Reluctant Fundamentalist: Interview with Mira Nair

Pilcher and Nair sought full creative control and secured a development partner in Hani Farsi, a Saudi-born, London-based, cinema-loving entrepreneur, who was beginning a foray into the film business. By the end of 2009, Farsi’s company, Corniche Pictures, agreed to finance the writing of the screenplay and a production plan.

Pilcher admits it was a challenge to finance a film whose beating heart is the complicated character of Changez. Armed with a screenplay, Pilcher and Nair met with numerous financiers, distributors and sales agents. They met with the Doha Film Institute at the 2010 Doha Tribeca Film Festival. They loved the screenplay and committed to providing the first cornerstone of equity.

Pilcher continued to look for partners. “A British financier of award-winning films was pressuring me to lower the budget,” the producer remembers. “I told him it was very difficult to further reduce costs without sacrificing the scope. We really needed to include the four countries we were aspiring to be in. His response was, ‘I don’t care if you shoot in Rockaway Beach darling, let’s face it, your leading man is a Pakistani Muslim.’ In a business where world sales estimates set the stage, we were fighting an uphill battle in terms of risk.”

Encouraged by Indian editor and director Shimit Amin, who was teaching at Nair’s film school in Kampala, Nair and Pilcher forensically parsed down the budget, taking decisions such as to shoot digitally and to save around $1M by doing the post work in India. Amin would go on to become the film’s editor. Doha Film Institute eventually went to on to fully finance the film, believing in the strength of its story, and the profound and important message it conveys.
“The substance and the form of the film are very closely linked,” says Hamid. “It is a collaborative effort from people from all over the word, from America, from India, from Pakistan, coming together to create this artistic vision. The film believes in the possibility of that connection and expresses it by respecting the differences of the characters. It’s not a condemnation of either Pakistan or America. It shows the world as a complicated place, where centrifugal forces are trying to push the world apart. By humanizing the characters, we are attempting to bring the world back together.”

The dynamic international filmmaking team included the Irish-American cinematographer Declan Quinn, American composer Michael Andrews, Indian editor Shimit Amin, Indian costumer designer Arjun Bhasin, British production designer Michael Carlin, South African script supervisor Robyn Aronstam, and Indian and American sound designers, PM Satheesh and Dave Paterson, respectively. Local crews were hired in Atlanta, New York, Delhi, Lahore and Istanbul.

“Everywhere we filmed, people who joined the crew and became part of the team, did so because they felt this was a rare opportunity to be part of a film with a strong vision and the potential to break new ground,” says Pilcher.

“My visual influences are vast and eclectic,” Nair offers, “from the muted colors of the great painter Amrita Shergil to the graphic geometry of urban landscapes photographed by Andreas Gursky to the avant-garde architectural vision of my dear friends Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio. I am interested in creating a visual language for the phenomenon of globalization, which forces the energy of order and chaos to be viewed in the same frame.

Indeed, the movie is created and shaped by a director who is of both the East and the West, and who loves them both. “The Battle Of Algiers is a huge inspiration to me,” Nair reveals. “Both sides of the tale, the French and the Algerian, are equally nuanced, conceived with intelligence, pain and love. That is what I wanted for The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The world is a complicated place. I wanted to take joy in the differences, to love them and not compromise them.”

“The most important thing always, for me, was casting Changez,” says Nair. “It was a very tough role to be able to inhabit with finesse, familiarity and elegance.”

The search took around one and a half years and was conducted through several continents. “I find the combination of machismo and beauty in Pakistani men quite alluring,” says Nair. “So I was counting on a charismatic Pakistani actor, or certainly a sub-continental one, someone who could move fluidly between the languages and disparate worlds with truthful ease, and have the skill to carry the movie on his shoulders. I wanted someone to swoon over,” she admits.

The director whittled the list down to two actors in Pakistan, one in Lahore, the other in Karachi, however, “visas for them were absolutely impossible, which meant I had to visit them there, which was very arduous,” Nair explains. “Also we couldn’t test them with the actress for Erica in New York.”

The challenges became insurmountable and by December 2010, in London en route to Paris on a financing trip, Nair and Pilcher engaged English casting director Susie Figgis. She suggested Riz Ahmed, a British actor and rapper, who is gaining a reputation as an articulate and intelligent rising star, thanks to roles in independent films such as Shifty, The Road To Guantanamo and Four Lions.

“We called him, he was in the recording studio but dropped everything and came over,” says Nair, who had only seen Ahmed in Four Lions. “I gave him the scene with his father at the wedding and I said, just read it. It was a cold reading but because of the time he just had to do it. And he did. It was so moving because he understood what Changez had done to his father. He understood shame and he understood honor. Those things are hard to explain. And the role was his immediately.”

Ahmed was surprised it happened so quickly. He was aware of the project, loved Mohsin Hamid’s book, and had wanted to become part of the film project for many months. “I felt like I could really play Changez, but due to my more left-field choice of roles, I had not played real romantic leads. It seemed Mira had other ideas,” says the actor. “I had given up all hope until I got the last minute call to go and see her and we clicked.”

Ahmed sees the role of Changez as very different to characters he has previously inhabited in films with broadly similar themes. “Changez’s personal conflicts are arguably more pronounced,” Ahmed ventures. “Those other characters I have played face shifting events which they have to manage. For Changez, his entire sense of self shifts. His journey is a deeply personal and psychological one but it takes place in the context of a thriller, that was also very appealing to me. His conflicted sense of who he is, his vantage point between classes and cultures, is one that can tell us a very timely story about who we are, who we think we are, and about what we value.”

Changez personifies the complexity of the film. The moment when he stands in a hotel room, watching the destruction of the Twin Towers on television, and describes his first reaction as one of awe, is a provocative and brave moment in the film.

“That moment is intended as a very honest description of differences that exist in the world,” explains Nair. “There are people who had that reaction. The film is not trying to celebrate them or to say that this is good but it doesn’t flinch away from saying ‘this is the way things are.’ To put this feeling inside a character who can also fall in love with an American woman, and also very much falls in love with America itself, that is how it works. It may be deeply disturbing and off-putting to some people, but we are saying it in a context that isn’t polemical. We are simply saying this is the world we live in.”

For Ahmed, the filmmaking experience resonated with him on a personal level rather than a political one. “The emotional journey of trying to find home is a universal one we can all relate to. The film did make me question what I really value and why. How I see others and myself. Does where we are from, or where we would like to head, inescapably define us?”

“The film is very bold in that it talks to our need to communicate and be understood,” he continues. “I think this is particularly important in the context of the so-called ‘clash of civilizations.’ But it lies at the heart of much more human conflict, not just between nations and people, but within ourselves. The film explores our anxiety and anger that exists not just towards the unknowable ‘other,’ but also the tension between how we see ourselves, and how others see us.”