Interview: Mira Nair (The Reluctant Fundamentalist)

Mira Nair

By Simon Miraudo
May 31, 2013

Mira Nair is one of the world’s most acclaimed directors; her features helping to illuminate life in the Indian subcontinent like no one before her (save perhaps the iconic Satyajit Ray).  Her debut feature, Salaam Bombay, earned the Golden Camera prize at Cannes in 1988 and also scored a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. In 2001, her Monsoon Wedding became the highest grossing Indian film in the United States. Nair’s English-language diversions, however, have not been embraced nearly as enthusiastically; Vanity Fair, starring Reese Witherspoon, and Amelia, featuring Hilary Swank, were both high profile box office failures. She returns to somewhat familiar territory with The Reluctant Fundamentalist; an adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s book of the same name.

Check out Simon Miraudo’s review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist here.

Though the setting might feel somewhat at home for her, the genre is indeed new ground. It’s a politically charged thriller in which a Pakistani expat named Changez (played by Riz Ahmed) finds financial success on Wall Street. But when the Twin Towers fall in 2001, he finds himself sticking out in New York like a sore thumb, and spooked by the Government to return to Lahore, where he’s investigated further for supposed terrorist activity. I spoke to Mira about adapting the book for the screen, whether her filmmaking intentions have changed over the decade, and how she gauges success with a film.

Listen to Mira on the latest episode of Talk Hard here.

Mira Nair

SM: Can you tell me how you first came across the original novel, and what drew you to make a movie of it?

MN: Well, actually the first bolt of inspiration to make this film came not from the novel, but two years before I read the novel, when I was invited to go to Pakistan for the first time in 2004. My father was raised in Lahore, before the partitioning of India and Pakistan. He had raised us in modern India, speaking Urdu, knowing the poems of Faiz Ahmad Faiz – which is the Pakistani poet who I used many poems of in the movie – and knowing the music of the culture. As a kid in modern India, it’s very hard to cross that border. When I went there, it was a deeply moving experience, because it was very familiar and yet unseen. I wanted to immediately make a film about contemporary Pakistan because it was so different from what your read about in the newspaper. Or what you don’t read about, really, in the papers. So, that was the first inspiration. The book was given to me  – by a friend – in manuscript in early 2007. I immediately felt that this was a springboard I could use to make not just this portrait of contemporary Pakistan, but a dialogue with America. Like Mohsin Hamid, the novelist, being someone who had lived half of my life in New York and half of my life in the subcontinent, I really had an understanding and love for both places, but there was an increasing lament in the last decade – since 9/11 essentially – where Bush and his doctrine of “us and them” and “you’re either with us or against us,” “you’re the good guys or the bad guys,” had created a serious war of no understanding between the Islamic world, or the subcontinental world I would say, and the American world. For years now, we’ve seen only films and media from the American point of view, which is essentially a monologue, and not a dialogue with the rest of the world. I wanted very much to make a film that was enriched; that reached out to the other side and your hand was open, instead of having it drawn inwards. That was my thinking. What I loved about the possibility of the story was that it was essentially a coming of age story. Essentially, you’re taking these hot-blooded political theories that are about in the world, and filling it with a return to complexity of character. A young man who dreamed of America from Lahore, and who, once there, achieved most of the dream, and then begins to feel a series of slights and betrayals, where he is reminded that he will never belong; that he will be the other, always. A coming-of-age story we’ve not really had from the subcontinent. But a coming-of-age story set in a global, complicated, interconnected world was unusual. It needed to be made, because that is the journey many of us are on, at the moment.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

SM: Absolutely. Mohsin Hamid’s book is basically a long monologue from the perspective of Changez. You obviously had to fill in the gaps when bringing it to the screen. Your film also has a more optimistic ending than the original book’s; or, at least, not as ambiguous an ending. Can you tell me a little bit about developing the screenplay and making it work as a movie?

