The dramatic thriller The Reluctant Fundamentalist tells the story of a Pakistani man named Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), who came to the States in search of the American Dream, but found himself in the middle of a hostage crisis. In the aftermath of 9/11, Changez finds himself caught between his family’s homeland and the country that now looks at him suspiciously. From acclaimed director Mira Nair, the film also stars Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland and Liev Schreiber.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Mira Nair and actor Riz Ahmed talked about what it’s been like to get such great feedback about the film, how challenging it was to successfully weave the love story with the thriller aspect, and what it added to the experience to shoot some of the film in the real locations. Mira Nair also spoke about the experience she’s had turning her popular film Monsoon Wedding into a Broadway stage musical. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Collider: When you do a film like this, it must be something of a labor of love. What’s it like to have the film finished, be getting feedback from audiences, and to hear people talking about it, in ways that you hoped they would?
RIZ AHMED: It’s amazing!
MIRA NAIR: I’m allowing myself to get excited because I’m seeing what we hoped for, which is an unbelievable engagement with the story. People are seeing themselves in it, no matter where they come from. And what’s especially interesting is the very lively discussion that follows. People just want to talk it. They have to talk about it. They have to engage in it. Actually, it’s a bit of a mirror, it seems to me. It’s holding a mirror to people, regardless of who they are and what they’ve been doing, and that’s exciting. It really is exciting, I must say. The reactions have been amazing. So, I’m getting excited, and I don’t want to be because I don’t want to be disappointed. But, I’m getting very into it.
Mira, when you started to shoot the film, and then you had some financial issues with it and it fell apart, how worried were you that it would never get back on track and actually get made?
NAIR: My close friends call me the bulldozer who never says no. I have never not made a film. The only films that have collapsed on me are studio films that I’ve been involved with. Otherwise, I’ve always made the film I’ve set out to make. But, this film really was the toughest. It fell apart twice. It also came with a life transition for me. My son went off to college. My husband went off to teach in East Africa. I usually live in a home of three generations, and suddenly I was on my own in a very, very freakily cold winter in New York, just waiting for the financial things to settle, so that I could go off and shoot it. And it was months and months where we could not get a yes. That was tough. There was one moment in April, two years ago, where I almost said, “Maybe the universe is conspiring against me and I should not be doing it.” But then, it was the music that kept me going.
There is a great Pakistani poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who forms the music in this film. When you hear that song in the film, and Changez gives up his job in Istanbul and he says, “Hear me out, oh lord! I don’t want your kingdom. All I want is an ounce of respect.” That song used to keep me going, every day. That was how I felt. I needed to be heard. The world needs this dialogue between these two parts of it. I’ve lived in both countries, with half my life here and half my life there. Sitting in America, we never get to know the other side, in any kind of believable way. We have so many movies about Iraq, Afghanistan, and this and that, but there is never a character from that side. It’s always about this side. And it’s about time that we end that monologue and we start the dialogue. That was what this movie was to me.
Riz, what made you want to pursue this role?
AHMED: What isn’t desirable about this role? Why wouldn’t I pursue it, is the question. It’s a dream role. It’s a very complex character that’s very layered. You get to play with a young man, and then as a slightly older man. There’s that amazing element to him. That was a great acting challenge and a big stretch. And it was just incredibly nuanced material. He was a very enigmatic man in the novel, and it’s been adapted that way, as well. Soon after I read the novel, I was interested in trying to pursue the film rights to the book and was told politely that they were elsewhere. When I found out that they were with Mira, she’s been one of my favorite film directors for a very long time, so there was the double appeal of a story and book that I’d fallen in love with, and a director who I felt similarly about. It was just a dream prospect for me. And that was before you add into the mix the opportunity to work with and learn from people like Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Kate Hudson, Om Puri and Shabana Azmi. It was a dream project that is the kind of thing where, if it falls into your lap in your lifetime, you should consider yourself very lucky.
Mira, what was it about Riz Ahmed that made him the perfect actor to center this film around?
