The Reluctant Fundamentalist: How a Nice Islamic Guy Got Mixed Up in Terrorism

In Mira Nair's thoughtful melodrama, an immigrant to the U.S. feels the lure of jihadism

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IFC Films

A teenager comes from a Muslim country to live in the Northeastern U.S. He goes to school here, enjoys a measure of success and moves in with his American girlfriend. But he feels the lure of radical Islam in the post-9/11 U.S. and embraces a kind of jihadism. When an act of terror erupts, he quickly becomes the government’s prime suspect.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is not an instant docudrama about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder and deceased suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. Mira Nair’s movie, an adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel, had its world premiere eight months ago at the Venice Film Festival. The picture also is less specifically connected to recent events, and carries a much less incendiary kick, than does Four Lions, Christopher Morris’s 2010 pitch-black comedy about a quartet of addled Pakistani-English jihadists plotting to set off bombs during the London Marathon. Still, Nair’s tense, thoughtful film has a piquant pertinence to current anxieties in Boston and beyond — for it dramatizes the tug-of-wills in the mind of a young Muslim between American values and the fundamentalist imperative.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Four Lions)

Set in Pakistan and New York City, William Wheeler’s screenplay traces the turbulent evolution of Changez (Riz Ahmed), the son of a Punjab poet (Om Puri), from Princeton grad and go-getter in a Bain-like company (run by Kiefer Sutherland) to a radical teacher and possible terror advocate back in Lahore. An American professor has been kidnapped, and a journalist (Liev Schreiber) urgently wants to know what Changez knows. The viewer gets the reluctant fundamentalist’s life story in flashbacks, as the figurative time bomb attached to the kidnap victim tick-tick-ticks.

On his arrival at Princeton, Changez (the Pakistani transliteration of Genghis, as in Khan) sees America as the true Promised Land. “God bless America,” he apostrophizes. “God bless its level playing fields. God bless winning.” His rapid rise through in a Wall Street firm stokes his ambitions for a political career back home: “In 25 years I’m going to be the dictator of an Islamic republic with nuclear capability.” The souring of his love for America comes less from the conniving intricacies of capitalism than from his affair with the boss’s niece, Erica (Kate Hudson), an aspiring artist who expresses her devotion to him by exposing some of his vulnerabilities in her photo art. That, we are led to infer, is why Changez changes into a true believer who urges his followers to “wipe the blood of invaders from our sword.”

(READ: Alex Perry’s profile of Mira Nair)

The Erica affair is the least engaging element in a movie whose probing, disturbing questions are meant to test America’s conscience. Can one admire the strategic genius of the 9/11 attack while deploring the deaths it created? Does a free society have the right to strip-search any model citizen who happens to be Pakistani, and to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians in a country that harbored al Qaeda? Is terrorism just America’s word for an insurgency of the kind that gave birth to the United States?

Like her protagonist, Nair is an amalgam of two clashing cultures. India-born and Harvard-educated, she has directed films set in her homeland (Salaam Bombay!, Kama Sutra, Monsoon Wedding), in the U.S. (The Perez Family, Hysterical Blindness, Amelia) and in Britain (Vanity Fair). Twice before, Nair investigated the displacement felt by émigrés from the subcontinent when they come to America. The 1991 Mississippi Masala posed a Romeo-and-Juliet romance between a new arrival (Anglo-Indian actress Sarita Choudhury) and a local tradesman (the young Denzel Washington). The Namesake, in 2006, portrayed two generations of an Indian family that has settled in New York City.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of The Namesake)

Nair sleekly manages the story’s thriller aspects, especially the kidnapping. But this is a character study, and she has found some superb actors to fill it. The reunion of Puri and Shabana Azmi, two great lights of Indian cinema, as Changez’s parents would be sufficient reason for celebration. Sutherland and Schreiber give full force to America’s role in economic and political imperialism. And Turkish theater legend Haluk Bilginer steals his scene as a publisher of poetry (including works by Changez’s father) whose house is about to be shuttered by a company that the young man’s conglomerate has acquired.

This, though, is Ahmed’s show. 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”), he first attracted filmgoers’ attention in 2006 as one of the detainees in Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo. He also starred as the leader of the slapstick jihadis in Four Lions. Handsome, seductive and pensive, straddling the First and Third Worlds, Ahmed keeps viewers guessing as to what makes Changez run. The 30-year-old gets a starmaking role in a movie imposing in its breadth and depth. For American viewers right now, the contradictions that wage war within this reluctant fundamentalist are haunting and, quite possibly, terrifying.