The Reluctant Fundamentalist

(Film Review)

I have to confess I was something of a reluctant audience, I did not really want to watch this film. Aired as it was, on the BBC, I suspected from the start that it would in fact be a propaganda piece, with a heavy “narrative”. I was not wrong. I won’t bother with a spoiler alert, because I don’t want you to watch this film. I watched it so that others would not have to.

The film opens in Pakistan, where our “hero” Changez (played by Riz Ahmed) is attending a social gathering. Musicians and singers are performing a not completely worthless but rather sombre song. He serves a glass of whisky to his dying relative. Right there was the first moment when I felt a bit irritated, there was a signal here. You see, Muslims aren’t all bad, they drink a glass of whisky now and again. I’ve heard rich Saudis sometimes do the same, but what do I know. I have also heard that sometimes people get flogged to within an inch of their lives for drinking alcohol in Islamic societies, but no doubt its seldom the rich and powerful individuals.

As the musicians play, the scene cuts to the street where an American man is walking along accompanied by a Pakistani woman. The pair are ambushed and the man is bundled into a car. This kidnapping sets the scene for the rest of the film. The scene cuts to a cafe where Changez is sitting talking to an American journalist played by Liev Schreiber. It turns out Schreiber is really a CIA agent, who is investigating the kidnapping.

The film flashes back to our “hero” Changez’s earlier days when he studied at an Ivy League US university. He then joins some big company as a financial analyst. His boss is Kiefer Sutherland, who plays the first baddie white guy, a ruthless corporate guy who makes big money by making companies more efficient. He joins a team with three other young recruits. One is a white guy, who gradually morphs into another baddie white guy as the film progresses. One is a black guy, who turns out to be a goodie and becomes Changez’s friend. The other is a white girl who isn’t that important in the plot.

The young team of 4 have a barbecue in a park. They talk about their ambitions for the future. The goodie black guy is not really out for himself, he has a plan to become a rich philanthropist and wipe out malaria. Changez quips that he is going to become a “dictator of an Islamic Republic with nuclear capability”. Hilarious. Changez runs into the love interest of the film, played by Kate Hudson. She is photographing skateboarders. As the plot develops, they begin an affair.

Then one evening Changez is watching TV in his hotel room. The news of the 9/11 attack comes on the TV, and he turns to watch. At first he is quite shocked, but then he smiles as he watches. I’ll just repeat that, he smiles as he watches.  I felt quite nauseous.  The scene flashes back to the present, where Changez is talking to the CIA guy in the cafe. Changez explains his emotions at the time. He says he should have felt sorrow, but all he could feel was a sense of awe at the “audacity of the thing”. As you can guess I’m really warming to the guy at this point. “David had struck Goliath” he says, “arrogance brought low”. CIA guy doesn’t look too happy about it. What was the arrogance Changez was talking about, I wondered?  Was it the arrogance that led the US to help the Afghan Taliban during their resistance of the Soviet occupation?  Was it the arrogance that led the US to give billions in aid to Pakistan :

What arrogance was he talking about, exactly?

It turns out Changez is now a lecturer at a Lahore university. The authorities are harassing Changez and they talk about why.  As he was speaking, a terrible thought came to my mind. Wasn’t Lahore the city where Asia Bibi was sentenced to hang for “blasphemy”? Could it even be that she was incarcerated in a filthy prison not far away from this very film set? A horrible nauseous feeling swept over me and I had to pause the film and run upstairs to the bathroom. I wondered if this spoilt brat rich kid from the leafy suburbs had bothered to join any rallies calling for her release? There are victims and victims though, and no doubt his higher status as a Muslim victim enabled him to not have a troubled conscience about that. A little recovered I managed to return to my living room and resume the viewing.

We flash back to the US, where the younger Changez’s career is developing. In the wake of 9/11 tensions are high. He is stopped at an airport and strip searched. The sense of victimhood is growing. He visits a company to lay off staff and has his tyres slashed. He starts to grow a beard and gradually tensions with Hudson grow. She puts on a self-indulgent “art” show (rich kids can afford to do this sort of thing). The art show is full of references to her affair with Changez, in large neon writing. “I had a Pakistani once”, reads one of the signs. Its pretty sick. He finally decides he’s had enough of the US and returns to Pakistan to become the lecturer he now is.

We flash back to the present. A protest has gathered outside the cafe. The CIA guy decides that Changez was involved in the kidnapping – the hostage is now dead. The CIA guy arrests Changez and marches him out of the cafe at gunpoint. But, guess what, its all a big mistake. Changez is not really a baddie at all, he’s a good guy. There’s a scuffle, one of the protesting students gets shot (he later dies). The film ends with the student’s funeral.  Another victim of dumb American aggression, or so we’re supposed to think.  Its not a perfectly legitimate arrest of a suspect in a kidnapping (that’s apparently now also become a murder because the kidnapped man has been murdered).

You can feel a bit of pity for the student who dies, but really its not the CIA’s fault. Changez associates with a guy who seems to be a mujahideen of some sort. Its only reasonable that Changez should be under suspicion. I don’t think that’s what the makers of the film wanted us to feel however. I think they wanted us to think of Muslims as victims, the underdog, and white men as the baddies. However, I don’t have sympathy for a guy that smiles when thousands of people are murdered.

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