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'Reluctant Fundamentalist' Explores Cultural Misconceptions

  • Penelope Poulou

Indian-born filmmaker Mira Nair has made acclaimed films on multiculturalism: mixed marriages amid racial intolerance and U.S. immigrants grappling with ethnic identity.

Her most recent film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, deals with the mistrust and alienation of a young Pakistani immigrant in the post 9/11 world. Her film, based on Mohsim Hamid’s 2007 novel by the same name, was released days after the Boston Marathon bombings.

Changez, a son of an intellectual Pakistani family and a brilliant financial advisor, has everything going for him: a great job on Wall Street, a beautiful American girlfriend, connections. After 9/11, everything changes. He is heckled at the airport and profiled as a potential terrorist.

Nair says people like Changez were forced to take sides.

“They were encouraged to because Bush said, ‘Either you are with us or you’re against us.’ He set up this so-called Axis of Evil," she said. "He taught people to look at ‘us' and 'them.’ And I don’t think that that reaction has led to greater understanding or peace."

In the film, Changez loses his girlfriend, gives up his lucrative job and returns to his country to teach economics at the University of Lahore. His theories criticizing rampant capitalism and the American dream attract a following, and he becomes a prime suspect in the kidnapping of an American professor.

An American CIA operative posing as a journalist is convinced Changez is responsible for the kidnapping because he fits the profile of a disaffected emigrant. The conversation between the two characters describes two worlds mired in mutual suspicion.

“Because so often both sides and any side in our life is presented as reductionist, as good or bad, or black or white," Nair said. "But there is a whole level of gray and gray is also beautiful in its own way.”

The film reveals that Changez, although radical, is not a terrorist and thus counters stereotypes.

Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Institute for Justice says such stereotypes can jeopardize the fight against terrorism.

“Like growing a beard, wearing traditional Islamic dress, giving up gambling and cigarettes and drinking," Goitein said. "The focus needs to shift from trying to identify these personal attributes of a would be terrorist. It needs to shift from that to focusing on actual criminal activity or activity that has indicators of potential criminality.”

Nair hopes her film will help shatter some of the misconceptions and promote dialogue in a growing multicultural world.

“Yes, I‘m Pakistani," the character of Changez says in the film. "Yes, I’m Muslim. But that’s not all I am.”