Mira Nair: An accidental timeliness

NEW YORK — Questions about assimilation, security and ideology have been front-and-center in the American consciousness since two men with Chechen roots were identified as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings last week.

But globe-trotting director Mira Nair has been hunkering down in these culture-clash issues for years — with her latest film, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” perhaps the most pertinent of all. As she watched the events of the last 10 days unfold, Nair found herself feeling both disheartened by what she saw and struck by her own film’s unfortunate timeliness.


“What we wanted to show is what can drive someone to the brink,” Nair said of her movie in an interview this week. “Everyone focuses on what happened in cases like these, and it’s tragic. But you have to look at all the steps that lead up to why someone might do something like this, why some people feel totally welcome in America and others don’t.”

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Adapted from Mohsin Hamid’s debut novel, “Fundamentalist,” opening Friday in Los Angeles, centers on an intense cat-and-mouse conversation between Bobby, an American expat journalist (Liev Schreiber), and Changez, a Princeton-educated Pakistani (Riz Ahmed) who returned home in the mid-2000s to teach at a university after a stint on Wall Street. Prone to radical statements in his Lahore classroom, Changez may or may not be responsible for the kidnapping of an American tourist. Bobby, who turns out to have a second set of supervisors besides his newspaper editors, is charged by his U.S. intelligence agency bosses with sussing out the truth.

Nair, the director of such popular multicultural movies as “Monsoon Wedding,” employs her trademark flashbacks, cutting between Changez’s conversation with Bobby and his past, which includes a charmed period in the U.S. before Sept. 11, and a more challenging one after that. (Changez goes through the humiliation of an airport strip search and an NYPD arrest, and a rift opens between him and his American girlfriend (Kate Hudson)).

Though Changez’s fate moves in a somewhat different direction than those of the Boston bombing suspects, viewers will be struck by the parallels in a story about a man from a hotbed of radicalism with polarized feelings about the U.S. (Whether this helps or hurts the movie at the box office remains to be seen.)

With roots in India, and a career that regularly bounces between Asia, Africa and North America, Nair said she wants to examine what makes us different — even the less savory parts, such as Islamic fundamentalism and American militancy. She is eager to explore what it means to try on new racial, religious and political identities — even, and especially, when answers don’t come easy.

“You have these Western notions of the subcontinent, and it’s just a seesaw between how we view them and how they view us. And no one’s really asking questions about the ‘truths’ that are handed out,” Nair said several weeks ago as she served tea in her sprawling apartment near Columbia University overlooking the Hudson River, before the attacks in Boston.

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“We don’t understand each other, and we don’t understand each other because we don’t know each other,” she added, warmly if earnestly. “I wanted to make a coming-of-age movie about a young man who dreams of America, achieves it fully and then has that shaken. And by showing that, maybe people will understand.”

Nair, 55, has been jumping across borders for many years. That’s true in her personal life (she splits her time between Mumbai, New York and Kampala, Uganda, where she runs a film school). It’s also true in her work, which includes Eastern-themed pictures such as “Monsoon Wedding” and “The Namesake”; Western-oriented titles such as “Vanity Fair” and “Amelia”; and the messy in-between, perhaps most notably the1991 culture-clash tale “Mississippi Masala,” about an Indian family that moves from Uganda to the American South.

In her new film, which depicts a new globalized world that is at once more and less dangerous than it appears, Nair wants to explore our lack of ability or desire to delve into things foreign.

But perhaps sensitive about the idea that she’d made an ideologically minded film, Nair sidestepped several questions about the geopolitical meaning of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”

“I didn’t make this film to make a 9/11 film. But 9/11 was and is a game-changer, in the world and in Changez’s life.”

As one might expect, “Fundamentalist” wasn’t easy to get made. Nair optioned the novel more than eight years ago but found herself struggling with financiers who didn’t want to take on such sensitive subject matter — and certainly not on a budget that required shoots in Pakistan, India and the U.S. (The movie, funded in part by foreign-territory sales and the Doha Film Institute, is estimated to have cost $15 million, high for a film about such a charged topic.)

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It didn’t get any easier after “Amelia,” Nair’s 2009 Amelia Earhart biopic made by Fox Searchlight, flopped.

Adding to the challenges, Nair was an Indian making a movie in Pakistan — and about Pakistani radicals, no less. (Most of the interiors were shot in Delhi and the exteriors in Lahore. Her basic idea to make a movie in Pakistan, she said, stretched back to her childhood, when her father, who lived in what would become Pakistan after the 1947 partition of India, had taught her Pakistani songs and culture.)

But Nair pressed on, cobbling together money, watching as deals came together and fell apart, fueled all the while by a desire to show Pakistan to the West.

Schreiber described Nair as up to the task because of her “unerring eye for cultural differences.” Ahmed said he was struck by how little Nair actually talked about politics as she made the movie. “I think what makes this work, what makes it urgent, is that it’s not Mira getting up on a political soapbox and delivering a message, but an exploration of these issues through the exploration of these characters.”

Married for more than two decades to Ugandan professor Mahmood Mamdani (the couple met when she traveled to the country to shoot “Mississippi Masala”), Nair has a son with him, Zohran, 21, who is in college. She said the new film is as much about her child as it is about nations, an attempt to show what it means to come into one’s own, as a person and as a culture.

She admits that that’s not something audiences always care about.

“I don’t like being the noble one,” she said, laughing. “This movie was pushing a boulder up a hill. Who likes that? But there’s a window for people to talk to each other. It’s almost closed, and I feel I have a responsibility to try to open it.”


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