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It’s very rare to meet an artist and an intellectual who is as warm, friendly and engaging as they are sagacious, but the fabulously regal Mrs. Mira Nair has built a career out of breaking the mold. From Salaam Bombay, to Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding, through The Namesake, she has examined the rich topic of diaspora, both communal and individual, while at the same paying gorgeously sumptuous tribute to the beliefs, traditions and chaotic humanity of not only her native India, but of us all.

Recently, I was given the immense honor of sitting down with the singular director and her handsome and talented leading man, Riz Ahmed, to discuss their brutally topical new film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based upon the 2007 novel of the same name by Pakistani author Moshin Hamid. Fortunately, much like her films, a discussion with Nair is fascinating, informative, wide-reaching, and fun; just don’t call the citizen of the world an ex-pat.

“I don’t buy the word ex-patriot, because ex-patriot implies that you are ex-ing where you came from, and I have never had that impression. I never came to this country to be an immigrant. I came to study here and then ended up not only making my way here, but also making films. Then, I was fortunate enough to translate that career globally, and return to India to make my art. So for me, it has always been about all-encompassing, rather than this or that.”

Mrs. Nair went on to explain, “I really am a child of three continents. America gave me a creative home and creative understanding; hybridity among its peoples was something that I felt The US celebrated, which allowed me to realize that I myself could be from here or there, even cherish that fact and make it my distinctive work. But things are further complicated because I am married to a Ugandan, and Africa has very much become a home for me as well. And then of course there’s India, where most of my family still are, and of which I like to say that I am only able to fly because of the deep strong roots that I was imbued with growing up there. All of this has given me a worldview that by its nature is more expansive. As she says herself, “I didn’t come here (to America) or get into this business to be cookie cutter or on an A list.”

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It’s interesting, because in certain ways, that is Changez’s problem. (The main character of the film, played by Riz Ahmed) comes to the US from Lahore, Pakistan to escape his family’s crumbling wealth amid the Ivy League and subsequent hedge fund world of a pre-9/11 Manhattan. Naturally he gets caught up. “This is certainly a young person’s notion,” says Nair thoughtfully. “You come from a place where you don’t even realize how deeply rooted you are. Changez’s family is in Pakistan, and he’s grown up there, but he’s always been in love with America. It’s the classic story: He hopes to venture out into the world and bring back his family’s prosperity.”

“Unfortunately for Changez, and what makes this film so specific in certain ways, is that on his journey, he achieves the American dream, he finds love and wealth, but he doesn’t realize 911 can happen and then his whole “new world” looks at him not like a human being, but as the other, which makes him question who he really is, and where he belongs”.

Though that’s where the specificity ends. “All of us have various obstacles that we must overcome to achieve self-expression. My hope is to make this movie especially for the 20-somethings of the world who are just beginning this journey, because we have all experienced it, and will continue to do so no matter our age, or whether we are from Pakistan, India, or America. How do we find out who we really are? What is my distinctive voice? And what I hope to convey in my films, is that that voice can be a hybrid from a lot of places.”

As enthralled with the grace and wisdom of Mrs. Nair as I am is her talented leading man, Riz Ahmed. Though of Pakistani decent, Mr. Ahmed was born and raised in London, is Oxford educated, and possesses an actorial charm and carriage to match his classic features and youthful countenance. Oh yeah, and talk about refusing to be this or that, he’s also a popular, socially conscious MC in his native UK who’s performed at huge national events like Glastonbury  with marquee artists like Massive Attack.

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Listening intently, he ventures a follow-up: “Yeah, I think Mira’s idea of encompassing a wider sense of self goes to the heart of this film. I think a lot of Changez’s journey is about embracing the fact that life can be black and white, cultivating confusion and sort of embracing his outsider status. The perimeter can be a lonely place, but its also one where a person can find great creativity and insight. I learned that myself growing up between classes and cultures. It’s about stretching yourself and your perspective rather than picking sides so we don’t get into an either-or situation.”

Responding deeply to his comments, I ask if it’s possible to sustain a populace or even a movement without some sort of us vs. them indoctrinated conformity?

