14 June 2013 | dharmendrasingh
The War on Ignorance
What a shame, though how predictable, that the multiplexes chose not to show Mira Nair's brave and provocative political thriller about the intricacies of fighting extremist Islam.
Nair uses Mohsin Hamid's fictional novel to explore very real Western attitudes towards the East in the ongoing 'war on terror'. She has directed a film of huge cultural, political and moral significance at a critical juncture between the Muslim and non-Muslim world.
Rising star Riz Ahmed (Four Lions) gives a memorable lead performance as Changez, a Pakistani immigrant in New York, who has an identity crisis in the wake of 9/11. He returns to live in Lahore when an MIT professor has been captured and held ransom there by terrorists, who use him as leverage to make demands of the US.
Posing as a journalist, Secret Service Agent Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) visits Lahore to interview Changez, who has developed a reputation for being anti-American. The US authorities believe that Changez, if not a terrorist, at least knows something about the kidnapping. They exert pressure on him by harassing his family, a move which only deepens his hatred.
During their interview, Changez asks Bobby to make a judgement about him only after hearing his entire story, and Changez's reminiscence allows for the film to unfurl as a flashback of epic proportions.
Raised in a secular, literate Muslim household in Pakistan, Changez finds it easy to break the covenants of his religion. He consumes alcohol, eats pork and sleeps with non-Muslims, everything Islam forbids. He wins a scholarship to study at Princeton in the late 90s, where he claims never to have scored a B.
There he is headhunted to work for a prestigious valuation firm where he ensures a rapid promotion by impressing his boss (Kiefer Sutherland). On the day of his promotion the towers come down. He tells Bobby that instead of feeling sadness, he felt awe. 'David had struck Goliath'.
Ahmed gave his most famous performance in Lions, but this is his greatest. As an 'Asian' (I abhor the term but include it for your convenience) man myself, I have long had to suffer stereotypical performances by brown-skinned actors, who are used by ignorant directors to add colour and Schadenfreude to their ignorant stories. Ahmed transcends all that. This time we're analysing the reactions of White actors.
Changez's hatred of America germinates slowly, against his will, as his life slowly falls apart. Colleagues turn on him. The bond he had with his widowed girlfriend Erica (Kate Hudson) withers. Ordinary citizens view him as the enemy. His choice to move back to Pakistan is made for him.
Nair purposely shows much of Changez's life back home, as one of her clear aims is to challenge some key stereotypes. Changez's father (Om Puri) is a distinguished poet, not a farmer or rickshaw puller. The family is quite well off, not destitute. And the country is generally shown to be colourful, vibrant and civilised, instead of corrupt, backward and dangerous, as we normally see.
The horror of the recent Woolwich (London) terrorist attack may do something to restrict the impact of this excellent film. Paradoxically, the attack serves to reinforce the arguments of the film. It makes several points, makes them powerfully and forces you to in future question what you are told.