Mira Nair has travelled far and wide since her breakthrough, Salaam Bombay!, in 1988. She looked at Indian-American displacement in Mississippi Masala and The Namesake, but the Indian-born Harvard alumna also went Latina with The Perez Family, handled the Brit-lit Vanity Fair, and—what the hell—turned down a Harry Potter movie.
To make The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which opens here Friday (May 17), she travelled widely and re-created turn-of-the-century Manhattan for the remarkably timely effort. Riz Ahmed plays Changez, an ambitious young Pakistani tossed by political currents after 2001 and later deemed a possible terrorist by an American journalist played by Liev Schreiber.
“What happened in Boston is a horrible reminder of what goes on in other parts of the world every day,” Nair says on the line from a Toronto stop. Her new film, based on Mohsin Hamid’s best-selling novel, doesn’t address acts of violence so much as it does the relentless reductionism that drives fundamentalists—whether of religious or financial stripes—to act on the desire to simplify what, by nature, must be complex.
“It’s really part of the industry of terror,” Nair declares. “Religion is just a false front. Unfortunately, people look for simple answers. What we try to do in this movie is to recomplicate things, to refuse that impulse to make things black and white.”
The film also boasts a large cast, including Kiefer Sutherland, Om Puri, and Kate Hudson. But the convoluted story rests squarely on Ahmed, a popular London DJ who also had key roles in Four Lions and The Road to Guantanamo. How did Nair know he would have big enough shoulders for the job?
“I knew the moment I was in a room with him,” the veteran director recalls without hesitation. “But it took me a year-and-a-half to get Riz in that room. I first started casting in Lahore, then in Karachi [both in Pakistan], and then went to Bombay and Delhi. Riz had sent me audition tapes from England—kind of dorky ones, to be honest, and they just did not register on my radar. Then, after travelling around the world, I was in London, still wondering where I would find this person who could speak Urdu and English, rattle off poems and bad language, have that patina of the Ivy League and Wall Street, who would have no problem bedding a lovely American girl.
“I have a very high bullshit barometer, so I told my casting director we would have to place intelligence first and maybe settle for that. Then Riz walked in and I gave him a scene with his father,” she says of the patriarchal poet played by Puri, “and he just got it. He understood these driving principles of shame and honour, and he had the role right then and there.”
The movie, she says, was also a way to reconcile the Indian and Pakistani sides of her own family history.
“My father was educated in Lahore, before the partition of India. When I went there in 2004, I was dazzled by the ocean of familiarity—in terms of music, culture, and food—but even more by the largeness of spirit of the people there. We are hardly ever given anything but bad news about Pakistan, and I want people to know that it has much more than one face.”