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Director Mira Nair discusses new film “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

Director Mira Nair discusses new film “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”
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Mira Nair

Mira Nair is globally known for her critically-acclaimed films of love, heartbreak and the human condition. Born in India, educated at Delhi University and Harvard, the self-described “activist” debuted her groundbreaking film “Salaam Bombay!,” which chronicled the day-to-day life of children living on the streets of Mumbai, in 1998. It won the Golden Camera award at the Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated in the category of “Best Foreign Language Film” at the Academy Awards. With proceeds from “Salaam Bombay!” Mira established the non-profit organization Salaam Baalak Trust, which provides shelter and a safe environment for 5,000 street children in India annually.

That film was followed by the 1991 drama “Mississippi Masala,” which starred Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury and told the story of an African American man (Washington) and a Ugandan-Indian woman (Choudhury) who fall in love despite the apparent cultural differences and objections by friends and families. Since then, Nair has directed several other films, including “Monsoon Wedding,” “Vanity Fair” with Reese Witherspoon and “The Namesake.” In 2009, she also directed Hilary Swank in the film “Amelia,” based on the life of American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart.

Her latest film, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” takes place in Lahore, Pakistan in 2011 and is based on the novel by Mohsin Hamid about a young man who finds himself torn between the worlds of Islam and capitalism. The film is rounded out by Liev Schreiber, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland and Om Puri.

At a roundtable interview last month, Nair spoke about the concept of “the outsider” in her films, her love of independent filmmaking and the making of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

In your films you have this theme of the underdog with a passion for the “outsider.” What drives you to bring these stories to light?

Coming from India, where it’s very tough to turn a blind eye to the discrepancy of class in your life, it’s all cheek [by] jowl in terms of the rich and the poor. I came from a place where I was turned on by life. My mother says this funny story about how at 11 years old, I would go jogging in our little town and I would always return with the milkman, because the milkman’s story was much more exciting than exercising for another block. I would talk to him and she would think I was nuts. These stories of people who are cast out as the marginal, I always wanted to rock that boat, because who decides that? In the so-called marginal I found the greatest inspiration.

Where did the genesis of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” come from?

The genesis of this film came from visiting Pakistan for the first time. As a child in modern India, you don’t really get to cross that border because we know the partition happened in 1947. There was this real war between the two countries. I wanted to make a modern day tale of this country that is unseen and is known in a totally different way. Six months after that, I read Mohsin’s novel and manuscript. It hadn’t even been published yet, and I felt it really called to me, because it was not only giving me the springboard to make this modern tale, but it was also in its bones a dialogue with America. How to bring complexity and intimacy and love, I think, and grace, I hope, to these worlds that really increasingly do not know each other and need to know each other. Look at what’s happened as a result of this last decade of violence that has created only destruction and no understanding. And, that’s how it started.

Do you hope to teach people with this movie?

I must say, I can’t bear movies that are like homework. I like to take you on a ride, a ride which will transport you with music. Life is even more powerful than fiction can ever be.

At the end of the movie, Changez says, “Looks can be deceiving. I am a lover of America.” What does that mean to you?

The world tells us to be one thing or another thing. And that is not the world anymore. Like [Changez] says “I am Pakistani, I am Muslim, but that’s not all I am.” That is the world. And, that’s what we have to find our way in. Not to give up one or another, but to say that there are many parts to me.

In one interview you said, “I am an independent filmmaker first and foremost.” Why?

For me, creative freedom is an imperative. Movies are an enormously collaborative task, but the joke I have on set is that I am the most open and collaborative person as long as I have the last word. When you make studio films, and I often do because I love the talent and the expanse of it, I’ve not been so lucky to have partners in that world that will not water down some of the rhythm that I bring to the table. And with this film, I was very sure even [if] it was the most difficult film to raise money for, I was sure that this had to be made independently. Otherwise, the censorship would be ingrained from the very beginning and you wouldn’t have the ability to make this complex, unflinching but hopefully human portrait of the world.

How do you create relationships between famous and not-so-famous actors, and does that change the dynamic on the film?

What is so interesting in this film is just the fact that the young man, Changez, is the protagonist. And these known actors are the supporting actors and supporting with such fullness and great depth. That is also a really interesting way for a general audience to understand the new world.

Is it a conscious decision to show the diversity in your films, or does it just happen naturally?

Everything is a conscious decision. Everything is a political act in anything you do. But, it’s also because this is my world. It’s not a political flag-waving agenda. It’s just the way I live and the way the world is. I’m not inventing it.  The world is not seen or shown that way. As I always say in my film school mantra, “If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will.”

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is playing at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge. For show times, visit:

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