Someone once asked film director Mira Nair what she would do to change the insular, navel-gazing focus of the United States. That's either the chicken or the egg of the notion that too many Americans have too little knowledge about any culture beyond their own.
Her answer was immediate: Compel the study of history and geography in high school, focusing on a different country or two every year, in depth. Such a plan, she reasoned, might at least lay the foundations for a better understanding of the philosophical Other – a theme that forms the not-too-subtle subtext of her latest film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, freely adapted from Mohsin Hamid's 2007 novel that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
The film tracks the dramatic transformation of a young Pakistani, Changez (no accident, that name), from secular, Princeton-educated, America-loving Wall Street consultant to would-be (or might-be) Islamic fundamentalist teaching in the collegiate bosom of Pakistani militancy in his native Lahore.
The catalyst for his transition, of course, is 9/11. In its wake, America revs up its military machine and begins to regard anyone with Islamic roots as suspect. Beards, brown skin, third-world names: Suddenly even hard-core capitalists like Changez can be summarily detained, or subject to degrading, full-Monty airport security searches. Alienation soon sets in.
In large part, Nair's film attempts to document what that assault on one's core identity feels like.
"People in America are never told the other side," Nair says. "The conversation with the Islamic world, or the sub-continental world, is all one way, a monologue. And look at what has been unleashed on us in the last 10 or 12 years – destruction and war, and this you-are-either-with-us-or-against-us schism that is almost impossible to repair."
Now 55, Nair, a seasoned interview subject, projects a playful intelligence, her eyes keeping firm focus on her questioner. But one senses a powerful force of will, a woman of convictions and creative resourcefulness.
The daughter of Pakistanis – her father, a civil servant, went to India after the 1947 partition – Nair said her social conscience was stirred early on by the stark differences between haves and have-nots. "My mother started a school for the children of lepers," she says. "I was surrounded by examples of action, not words."
By her teen years, she was already an activist, engaged in political street theatre. At 19, she won a full scholarship to Harvard ("my father could not refuse, because the Kennedys had gone there"), and later studied drama in New York with the likes of Joseph Chaikin, Peter Brook and Andrei Serban.
It was stumbling into a course on cinema vérité taught by one of its pioneers, Richard Leacock, that brought Nair to film. Her first works, made in the early 1980s, were documentaries, "but I wanted more visual control and more audience." She found it with her first feature, Salaam Bombay!, a chronicle of street children that was nominated for an Oscar.
Since then, she's helmed several largely well-received films, including Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake. But turning Hamid's reflective, first-person monologue into a kinetic thriller proved a serious challenge – as difficult, Nair allows, as getting Salaam Bombay! off the ground 25 years ago.
Her first problem was finding a screenwriter willing to tackle the adaptation. "I called up lots of Hollywood A-list screenwriters to explore the idea," she says, "and there was so much ignorance. And when you couple ignorance with arrogance, it's a deadly combination. And it always is a combination, isn't it?"
The first order of business, several writers suggested, should be to drop the word "fundamentalist" from the title, because it would discourage moviegoers.
Nair refused, insisting that Hamid's essential argument was based on equivalence – that Muslim fundamentalism, as we know it, is no different than the ruthless, bottom-line-driven ethics that govern Western capitalism. "This is what Changez comes to realize," Nair says, "as he goes on his journey in the world."
It's a parallelism that many in the West – including some screenwriters – might find facile. Are multinational corporations that orchestrate mass layoffs guilty of terrorism in the same way as militant Muslims who detonate suicide bombs in crowded marketplaces?
In the end, Nair turned to Hamid and Ami Boghani, a frequent collaborator, to produce the film's broad storyline, and then to William Wheeler (The Hoax) for the screenplay itself. Eight drafts later, she had a script.
A script, but not enough money. Initially, there were three major backers, but two dropped out.
Nair was prepared to fold her hand. "I never give up, but I almost did," she recalls. "We'd had to collapse it twice, with all the talent, the actors, the musicians, ready to go. I frankly did not see how I could continue. I was alone in New York – my husband [political science professor Mahmood Mandani] teaching in Uganda, my father-in-law with him, and my son [Zohran, 21] at college. I was miserable and getting a 'no' from everyone."
Eventually, the third partner, Doha Film Institute, agreed to serve as sole financier. "So we tightened our belts and reduced the budget from $16-million to about $11-million, but without losing the global scope of it, which was vital for me," Nair explains. "Every scene was rigorously mapped out. We only cut two scenes in the end. The money is all on the screen. You have your cloth, and you don't want to let people know how much cloth you have."
More critically, she says, the Doha money men gave her complete artistic freedom.
It took her 18 months to find her lead actor, Britain's Riz Ahmed. "I needed intelligence and I needed beauty, someone to swoon over," she says. "Riz was born in English, but he speaks Urdu, and speaks a lot of it in the film, and he understood the core of the film, shame and honour."
Nair made a bold choice casting a zaftig Kate Hudson (a new mother) as Erica, Changez's Manhattan girlfriend. "I saw her when she was eight months pregnant," Nair explained, "and it was obvious at that point that she wasn't going to be in the film. But then we were delayed, and she'd had her baby and was nursing. But I believe in real people, not in anorexia."
The cast also includes Kiefer Sutherland as Changez's boss Jim Cross, the ugly-American figure. "Kiefer really wanted to be in the film – he's a very political being," she says. "He felt it was about time to look at the mistakes we are making in the world."
Gender has never been a factor in her career, in part because Indians were accustomed to women exercising power, both in politics and, particularly, in cinema. "I was always my own boss, even at the beginning," she says. "I did not work for other people and therefore never had to climb the hierarchy."
Nair ducks a question about the subjugate role of women in many Muslim cultures, insisting: "I am not the pundit of everything." At the same time, she maintains that the West's views about Muslim women are coloured by "what we read or choose to read. When I went to Pakistan, I was taken aback by the strength, articulateness, bawdiness, vibrancy of the women. It's not what you think. The host of its most popular talk show is a transvestite."
She hopes her film delivers the same message. "I made it for my son and his generation, the twentysomethings," she says. "That they should find out who they are and understand where they can be heard and might matter, and question the truth handed to us."