“If we can promote clarity, it is”, says Nair with the focus and foresight of a true iconoclast. “That’s why for me, the heart of the movie is really this conversation about the Janissaries-these young boys who were taken in childhood (from conquered territories, to live as the private infantry of the Sultan of the Ottoman Turks), made to kill their own, literally– they became the lethal killers of a regime that they were unaware, had destroyed their own foundation. And then they live the rest of their lives as illustrious soldiers unconscious of their true identity.”

She continues, “That idea of losing yourself and not knowing what you are doing in the larger universe is a common idea. I would love to create a discussion and a knowledge. If you can step out of the bubble for a minute and have that clarity to understand that you are really a human being and what is the belief system that you are trying to conform to? Is that system something that honors human beings in their particularity and or desire for a kind of contentment, or is that a system of exploitation? It really is about the (proverbial) mirror and some people go through life without ever raising that mirror to themselves.”

Astutely, Riz declares, “So much of fundamentalism is founded on fear and self preservation, It’s about when you come of age in a dangerous time, how do you stay true to your voice without succumbing to conformity through fear?

In lieu of the Boston Marathon Tragedy, this debate is as prescient as ever and I wanted to pick the brains of both curious and engaged thinkers for hours, but I had to make sure to ask them a few questions about the stunt-laden, continent-spanning shoot; very different from Nair’s previous films. For starters, how difficult was that final scene of revolution (depicting a riot in one of Lahore’s many bustling market places/communal squares) to film?

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With a grin, Ahmed is the first to respond, “It was dusty!”, demonstrating not only a characteristic British cheek, but also an inherent humility as this powerful scene puts the breakthrough actor’s blistering talent front and center. Next is Nair, “It was tough but satisfying. Firstly, it was filmed in Delhi with Indian crews and stunt people. They have so much heart and experience in this type of work, and thank God that I have a 25-year-old film crew and family that I’ve worked with since Salaam Bombay, and we definitely have a shorthand!”

But that didn’t solve everything. “There was a lot of pre planning and storyboarding that had to go into it. There were 500 extras, because I was very adamant that it feel like Pakistan. Plus, it’s a huge riot scene, and at the last minute, I reminded myself without realizing that I had never had guns in any of my films.” But that was no matter for the intrepid pro, “I remember when the armorist came with all of those guns, I was right in there! So, I, but actually we, really did fling ourselves into (that scene), but it was deeply planned and (aided by the fact that) I had a crew who’d put in 15-hour or 16- hour days with a smile if I needed them to.”

Finally, the subject got around to her skilled, no doubt A-list cast. “I loved Liev Schreiber as an actor, but he is also amazing at action. He always knew where to go and where to be, and just gave everything he had, mentally and physically, every time. His focus and determination is from another planet,  and he and Riz had great alchemy, which is such an amazing gift to a director.” Riz furthers, “I just enjoyed sparring (with him) about how the scenes should go because we both cared so much. He is one of my favorite actors and I’m so happy to have worked with him. I have so much respect for him.”

“On a personal level it was an incredible privilege to work with every actor on this film”, says the clearly grateful and starstruck actor. “You are just kind of fist punching the air! I’ve always wanted to work with Shabana Azri and Om Puri (who play Changez’s parents respectively), they are these legends (in Indina cinema).” I have to ask about working with the iconic Jack Bauer, as well. “When you are filming, a lot of times your relationships with other actors mirrors that of your characters in the film, so Kiefer (Sutherland, playing his by the rules boss) took me under his wing in a paternal way, which was really great. But even when he was just doing his own thing, I was always learning. (For instance), the understanding that he has of the technical aspects of filmmaking just blew my mind.” 

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And Kate Hudson? “She was just so instinctual and natural. She was breastfeeding while we filmed but could button up and just deliver when Mira called action. For me, that type of instinct and not overthinking was really fascinating because I can be quite analytical”, says Ahmed.

But the endearingly proud director can’t let her leading man wax on about everybody else. “I think you can look at this and think, Oh Riz is a great Pakistani actor, but he is English. What I asked of him in this film would be the same as asking an Italian American actor to play Italian. He had to learn every aspect of the this character from accent to movement, to this Ivy League patina, and he nails it all. And of course, (Chenges) is always a human being, but he is also an enigma (in the film) and to play that is not easy. Riz is just so good in this role!”

Once again, Mrs. Nair, well said!