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'Fundamentalist' talks terrorism, personal conflict

LAPACAZO SANDOVAL Special to the AmNews | 4/25/2013, 4:54 p.m.
'Fundamentalist' talks terrorism, personal conflict

Mira Nair's new film, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," an adaptation of the best-selling, acclaimed novel by Mohsin Hamed, is going to generate controversy. Passionate opinions will be stirred and shared.

Some of that dialogue will be around the explosive and tender subject of terrorism, the strained relationship with Pakistan and the dangerous stereotypes surrounding the Muslim community. The perceived "enemy" that is your next-door neighbor who prays five-times a day has, for some, turned this act of devotion into a suspicious act.

Other tongues will be wagging over the tremendous performance of British actor-rapper Riz Ahmed ("Four Lions"). He plays Changez Khan, a brilliant Pakistani student from a modest background. His childhood in Lahore is complicated. Indeed, he is surrounded by wealth, but as the son of a poet (played by international star Om Puri), he lives with his nose pressed against the glass watching the "haves."

Earning a spot at Princeton, he graduates into a coveted position as a financial analyst with a prestigious Wall Street firm. Changez's ability to assess the "fundamentals" of global companies, helping them squeeze more value despite cutting the jobs and livelihood of hundreds, makes him a rising prodigy in an environment filled with exceptional talent.

Changez is the picture of American success. He gets the wealthy girl, Erica (Kate Hudson), and sincerely falls in love. He forgets his Islamic roots and re-plants his present and future deep Then 9/11 happens. That brutal act changes everything and everyone, including Changez. He falls out of love with America after experiencing the other side of his adopted company, the "unwelcome mat." Exhausted and morally conflicted, he returns to Pakistan, forfeiting his job on Wall Street and opting for a new career as an academic at a university in his hometown.

It's at this point in the story we find the film turning skillfully into a thriller. An American professor is kidnapped and an Islamic fundamentalist group demands a ransom and the release of prisoners in exchange for his freedom. As a colleague, Changez is strongly suspected of involvement with the group. Are they correct or is he being unfairly judged and harassed? Fearing for his own life and those of his family and students, he agrees to sit down with an American journalist (Liev Schreiber) to clear the air, but on the condition that he can tell his whole story without interruption.

Shot with stunning, loving details, the film re-traces Changez's journey. The clock ticks away as the life of the professor and others hang in the balance. The grey areas shift as the definition of good and evil change like a grain of sand blown in a hurricane.

Who is lying? How much does either man care about their political views? What is the real game on the table? What are the fundamentals at play in the tiny, coffee shop in Lahore, Pakistan?

As a director, Nair respects her audience, sharing layers inside layers in every frame. Shot in the culturally rich worlds of New York, Lahore and Istanbul, the stunning imagery lingers long after the film has ended. Subtle choices--like when Changez smiles for a fleeting moment while watching the 9/11 attacks, marveling at the sheer audacity of the move--display the two sides of an ongoing story.

Never mind that the U.S. has killed more people on the "hunt" for terrorists than the number of people tragically perished in the 9/11 attacks. Never mind that the fundamental freedoms of millions of people have been and continue to be compromised. Never mind we share this big, big sky with an entire world. Never mind.

In smaller roles, the cast turns in satisfying performances, including "True Blood" star Nelsan Ellis as Changez's best friend, Om Puri as his father and Haluk Bilginer as a Turkish publisher.

The film is on safe ground with Ahmed as the lead. A Brit of Pakistani heritage, an Oxford scholar and rap artist--his "Post 9/11 Blues" was banned by the BBC for being "politically sensitive"--Ahmed's performance is smooth, confident and charismatic. His performance propels the story to a satisfying, climatic end.

This film, like the celebrated novel, doesn't tell you what to think. It does, however, strongly and wisely suggest that you do just that--think.

The film, opening Friday, April 26, at IFC Center and Lincoln Center, will have a wider release on May 3.