World-wide search to find right actor for The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Mira Nair is an award-winning director with a feted body of work which includes Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Monsoon Wedding (2001).

But when she tried to raise money to make The Reluctant Fundamentalist, she ran into brick walls.

The film, currently showing in cinemas, is about a young Pakistani man whose American dream sours after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Nair, 55, tells Life! over the telephone: "I have a track record, but it doesn't matter if you're choosing to do something that's considered tricky. The financing of the film was close to impossible and I almost gave up cinema."

Finally, the Doha Film Institute saved the day and gave her "complete freedom" to make the movie which asks the question: When the world sees a terrorist, does it end up creating one?

Apart from money woes, another key challenge was finding the right actor to take on the central role of Changez Khan, who goes from studying at an Ivy League university to teaching in Urdu at Lahore University.

Nair says: "It's a very demanding role and the actor has to inhabit many worlds with great authenticity." The worldwide search took 11/2 years.

"Because I come from that world, you can't bulls*** me," Nair adds, speaking from her home in Uganda. The India-born citizen of the world also calls New York and Delhi home.

The role went to British rapper-actor Riz Ahmed, whose effort earns high praise from the director.

She notes: "The whole premise of the story was that it was like a tightrope and the audience has to keep asking the question, 'Is he or isn't he?' And that's what Riz does so brilliantly."

Adapting the novel of the same name by Mohsin Hamid presented yet another challenge.

For one thing, the novel is a monologue and that would not have worked on the big screen.

Hence, the character of Bobby Lincoln, a journalist to whom Changez tells the story of his life, had to be created in the film.

Mohsin, who was part of the creative team for the film, "understood right from the beginning that film-making is a completely different medium so he was not precious or attached so that it could not be this way or that", says Nair.

The film premiered as the opening film of the Venice International Film Festival in August last year and has been greeted with positive reviews.

Over the course of her career, Nair has been no stranger to accolades. Salaam Bombay!, about children living on the streets of Mumbai, won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988. Monsoon Wedding, about a traditional Punjabi wedding in Delhi, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2001.

She has also tackled the life of aviator Amelia Earhart in the biographical film Amelia (2009) and explored sexuality in Kama Sutra: A Tale Of Love (1996).

Amid subjects that range far and wide, she points to a common thread in her films.

Nair, married to a Ugandan academic with whom she has a son, says: "I'm really drawn to life and the extraordinariness of ordinary life. I find life much stranger and more powerful than fiction.

"I like to hold a mirror to the world in a way that hopefully makes you look at something in yourself or in your world in a different way."

Her gender and ethnicity have not made her journey as a filmmaker tougher or easier.

"Independent cinema is probably one of the greatest struggles in the world. It's very difficult and obsessive and you have to learn to love being rejected.

"But I haven't felt any worse for it as an Indian woman. I just got on with it."

bchan@sph.com.sg


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