. And he asks himself whether he should subscribe to that system in which the human being is at the bottom of the pile.
That scene in Istanbul was so beautiful and sad, with the publisher who is seeing his life’s work being destroyed by Changez and his boss.
MN: What an actor. Wow. I mean, I know that was also the cornerstone of why the film was made is the whole discussion of the Janissary. Think about where you are. Think about who you’re serving. Think about what is the truth that’s handed to you as truth, you know? And then, make your mind; make your journey, but don’t forget that.
And it took into account the idea of exile, and what it is to be in exile, cut off from your roots. And that’s a very old theme, but this was a very fresh take. Did you feel, as someone who lives abroad, that you could connect with Changez’s longing for home and the ritual of home?
MN: You know, I have lived in two and now three worlds since I was 19 years old…I mean I’ve lived in New York for many, many years of my life. But it’s very interesting, it really expands your world view—automatically. And it’s very important to both understand that in an expansive way but also to know that we are simply specks in a larger world; we are not the center.