Mira Nair’s 1998 film Salaam Bombay! firmly established her in the pantheon of great film-makers. The film’s gritty realism can be seen as the legitimate cinematic ancestor to contemporary preoccupation with slumdogs. Several of Nair’s recent works have dealt with cultural identity, and both Mississipi Masala and The Namesake grapple with issues of immigrant acculturation and assimilation.
Misplaced trust is another theme that runs through much of Nair’s work, from Krishna (Shafiq Syed) absorbing the thievery of Chillum (played masterfully by Raghubir Yadav) in Salaam Bombay! to the sense of anguish experienced by Changez in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Yet those who have their hearts broken also break other hearts. In Salaam Bombay! Krishna spurns Manju (Hansa Vithal) for Solah Saal (literally, Sweet Sixteen, played by Chanda Sharma). Changez lets down his mother by breaking his promise of secrecy to her, a scene brilliantly depicted by Nair.
“Dil jalaane ki baat karte ho,” (you have caused a burning in my heart) the lyrics intone, as the hurt registers on the expressive features of Shabana Azmi’s face. These interpersonal betrayals also set the stage for betrayals between nations and peoples. While the subject matter of betrayal, by those we trust the most, is not new, the freshness of the depiction in this film-maker’s hands is transforming.
A Conversation With Mira Nair
9/11 has become part of the shared collective memory of this nation. Most people can pinpoint exactly where they were and what they were doing when the planes struck the Twin Towers. Many can recollect their shock as news of the devastation sank in. In the days that followed, emotional accounts filled the airwaves. Our hearts contracted painfully as we heard of farewell messages left by those who perished in the Twin towers, and of children who remained uncollected from daycares, even as casualties mounted. The nation seemed united in a way that would have been difficult to believe just a few short weeks earlier.
The enduring legacy of such a monumental event unfolds slowly. In 2007, Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s book animated the voice of those for whom this was a palpable reality. Mira Nair’s film, based on this book, serves similarly to highlight the casualties of an unchosen war.
Geetika Pathania Jain caught up with Mira Nair in a recent interview.
Geetika Pathania Jain: Mira, thank you so much for making yourself available for an exclusive interview for India Currents readers. My first question is why you chose to film The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Mira Nair: My father was raised in Lahore, and as children, in modern India, we were raised Lahori, even in Orissa, where I was born. We spoke in Urdu, and the poems of Faiz, ghazals of Noor Jehan, Iqbal Bano, all this was a daily part of my life.
And as a kid in modern India, one didn’t go to Pakistan, and it was only in 2005 that I was invited there, and I actually visited Pakistan. When I first got to Lahore, it was a deeply moving experience, because it was very familiar: the culture, the music, the language, people, everyone looked like my uncles and aunts. It was certainly so different from the Pakistan one reads about in the newspapers. Indian directors have often made stories about the Partition in Pakistan, but not really about modern-day Pakistan.
I was inspired by that trip to make the modern-day tale, and it was about six months later that I read Mohsin’s novel in manuscript and I immediately reacted to it. It not only gave me a chance to show contemporary Pakistan, but it was also a dialogue with America. And both these situations with the sub-continent and America, are worlds that I know intimately, and love intimately, and so, immediately, I thought this was the one.
The other reason was that being in the phase we are in now, there are so many films, post 9-11, about Americans going to Iraq or Afghanistan, and returning in body bags, fighting for freedom in this unknown place and so on, but there’s never a film about the other side, of where they drop their bombs, or who is the Iraqi woman who loses everything in the name of freedom.
The mantra of my work and my life is “if we don’t tell our stories, no one else will.” So The Reluctant Fundamentalist gave me the chance to tell not just only our stories, but helped formulate a bridge-making dialogue with the West. That is why I shot it.
Watching the wedding scene in The Reluctant Fundamentalist reminded me of Monsoon Wedding, and I kept thinking about the common culture in these neighboring nations of Pakistan and India. Going back to some of your other films, identity is a theme that comes up frequently. So, would you say that just as in The Namesake, this story is about returning to one’s roots after all that inter-racial experimentation?
Of course. A book is a springboard for a director’s imagination—Mohsin used to joke with me as we were writing the first two drafts of the film in Lahore—because I wanted to bring to the film a real sense of family life. And I like the naach gaana, tamaasha, fun, and the humor, too. That’s the flavor I wanted to give to the movie, because that’s how we lived. We’d spout poetry often. And Mohsin would ask me, what are we doing here—Monsoon Terrorist?
