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Mira Nair talks The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The filmmaker tells Screen about the pressure of opening Venice, wanting to tell a story of contemporary Pakistan and America, and preparing Riz Ahmed (and his beard).

After coming to Venice with films like Monsoon Wedding, which won the Golden Lion in 2001, Mira Nair returns to the Lido with her latest film The Reluctant Fundamentalist as the opening night gala.

The film is adapted from Mohsin Hamid’s Booker-shortlisted 2007 novel about a Pakistani man named Changez (played by Riz Ahmed) who was a rising star on Wall Street but becomes disenchanted with the American dream. The cast also features Kiefer Sutherland, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber and Om Puri.

India-born, New York-based Nair says she was drawn to the story’s cross-cultural elements, presenting a “genuine dialogue” between east and west, but she also calls The Reluctant Fundamentalist “pure edge-of-your-seat entertainment.” It is her first thriller.

The film shot in Delhi, Lahore, Istanbul, New York and Atlanta.

K5 handles international sales with Cinetic handling North American rights. The film was produced by Nair’s longtime producer Lydia Dean Pilcher (alongside Anadil Hossain and Ami Boghani), and financing came from the Doha Film Institute.

Last week ahead of Venice, she was busy in Mumbai shooting a segment for Guillermo Arriaga’s Words With Gods omnibus project.  

After Venice, The Reluctant Fundamentalist travels to Toronto.

Do you feel extra pressure with this film opening Venice? 

It was such a great honour and surprise to be asked to open the festival. It has been an avalanche ever since – there are the normal things to do before a world release, notes and stills and all that stuff, but in addition because we are opening Venice, there is extra attention before anyone has even seen it. It’s kind of wonderful.

Why did you love this book and want to adapt it into a film?

I was raised in India by a father who came from Pakistan, who grew up in Lahore before the Partition of India. I was raised almost Lahori without realizing it, in the sense of the poetry, the music, the language. It was only about six years ago when I was invited to Pakistan, and it’s not often that an Indian gets to go across the border. When I went there, it was a deeply moving experience. There was such hospitality and embrace, by absolute strangers. I felt like this was such a different culture than what we read about in newspapers. I was then inspired to make a film about contemporary Pakistan.

And then I read Mohsin Hamid’s book in manuscript and immediately bought it. It gave me the platform to explore these ideas of where we come from. It was a genuine dialogue with the west. Both these worlds of New York and the subcontinent were that I live in and know and love intimately.

At its heart it’s a coming of age story of this young man, who grew up in Lahore loving America, and going to it and falling in love with it, and living the American dream and then how he falls out of love, and why would he do that? What happens to him in that journey he takes, how does he find out who he is?

This film does involve 9/11, do you think audiences are ready to see that on film?

It’s not a 9/11 film, but we cannot ignore it. It did change the world and it did change people’s attitudes toward each other. It’s not something that we do dwell upon…but  we are not shying away from the fact that the world is a complicated place. The film doesn’t shy away from that complexity.

My model is The Battle of Algiers, both the French and Algerian sides are treated with the same intelligence and grace. That’s how I’m trying to do this.

Why did you cast Riz Ahmed as your leading man?

He is in practically frame of the film. He is truly astounding, he plays it with such urgency and intelligence. It’s such a demanding role, I searched all over India, America, Europe. It  was tough to find that person. I did many auditions in many countries and then Susie Figgis said, ‘If you are looking for intelligence, there is only one guy.’

I already knew he was a very skillful actor but I didn’t know if he looked right for the part. When he auditioned I was just moved inside.

How did you prepare Riz and everyone else before the shoot?

I’m really a believer in music, so I first shared a sort of playlist, and Riz is a musician so that was a great way in. We shared a lot of contemporary Pakistani music with each other. Mohsin was a huge help, he met with Riz a number of times.

We also did physical work, about him looking a certain way, and that beard, my god! That beard is its own character in the movie.

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