A deadly dialogue

Up in arms:Riz Ahmed in  The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Up in arms:Riz Ahmed in The Reluctant Fundamentalist

 Those of us who haven’t read the book can see how its plot was changed in its adaptation to the cinema. 

I googled it because I wondered whether the problems that make Mira Nair’s movie a rather dreary and confusing watch are native to the novel or not. I thought perhaps the awkward framing device had been imposed on the story, as it was in the most recent version of The Great Gatsby, to no effect other than the viewer’s annoyance. 

But, no, the framing story of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is in the book. The whole thing is the life story of the titular character, Changez, as related by him to an American interlocutor. 

So far so Interview with the Vampire, but does it work as a movie Or is there too much voice-over, as in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and the growing feeling as one watches the film that this is not a narrative transmitted in visual terms, as a movie should be, but a kind of verbal broadcast with illustrative material. The need for so much voice-over, too, shows that the elements of the narrative are too far-flung to be unified.

The film’s opening sequence cuts between separate but parallel events, setting up the elements of the story in a thrillerish way –Changez and his family; a kidnapping on the streets of Lahore; a lurking presence … From there, we head for a face-to-face confrontation between Changez and an American journalist who suspects him of involvement in the kidnapping, or at least of being deeply implicated in radical Islamic politics.

Opposite each other, surrounded by scary-looking Pakistanis in a greasy cafeteria somewhere in Lahore, the possible fundamentalist and the probing American face off: eventually the former decides to tell the latter his story.
It’s as though a naive American had confronted an Islamic militant and asked: “Why do you hate us so?” Luckily, this American has encountered an English-speaking militant who is kind enough to consider the question seriously. And thus one man, at least, gets to tell the American why. 

At that point, however, the movie changes gears and slows right down. Or that’s how it feels, because we’ve started in thriller mode, which creates an expectation of swift forward movement, but now we’re backtracking –a long way. It’s not just a matter of “Two days earlier”, as some thrillers have it after the set-up, but “A decade or two ago …” 

The present tense, in the film, is a thriller, but the past tense– the body of it, given in flashback – is a somewhat laborious drama. Then, just as we get to the end, the thriller reasserts itself, imposing on the story a closure that (says Wikipedia) the novel deliberately does not provide. 

It also makes important plot revelations that are rather hard to process in any meaningful way because they are so far removed, in movie time, from the original set-up (which was misleading anyway). At any rate, a thrillerish start and some thrillerish moments popped in before the forcibly thillerish ending are not, it turns out, sufficient to make the movie thrilling.

It’s not that one cannot sympathise with what Changez, played by Riz Ahmed, goes through as he leaves the bosom of his family in Lahore and heads for the United States, where he gets sucked into what Occupy types would call the neoliberal project. He works in a glassy high-rise in New York, travels to Latin America or Turkey on the business of takeover, sell-off and the rest. He’s pretty much one of the high-flying darlings of haute capitalism – until 9/11. 

This tale is pretty predictable, once it gets going. That might not have been a problem had the acting all been very fine, but it’s not. I just about bought Ahmed in the central role (he’s a strong cinematic presence, but lacks depth), and I thought Kiefer Sutherland as a Wall Street trader quite brilliant: I have no idea how he did it, but whenever he was on screen the whole scene came to life. I didn’t find Kate Hudson, as Changez’s American girlfriend, remotely convincing, let alone appealing, and Liev Schreiber, as the American journalist who quizzes Changez, barely seemed to be there at all as a character.

The Schreiber character is presumably the American point of view (the''typical'' American moviegoer), the persona to whom the reluctant fundamentalist has to explain himself. Yet –and perhaps this says something about the movie as a whole– when Schreiber and Ahmed face each other in that greasy cafeteria they might as well both be acting to green screen. For a movie exploring a dialogue between opposed forces, they don’t seem to connect in any way. Ahmed is all open-faced, glowing youth and strength, possibly moral strength too, and Schreiber is all dirty clothes and methodish internalisation, grumbling and muttering his way through the role. 

How can they communicate? They’re not even in the same movie.


Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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