Sunday, May 05, 2013

"The Reluctant Fundamentalist": a young man grows in character as he tests his own Islamic faith, on Wall Street and then back "home"

I’ve often imagined that there could be a movie called simply “The Fundamentalist”.  A fundamentalist might be construed as someone unwilling to live someone for who he or she is, but only for what he or she has – the trappings of inherent moral virtue.   That sounds like Sayiyd Qtub.  
There’s a scene early in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, where the hero Changez (Riz Ahmed) sits at an orientation meeting in a NYC skyscraper in early 2001, as the trainer at an investment bank poses a “shark tank” idea for them to evaluate.  Imagine a transport system that decodes your body into binary bits and transmits it at the speed of light to another city, and then reconstitutes you.  Changez says the company has value zero because no one would trust it, but it might work for luggate.  How about PC’s?

I had actually proposed something like that for my 1969 novel “The Proles”. The “men that matter” had a secret weapon that could do this to you, and store you, and then bring you back at different times for multiple lives.  My own protagonist comes back in time to experience nuclear wat.  The whole world goes “back to the bay”.  I never posted it online, but a lot of guys learned this idea from by word of mount. Hey, maybe it got around.

The film starts as Changez, having returned to Pakistan, is debriefed by a CIA operative Bobby Lincoln (Live Schreiber) to help rescue an American professor who was kidnapped.  We then flash back ten years, to early 2001, when Changez is hired as a new Princeton graduate – the interview is interesting and makes his points. 
In time, his job as a “master of the universe” will take him to his own “Bonfire of the Vanities”.  He is in the Philippines the day of 9/11, helping companies fire workers to enhance the bottom line, as usual. Gradually, he experiences been profiled as mid-Eastern, particularly in one scene where he is strip-searched at a US airport -- and, yes, he has a perfect young adult male body.. (Is it a matter of "having" or "being"?  I actually vetted a job as a TSA security screener in 2002., and I’m glad, given my background, that I did not go through with it.  Could this have created what I call “a conflict of interest”?
He then faces being pulled off NYC streets an interrogated again, after an accidental encounter. 

In time, he begins an existential debate within himself about his own faith.  He doesn’t care much for the formalities of it.  He does care about the meaning.  He tells the CIA man that at one time he could admire the 9/11 plot, and rationalize it – if the US killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims with its imperialism, then a few hundred American civilian lives could make a point.  He quits his job, and goes back to LaHore, Pakistan as a university teacher, and his faith is challenged again by the protests.  Now he begins to realize that Islam, as he would read it on his own, requires non-violent submission, not a superficial idea of “revenge”. 

I’ve written elsewhere about this – on my main blog (April 28), about the use of the term “casualty” instead of “victim”.  This sort of “jihadist” thinking (if one can call it that) seems predicated on the notion that everyone who benefits from  living in a society that has putatively exploited weaker people around the world, must learn the consequences of playing soldier.  It’s still impersonal; yet it becomes very personal for anyone (or his family) who has to live with being a casualty.  But that’s how it was with conscription in the past.
Ahmed’s character becomes more likeable and charismatic as the movie progresses.  He becomes a role model because he is building on his own integrity, religious and otherwise.  Isn’t that what real Islam would demand?
The official site is here  The film is distributed  by IFC, and was produced by the Doha Film Institute and Mirabi Films (India). Some of it is in Urdu with subtitles.  It is directed by Mira Nair, and is based on the novel by Moshin Hamid. The film was shot on location in LaHore, Pakistan (looking dingy), India, New York City, and Atlanta.  Some of the indoor work seems to have been shot in Georgia.  

I saw the film at Landmark Bethesda Row, which has re-opened in Bethesda MD, with some remodeling and more concession services.  I don’t need the assigned seating (and the staff got a bit irritating about it).  The theater was already in good shape technically.  The area near the theater has been torn up for construction, making driving difficult, but there was enough free weekend parking on the upper levels of a county garage a few blocks West of the theater.  This was the only theater in the DC area offering the film this weekend (several films at Landmark Bethesda weekend are like that.)  It's a problem for those who live in The Old Dominion, which is seen as a less progressive place for such a film. The large auditorium was maybe half full Sunday afternoon -- so the assigned seating is rather pleonastic. 

I'm a little surprised that one of the big indie distributors (like Sony or Magnoliia) didn't pick this up. It's early for the Oscar season, but this one should be there.  

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