Movie Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013)

TheReluctantFundamentalist3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist reminds us that the traumas of our personal lives don’t stop for global catastrophes. The movie’s title alone doesn’t tell the whole story. Radical Islam is just one facet of a compelling narrative about some of the major issues of the last twelve years.

The tale of modern times is told through the experiences of Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed). Now a professor in his native Pakistan, Changez is questioned by a journalist — Bobby (Liev Schreiber) — about the kidnapping of an American professor at the same university. Changez stalls in revealing details of the kidnapping to Bobby by explaining how his experiences shaped his conflicted view of America.

Eager to improve the declining fortunes of his artist parents — played by Om Puri and Shabana Azmi — Changez moves to America in the late 1990s to study business. He gets a job at a Bain Capital-type firm that specializes in making companies more profitable, usually by laying off employees. He falls in love with Erica (Kate Hudson), the artsy niece of the head of his firm.

The attacks of 9/11 happen while Changez is on assignment in the Philippines, and he returns to the U.S to find that the rules of society have changed for him. In the film’s most disturbing scene, the rest of his team members waltz through airport security while Changez is subjected to an invasive strip search solely because of his ethnicity. His relationship with Erica deteriorates, and Changez wonders if America is really where he belongs.

After playing a villain in Trishna, Ahmed shows his versatility in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Ahmed makes Changez sympathetic and relatable as he navigates a society that isn’t the pure meritocracy he expected it to be. His best friend, Wainwright (Nelsen Ellis), is the only other member of a racial minority employed at their firm. Among whites — including his boss, played by Kiefer Sutherland, and even his girlfriend — Changez feels treated like a token and not a real person.

In addition to the presence of Bollywood veterans Puri and Azmi, fans of Hindi films will find a lot of thematically familiar material in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Changez’s troubled romantic relationship with Erica suffers as much from an undercurrent of prejudice as it does from problems in Erica’s past. He likewise struggles with disappointing his parents, who aren’t impressed by his material ambitions, even when they benefit from them. With a runtime of 130 minutes and a leisurely approach to storytelling, the pace of the film will feel familiar to Bollywood fans as well.

Early in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez tells Bobby that understanding only comes with patience. It’s a criticism of American mistakes in the country’s rush to deal with Islamic terrorism, but it is also good advice for how to watch the movie. Those willing to embrace the personal drama within the movie’s larger story about American interference in Pakistan will be rewarded.


9 thoughts on “Movie Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013)

  1. JustMeMike

    Thanks for this fine review. No sign of the film is Sarasota yet – I’ll have to wait. I did see Trishna and thought well of the film if not Riz Ahmed’s character.

    1. Kathy

      It’s only open in New York at the moment, Mike. The film is going to slowly make its way into U.S. theaters in the coming weeks, though it’s going to be available on On Demand starting April 30. It doesn’t open in India until May 17.

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  4. zeech

    just saw this in Dublin, Ireland of all places. Wooww I cried due to it’s beauty. It’s a pity so many american’s and westerners in general will not appreciate this take on the last decade since 9/11 because it’s not from a westerner’s eyes only.
    If only they could get over themselves, this film has soooooo much to teach them about their own fundamentalism.
    Zeech –

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  6. JustMeMike

    Kathy, I took your advice and watched the film via on demand. I don’t think I liked it as much as you did but the last sentence of your review is quite key:

    Those willing to embrace the personal drama within the movie’s larger story about American interference in Pakistan will be rewarded.

    My own opinion is that Nair did a lot of very good work in this film, but really it had too many moving parts.

    The link to my review:

    1. Kathy

      Yeah, as time has gone by, I’ve realized that I probably overrated The Reluctant Fundamentalist a little bit. I still think it’s really good; it just doesn’t stick in my memory the way I’d expect a movie I rated 3.5/4 to do. It’s probably more of a 3-star flick. Thanks for linking to your review, Mike!

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