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Nair Reveals Challenges of Producing "The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

Mira Nair ’79 is a director with a distinctive subject: the interaction of South Asians with the West. Her films “Mississippi Masala” and “The Namesake” explore the lives of immigrants in the United States, while her most acclaimed film, “Monsoon Wedding,” depicts the impact of Westernization and capitalism on contemporary Indian society. On Wednesday, Nair came to Harvard to discuss her latest feature film, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” which is scheduled for release on April 26.

“Fundamentalist” is her latest meditation on East-West relations, but it differs from its predecessors in two crucial aspects: it is Nair’s most explicitly political film, and it examines the story of an immigrant not from her home country, India, but from Pakistan. On Wednesday, Nair discussed the film with Homi K. Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, at the center’s Hauser Forum held in the Brattle Theatre. She spoke before an audience that included University President Drew G. Faust and forum financier Rita Hauser herself.

Nair’s father was born in pre-partition Lahore, which—along with New York— is one one of the cities where “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is set. Nair said she wanted to challenge the prevailing American narrative about Pakistan after 9/11 and to encourage dialogue between the two countries. These concerns are evident in the film, which critiques the American foreign policy toward Pakistan and emphasizes the diversity of its culture.

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is adapted from the novel of the same name by Mohsin Hamid, who co-wrote the screenplay with William Wheeler. Initially, Nair attempted to hire an “A-list Hollywood screenwriter,” she said, but every screenwriter she solicited insisted that the film’s title be changed. Hamid was both a lover of film and an unusually accommodating author, Nair said. “He understood straight away that film is a different medium.”

Despite the consistency in the title, the content of the film was substantially changed, Nair said. Even by the standards of Hollywood adaptations, this film differs markedly from its source novel in both plot and tone. Unusually, it does so not by omitting material, but by adding it. The film adds a framing device in which the film’s protagonist, Changez Khan, played by the British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed, is interrogated by a CIA operative in connection with the kidnapping of an American professor. Nair explained this addition as an attempt to reflect topical questions in Pakistan, most notably the case of Raymond Davis, a private contractor for the CIA who allegedly killed two men in Pakistan.

Nair’s earlier films have focused on the personal stories of seemingly ordinary individuals and families. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is a conscious departure from this pattern, but Bhabha and Nair noted that that it shares many of the features of her previous work, including the use of layered, complex shots, and a musical score so central to the pacing and mood that it is like a character in the film. “I love nach-gan-tamasha [dance, song, and spectacle],” Nair said. At one point during the filming, Nair’s husband, Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani, asked her if she was making “Monsoon Terrorist,” referring to the artistic similarity between “Fundamentalist” and Nair’s earlier “Monsoon Wedding.”

“This is the most difficult film I have ever made,” Nair said, referring to the logistical challenges that impeded its production. She has always worked on relatively small budgets but found financing especially challenging for this film given its controversial subject matter, she said. Yet Nair was able to assemble a cast that includes established Hollywood stars Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber and Kiefer Sutherland and Bollywood veterans Om Puri and Shabana Azmi. Financing was finally secured from the Doha Film Institute and its founder, the daughter of the emir of Qatar. The film’s long journey from production to release is a reflection of the difficulty of marketing a film with this title and subject.

Nair remains defiantly optimistic about the film’s prospects. Asked by Hauser who her intended audience is, she described “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” as her most global film yet. It will be released widely in the U.S., Europe, and Pakistan, and on 650 screens in India. Audiences familiar with Nair’s oeuvre are likely to be surprised by its solemnity and by its emphasis on the political rather than the personal. But 25 years after the release of “Salaam Bombay,” her enthusiasm for filmmaking is undimmed, and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” indelibly bears the imprint of its director.

—Staff writer Keshava D. Guha can be reached at kdguha@fas.harvard.edu.

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