NAIR: Well, it took me about a year and a half to find Changez, and to find Riz. The whole movie is carried by that performance. It’s a very difficult role because he has to be absolutely at home, spouting poetry and eulogies, be at an Ivy League and have that patina of the American sophisticate, the Wall Street aspect, the romance factor, the ruthlessness of being a financial analyst in this day and age. He had to have all of those colors, and yet be deeply authentic. I’m from that world and my bullshit barometer is very high. I can tell who’s faking it and who’s not. The authenticity is what I was looking for, but intelligence was the vital thing. We also have this very hard artifice of two men in a room talking, with the whole world around them swirling. That backwards-and-forwards is about actors who engage so completely that you feel that they are truly there. It was really that that got me. I first started to cast in Pakistan, and then I went to India, and then I went to America. I could not find that combination of intelligence and allure that I needed. I friend of mine suggested Riz. He had sent me audition tapes, but I hadn’t really regarded them seriously because he didn’t look like the person I wanted to have play Changez. But, when he walked in the room and I gave him the scene at his family’s wedding, where he insults his father, and Riz pretty much did a cold reading of the scene, it was his role, right away. He really understood it from within, and he understood what it was to have honor and to be ashamed, in the same moment. I just felt the authenticity of it. I was so relieved because he’s been an extraordinary blessing for this film, in his charisma.
How challenging was it to successfully weave the love story with the thriller aspect, and have them both be equally as important and equally as intriguing?
NAIR: It was very important to me because, in the pursuit of the American dream, it’s so complicated, and I love that about Changez’s character. He goes into absolute darkness and says to his girlfriend, who’s still mourning the loss of an old boyfriend, and says, “Pretend that I’m him.” That’s such a chilling moment for someone who wants to lose himself, in gaining what he thinks he wants to gain. I love that about the book. It completely captivated me and was really tricky. I’ve got to say, I can direct the hell out of much, but I couldn’t have directed the chemistry that Kate [Hudson] and Riz have. It was just palpable and effervescent. He used to make her laugh, to no end, and she was just this flower who was ready for anything. I had no idea that she was so instinctive and so brave, as an actor. She just encouraged me to indulge every risk-taking bone that I had, and that’s what the three of us did, in the exploration of the love story.
Sometimes it was so exciting, but sometimes it was also disturbing, in the lengths they both went to. It was very important to me that it work like that, even in all its prickliness. There was a lot of debate, in that final scene after they’ve broken up and she comes to say goodbye to him. For me, that’s one of my favorite scenes in the film. When people break up, after sharing their entire souls with each other, I don’t want to believe that you just switch off. There are remnants of melancholia, and there is so much that stays with you because you loved this person. Of course, it’s that much more complicated when it’s an interracial love or love from a person from another culture. It just breaks my heart, that scene, because they both love each other, but the world is not going to let this happen. The world is too big for them and too complicated for them. So for me, it was very important to get the contradictions and the love and the brutality and the tenderness, in this relationship, just as with any other strain that we had in the film.
What did it add to the project, to shoot in some of the locations that you were able to shoot in and to have the experience of actually being there while you were telling this story?
AHMED: This is a very rich story with a lot of different threads in it. There’s the romantic element and the thriller element, it talks about politics and economics, there’s a coming-of-age story at its heart, and there’s a dialogue between civilizations. So, anything that we could do to try to help ground us in the moment, rather than getting caught up in this overwhelming big picture and overwhelming rich tapestry was a gift, particularly for me, as an actor. Being able to shoot things in sequence, to some extent, was amazing. The way it ended up working was almost like shooting five different short films. There was a week with Kiefer, doing all of the financial stuff. There was a week with Kate, and the romantic element. And then, there was a week with someone else for another thread of the story. Having the integrity of each aspect of his life hermetically sealed like that was a real gift. When we were filming in Delhi at the Anglo Arabic college, there was an amazing moment for me, when I realized that one of my ancestors was principal of that college. It was an amazing, modern reconnection to my own roots, which is something that Changez was going through. So, I always feel like filming in sequence and filming in real locations throws up things that feed into your journey, and this was like that.
NAIR: Well, it’s been quite amazing. I’ve been doing it now for four or five years, and we’re almost there. We have the book done. We have seven out of nine songs done. And we’re going to go into workshop in September. You know, I came from the stage. I was an actor in India before I came to this country, so in a funny way, it’s like going home. But of course, I’ve never directed a musical, and that’s going to begin in a couple of months. Just like the movie, it really is an embrace of the party animal from where I come from. This movie has been so beloved, all over the world. It has such a great story, at the heart of it, but it’s also rooted in music and song, so it’s not an imposition to make it a musical. It’s really coming from within its bones, and that’s what I think we really captured. So, I’m looking forward to it. We have a real hybrid, fantastic cast, from all over the world. In its heart, it’s a Punjabi party animal movie, so we’ll see. I’m really looking forward to it. As you said, when do you get the chance to direct a Broadway musical? Life is short, so I’m knowing exactly where I’m putting my time. I don’t want to do things that I don’t have to do. This thing, I just feel like I have to do.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is now playing in theaters.