This was because of the sense of life that I was very committed to depicting. If you don’t humanize the places and characters; if you don’t humanize the Liev Schreiber character, for instance, he becomes just a cardboard cutout of America. He has to be as multiple, as complicated, and as nuanced as the protagonist in the film.
So that’s what I strive for. It’s to give that multiplicity to a character or situation, and to destroy the idea that we are the Other or you are the Other. What is the Other?
That is what makes a viewer see us not as Islamic or otherwise, but really, really see us. So that’s the effort I make in this movie, to humanize the details, in a flesh and blood kind of way. That is my intention.
Is it too fanciful to suggest that the relationship between Changez and America is mirrored in his relationship to Erica? I mean, he loves her, but she has a hard time loving him back. And he wants so much to be accepted by her, but eventually feels rejected and disillusioned? Is that too fanciful?
No, Actually, that’s the way Mohsin intended it in the book. But we changed Erica, and made her into a struggling artist.
Yes, there are variations from the book in the film.
It was not just Erica who betrays him in that way. She was just one of the many things that happens to him. So he feels betrayed by the very people, he assumed, who did not consider him as the “other.” It is a series of encounters that finally disillusion him. But I feel it’s the Turkish publisher and his talk of the janisteris that finally wakes him up.
You are referring here to how Haluk Bilginer, the Turkish publisher, mentions the janisteri, Christian boys who were enlisted by the Ottomans in the Islamic army, to serve their adopted empire. Janisteris were taken as children, and were sent to betray and kill their own people. Another theme of betrayal.
Yes, we come back to the theme of betrayal in so many instances. His mother is betrayed by him because he does tell his father about his involvement in the wedding expenses. It reminded me so much of Salaam Bombay, where Krishna betrays Manju because he is in love with Sola Saal, and is in turn betrayed by Chillum, who is an addict who will betray anyone to get a fix.
That was done so well—I was really carried away by that.
Glad to hear that.
It did resonate so much with me when Changez Khan says “a side was chosen for me” because after 9/11 there has been so much hate-crime, so much surveillance and profiling of people of a certain category. I do think this was a really important film to make for the “other casualties of 9/11” as you call them.
You have not been afraid to tackle difficult topics in your films, but was there anything in this film that you thought was too edgy, or were you concerned about how it would be received?
Well, it’s obviously tricky stuff, but the world is a complicated place, and for me, one of the great models is Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, where he speaks for both sides, the French and the Algerians, and deals with both sides with equal intelligence and equal love.
And for me, that is the model. I did not want to undermine the American side over the Pakistani side or anything like that. They have to be approached with that complexity, that nuance, and that love. I trusted myself in that respect, to be unflinching, about Changez’s reaction to the plane flying into the tower. We took a lot of care with that moment. We’re not going to tame it, in that it was complicated. It was complicated for most of the world.
But if I place it in a context that the audience can trust, then it becomes valid. But if I just make light of it, if I reduce it in any way, then it’s wrong, because it was a terrible thing that happened. It was a shocking thing. We took great care with that moment.
I really enjoyed the film, and I am delighted to bring your message to our readers.
We finished the movie in August 2012, and then we have had a spate of festivals, and it was fantastically received, and then I had to put a lid on it, and do a release. We have been getting fantastic responses from the critics. That is so heartening.
Geetika Pathania Jain is a Bay Area resident. She teaches in the film and television department of a local community college. She is an unabashed fan of Mira Nair’s work.
All photos in this article credited to Reluctant Films II, Inc.
Cover photo: A Creative Commons image by George Kelly.
This article was originally published in 2014 with the title Mistress of Emotions.
The Trajectory of Racism
THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST. Director: Mira Nair. Players: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Haluk Bilginer. Music: Michael Andrews. Screenplay, William Wheeler, Mohsin Ahmed. Produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher.
After an Ivy League education at Princeton, Changez Khan joins the ranks of the prestigious Underwood Samson as a financial analyst. He meets Erica, a photographer. The American dream is within his grasp, and he strives to ascend into the social class in New York that his parents were falling out of back in Lahore. But just as his spot in the elite cadre of New York society is crystallizing, 9/11 happens, shifting forever the trajectory of his career and life.
Anyone with a beard and turban has become vulnerable, the Sikh taxi cab drivers tell him. And as fear takes over the country, unleashing something dark and primeval, Changez is buffeted by the force of this maelstrom. Profiling, arrests, slashed tires, and full body searches lie in store for him. Racial slurs are hurled in his face. And however loudly he proclaims that he is a lover of America, it appears that America has a hard time loving him back.