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reluctant fundamentalisms


May 2013
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lately, media reportings about islamic nations have much to do with terrorism and violent religious fundamentalism. whether it be changez khan or dzhokhar or tamerlan tsarnaev. khan and tsarnaez, two Muslims without one pacifist, the other tolerant. OR two muslims within, both living in america; one turned against america and the other, simply left instead of turning against america.

mira nair’s “reluctant fundamentalist” came at a time when the USA and the world at large discovered that the 2 “muslim” tsarnaev brothers had bombed the boston marathon. both changez khan – main actor in nair’s film- and the tsarnaevs had made america their home.
reluctant fundamentalist is interesting for its take on addressing the situation of individuals – muslims- who live in america and who are viewed as ‘terrorists’ in the eyes of many.

recently, i came upon a comment made by Saudamini from New Delhi in response to manohla dargis’ critique of reluctant fundamentalist in her “Dreams Are Lost in the Melting Pot” on April 25, 2013 at

saudamini’s comment reads: “A Great Film – A must-see for someone living in an increasingly multi-cultural world. Of late, our conversations about Islamic nations have much to do with terrorism and violent religious fundamentalism. I found the movie (and the book) interesting because it addresses the situation of many individuals (in this case young muslims) where we are faced with a situation where members of a community hijack an agenda, ideology or an identity to the detriment of many. Where does that leave the scope of individual action? And how does one respond to this hijacking of ideology and an almost forced “with us or against us” attitude. I find the reviewers comments a bit one-sided and almost polemic. The idea of both the film and the book is to have an alternate voice to mainstream films and books, an alternative to a one-sided dialogue that equates Islam with terrorism – a reductionist view among many that we see in our news and pop culture.
The reviewer suffers from the same blight of reductionism. The film is more nuanced and the POV that it offers is much greater than the sum of cinematography.”

this is an interesting comment because it offers an explanation as to why, when i went to view the film, not a soul applauded. i’ve been at the moma to see many films [in all languages; different genres] which were applauded and i didn’t understand why – in some cases. in fact, i fell asleep on one recently which was so ho-hum yet the audience applauded. thank god they didn’t give that film a standing ovation as they do sometimes!

for me, a good film keeps me on the edge of my seat; my eyes wide open; my mind wide open whether throbbing with thoughts like those seen in “reluctant fundamentalist” or “argo” or whether in serene wakefulness like in “water” or “la vita e bella” or “cinema paradiso”. the people at lincoln cinema were reluctant to applaud the film and my guess is that it is due, not only to the recent boston incident or older twin towers, but to the idea that a good film being one which has an alternate voice to mainstream films. nair’s film awards us this alternative voice – as she gives to changez khan – and it enables us to confront that one-sided dialogue that equates islam with terrorism.

in reluctant fundamentalist changez khan is a princeton graduate, who lands a job at a prestigious financial firm in New York, falls in love with erica, played by kate hudson, who is not well cast but too witchy with that black hair and generally just not the right attitude for that role. changez is on his way to having it all when 9/11 intervenes. he is strip searched, interrogated because of his brown skin and pakistani origin and generally discriminated against. life becomes unlivable for him in the US. changez starts questioning who he really is, and although he comes to america, rises, captures the american dream, he returns to pakistan.
in lahore, changez works as a university professor, where his outspoken criticism of U.S. influence in pakistan wins him a vociferous student following. the C.I.A. suspects he is involved with terrorists and they have him under constant surveillance.

going back to the one-perpsective view: it is a risky proposition commercially to make a film about a clash of ideas in a foreign country, especially in pakistan. the film almost wasn’t made in fact when one prospective investor offered nair’s producer $2 million. nair told the investor that the budget would have to be much higher, and he replied: “you have a muslim as protagonist. two million is all it’s worth.” [].
it was the Doha Film Institute in Qatar, which had initially agreed to finance half the film’s budget, which stepped in to cover the entire cost of the film which amounted to just under $15 million.

but even before reluctant fundamentalist there was karan johar’s 2010 “my name is khan” whose refrain during the whole film was “my name is khan and i’m not a terrorist!” this film explored the changez-khan effect that not all muslims are terrorists, but differently. my name is khan also casts a khan- shahrukh khan- who is also alienated in his new homeland. while shahrukh khan doesn’t reassess his identity as changez khan does nor reject his profession, he has the same message, only for the president of the USA: he is a muslim, and not a terrorist.
shahrukh khan in “my name is khan” doesn’t quit america and goes forth with his plan to deliver his message to the Obama. but, changez chooses a convergent path, and goes back to lahore, where he is tempted by a different sort of fundamentalism as the one he experienced in the US. in both cases he is reluctant to engage in any fundamentalism, but the americans in lahore do not see it that way. they see it one-way: he is the one responsible for the kidnapping of the american professor. and they only find out that he is NOT a terrorist when it is too late.

events like being searched, constantly under surveillance, marked by the FBI, CIA or police etc and these films give us a different way to see multiculturally, if we are ready. but, it is very difficult to do that now. i can’t help feeling that nair’s film would have been applauded had it preceded the boston bombing. it has been critiqued rather lukewarmly because of the unfortunate series of events surrounding muslims. but it is an excellent effort to let us into the mind of an alternative voice, if we are ready to hear or see. if we dispose ourselves to seeing differently, maybe we would see more changez khans: muslims who are NOT terrorists.


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