MN: It was the most challenging book to adapt, for obvious reasons. Mohsin, by the way, was a big part of it. He’s always been with us, from the beginning to the end. First was the character of Bobby [Changez’s interviewer, played by Liev Schreiber]; inventing the character of Bobby. What I wanted to do was create a foil for Changez; to make a character that was in some essential ways like Changez. An outsider trying to belong; committed to a subcontinent with the best of intentions. The whole question that I’ve always been fascinated with in my own work, is can a settler become a native? Can someone like that come into a world that is old and ancient, or not even, and be at home in a deep way? That propels me to create what you see. I knew very well that the sideshow of the film was about the layers of mutual suspicion they both have for each other, and how this sideshow – what we used to call it while writing – of, “Is he or isn’t he?” That was the question. “Is he a terrorist, or is he not?” “Is he a CIA man, or is he not?” Both of them are playing this cat and mouse game, and nothing is as it may seem. That was the theme, the spine, that we kept.

There were other changes; for instance, in the book, Changez feels betrayed by America and simply returns. We don’t really know what he does in Pakistan. For me, the film is really about this decade, and these years between 9/11 and Osama’s death. So much happened. From Osama’s death, to Raymond Davis shooting people in cold blood in Lahore, to the Times Square bomber. Take anything, any day. Every day. I very much wanted to make a timely tale; to make something that reflected the rollercoaster of the world. For me, it’s not a 9/11 film. It’s about the world afterwards. And it’s really about this man, coming of age; this awakening he has. At the same time I didn’t want it to appear like a dated movie, so we kept actually lightening the movie, and trying to hold a mirror to what was happening. That created the third act in the movie; where he returns and becomes a young professor. In a book, it’s easier to take him and leave him in a cafe, where they talk. In a movie, you need to understand why they’re meeting and why Changez is telling his story. Those were the directions I went in.

I really wanted to amplify the Pakistani family. I wanted to come back to the humanity of people, because you don’t know on the other side of the world that people have marriages and deaths and sibling rivalries and this whole community and life. It’s the same thing. You never see it, unless you show it. For me, the Pakistani family who does not believe in money; who does not share the values that their son has, in the beginning, that was important. That’s the thing I felt in Pakistan; how vibrant and almost gaudy the women were sometimes. Vibrant, completely opinionated, and very much the heartbeat. When you read anything about that universe, it’s not like that at all. You think everyone is covered in a dark cloth, and that’s it. It’s so not like that. So, that’s why the brother Changez had in the novel became a sister, and became a TV actress, because I met many, and had no idea the longest running comedy series in Pakistan was Bond, and there were Bond chicks. So unusual and unexpected, but that was Pakistan too. Those were the literal things that I changed.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

SM: Speaking of how much things have changed over the last decade or so, I found this quote of yours from an interview with The Guardian back in 2002. And I apologise for confronting you with a decade old quote. You were asked if you were drawn to marginal figures, and you said, “I want to question what the outside is and who defines it.” I’m wondering if your perspective on that, or your intentions, have changed?

MN: I think it’s a perpetual question, isn’t it? For me. I’ve had that question since I was 11 years old.  Basically, a reining  against those who think they can judge. As the old text says, who are we to cast the first stone? Who defines what is inside and what is outside and what is good and what is bad? I think that question, there is no easy answer for, but we must keep exploring. I think that  am still there, my darling. [Laughs]

SM: That’s fine, that’s fine. As long as you keep asking, that’s the important thing. Riz Ahmed read the Audiobook for The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Was that a happy coincidence, or was he already lined up to star in the film? Can you tell me a little bit about getting him for the role?

MN: I took a year and a half to find him. Mostly because he had sent me originally in the beginning audition tapes which didn’t connect with me at all, and I just dismissed it, and I didn’t even pay attention much. Then I went to Pakistan to start there. Went to India, went to America, went everywhere. Finally, I was desperate, because it’s such a difficult role; the whole film is carried on his shoulders. I found him a year and a half later; the same guy – he’s a rapper, he’s a musician – and he just knocked my socks off. I gave him a scene to read – the one in which he insults his father – and he just completely got it.

SM: Now, I’m curious, how do you gauge success with a movie? Can you feel content with a film as soon as its wrapped or edited, or do you need to see it released into the world and received?

MN: Both, really. Satisfaction is not always in your hands. I felt very much a sense with this movie, that despite the incredible struggle of making it, what we ended up with was exactly what I wanted, which is a very hard and rare thing to feel. I did feel that satisfaction, but also an armor to think, “Okay,  this movie: it’s enough that it exists. I shouldn’t expect anymore. It exists and that’s enough.”

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is now showing in Australian cinemas.

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