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Tribeca: Mira Nair talks 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist'

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Reluctant Fundamentalist
Quantrell Colbert

The Reluctant Fundamentalist premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival, but it will be a very different screening experience when it has its U.S. premiere at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival on Monday night. Based on the 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid, director Mira Nair’s adaptation tells the story of Changez, a brilliant Princeton-educated Pakistani who prospers on Wall Street until the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, which force him to acknowledge the Otherness he begins to see reflected back at him in the eyes of scared and suspicious Americans. It’s an experience that Nair herself encountered in the frightening months after 9/11, when the rattled city that was her home began to look at her and her family very differently.

But Nair is glad to bring her film to New York, even with the tragic bombings in Boston resurrecting old fears and psychological scars from 2001. “Tribeca is such a perfect place because the festival came out of a sense of healing and wanting points of view from beyond our own borders,” says Nair. “My film speaks to that. It’s a beautiful place to be able to offer this film, which I really view as a bridge.”

In an exclusive scene — which includes a single profanity — Changez (Riz Ahmed) wins over a Wall Street recruiter (Kiefer Sutherland) with his ambition and ability to assimilate. “In America, I get an equal chance to win,” says the confident young man. “And whether you hire me or not, Jim, I am going to win.”

Click below for the clip, and then read a Q&A with Nair about her take on the relationship between American and the Islamic world.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: An Indian woman making a film about a Pakistani man? How did you decide this was a story you wanted to invest years of your life?

MIRA NAIR: My first inspiration came from actually being able to visit Lahore, Pakistan in 2004. As a kid in modern India, you don’t get to cross that border that easily or often, but we really are the same culture in a very deep sense, arbitrarily divided by history. My father came from there, and he raised us in India speaking Urdu, which is the more colloquial language of what is now Pakistan, and the music and the poems and the culture basically was ours. When I went there, it was entering into a sea of familiarity. And so different from what you read about Pakistan, especially when you’re in America. You think it’s a hot bed of assassinations and beheadings and violence and terror, but it’s a vibrant, ancient, and extremely modern culture, which I was not prepared for.

So first the inspiration came from being there and wanting to make a tale about this modernity that I saw in front of me, and then I read Mohsin’s novel a year later. It gave me a chance to both make this modern contemporary tale, but also in its bones was a dialog with America. Both countries I know intimately and love from within, but it’s the dialog, as you well know, that we never see. In America, we have so many movies and so much media about the Islamic world, the sub-continental world, but it’s not a conversation, it’s a monologue. It’s always from one point of view. If we don’t tell our own stories, no one will tell them, is my mantra. And it was a wonderful opportunity to do both and to humanize what we think of as the Other, this usually bearded, faceless, nameless radical.

In your movie, the Twin Towers fall and we see your protagonist express feelings of ambivalence about it. Are you expecting the screening in New York to have a different resonance?

I’m really allowing myself to get excited because I’ve been on this tour with this movie just now for about 10 days, in Boston and Los Angeles and different cities. It’s just an amazing reaction to the film: I feel like Americans are hungry for this, to know a more holistic sense of truth, to know what it’s like on both sides of the world. It’s a very engaged, kind of riveting screenings that we’ve been having. And New York is my hometown, and it’s also the town that was so deeply afflicted by cataclysmic events of 9/11, and so much of this is a response to that.

You mentioned that American movies and media treat our relationship with this part of the world as a monologue. So I couldn’t help but notice that you have Jack Bauer himself in the film. Was that intentional irony?

I don’t watch much television to be honest, but Kiefer was the second person to cast. I just love him as an actor. I love his voice. But he plays, in a way, the best of America. He’s ruthless, but he’s ruthless and goes for merit. He promotes a man who’s Pakistani and bearded and Muslim right post-9/11; he doesn’t care because this guy has got what it takes. And I love that about this country that we do that.

Is there any sad sense of deja vu for you right now, promoting a movie while America is jolted by terrorism? Back in 2001, you were in the middle of promoting Monsoon Wedding when the attacks occurred.

That’s right. It took me one week to get back [home to New York.]

With the Boston bombings, it brings some of those old scars to the surface of a lot of people’s psyche again. Do you remember how it felt for you back in 2001 and 2002 and how did that experience point you in the direction of what became this movie and how you related to the story?

You know, the sad thing of post-9/11, which was of course horrific, was that the city in which I felt completely at home for two decades, suddenly people like us — brown people — were looked at as the Others. Definitely. I remember my son, who was 10 or 11 at the time, would take my father-in-law walking just around our neighborhood on the Upper West Side and there was a sense of danger for those two during those months because people would really observe and look and wonder. Fortunately, that receded as the months went on. But you remember the extreme hysteria that Bush caused when he said, “The Axis of Evil is upon us,” and “You’re either with us or against us,” and bad guys versus good guys in the public consciousness. I think we’re paying the price of that kind of schematic thinking. For 10 years, there’s been nothing but destruction actually. Maybe a little few glimmers of some sort of light. But really, the price that human beings have paid all over the world is very high. And I feel sad. Boston is tragic. It’s a big part of my growing up; I went to school there. And I was just there a few days ago. But for me, it’s a reminder of global suffering, frankly. It’s a reminder of what’s going on everywhere, everyday in another part of the world. And it’s humbling for all of us to be victims of this. We have to realize only in communication, in real knowledge, in real reaching out, can there be an understanding that there’s humanity everywhere, and that’s what I’m trying to do. That’s why I hope that even our film, though it deals in the same zone of mutual suspicion, will shed some light and understanding.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which also stars Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, and Shabana Azmi, opens in theaters April 26.

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