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THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST

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C

Especially given recent events in Boston, it’s a salutary project to try to understand how Muslim immigrants who have lived in the US for a considerable time can be radicalized. And though there’s no act of terrorism in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”—at least not of the Boston variety—that’s what Mira Nair’s adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel is about. It’s an earnest, serious film, but ultimately one that fails to satisfactorily dramatize the subject—or to transcend a bare, frustrating didacticism in the telling.

To be sure, there is an attempt to give the story the air of a suspense thriller by presenting it in the form of a tense conversation between the title character, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed)—now a university teacher in Pakistan suspected of radical dealings—and American journalist Bobby Lincoln (Live Schreiber) in a coffeehouse filled with Khan’s volatile students, all the while being watched by US intelligence agents headed by Martin Donovan. (The background to the interview is the kidnapping of one of Khan’s colleagues, a westerner who was snatched off the streets and is now a hostage threatened with death.)

But this set-up really doesn’t create much real suspense, despite divulging secrets along the way (about Lincoln as well as Khan), partially because the revelations aren’t terribly surprising, but also because the explanations presented for Khan’s turn from westernized yuppie to committed traditionalist (and nationalist) are banal, and carry an unfortunately hagiographic tone, turning him into a long-suffering, saintly figure. And though one senses that Nair is grappling for a more complex portrait, her efforts end up opaque and fragmented, never taking hold.

So what is it that changes Khan, who emigrated to the US to go to an Ivy League school and then, once graduated, took a job with a Wall Street firm that specializes—like Bain Capital—in analyzing businesses to make recommendations about strengthening their bottom lines. Swiftly ascending the ranks under the guidance of his oily, shrewd mentor (Kiefer Sutherland), Khan also profited by linking up with Erica (Kate Hudson), the photographer daughter of the firm’s CEO, whom he meets in one of those cute, serendipitous encounters (in Central Park, no less) that would really be more at home in a romantic comedy than here. Khan’s success in the materialistic New York financial world is the fulfillment of his dream, even though back home his poet father (Om Puri) has serious reservations about the path his son has chosen.

But Khan’s path is irreparably altered by 9/11, which initiates a stream of indignities, ranging from intrusive searches at airports and profiling by local police and federal agents to suspicious glances from colleagues at the office and even what he perceives as a betrayal by Erica, who uses his experience as inspiration for her latest photo exhibit. (The only co-worker who remains friendly, in one of the script’s most heavy-handed moves, is a genial African-American, played by Nelsan Ellis—another societal outsider in the privileged white world, you see.) His reaction leads him to go back to his Pakistani roots and finally to reject his westernized persona—and his cushy job—when his firm sends him to Istanbul to assess the viability of a publishing firm specializing in Middle Eastern culture and ordering it closed. Rather than falling in with that decision, he quits and returns to Pakistan to become a teacher and (the CIA estimates) a dangerous rabble-rouser.

But has his embrace of his Pakistani pride actually led him to the promotion of—and even participation in—violence? And is the American desire to retrieve the hostage professor really a matter of altruism? Those are the questions that “The Reluctant Fundamentalism” tries to address. But by doling out clues through Khan’s monologue-cum-flashbacks, the process becomes more than a little didactic—and frustrating. Khan chooses to tell his story in a way designed to keep many things hidden until the screenplay can spring them for maximum impact, and the result is at once simplistic and opaque. You understand why the picture is constructed as it is, but the effect is to make one both impatient as the narrative progresses and unsatisfied when the conclusion finally arrives. It’s also curious that apart from one scene in Turkey, the religious dimension is given very short shrift.

Still, the film has virtues. Nair and cinematographer Declan Quinn make good use of the Pakistani locales, achieving a real sense of place and atmosphere (the astute use of music by Michael Andrews is a definite asset in this regard, too). Ahmed cuts an attractive figure as Khan, though the character’s reserve doesn’t allow him to shine, and Sutherland certainly carries an aura of quiet menace. Less impressive are Schreiber and Hudson, though both get by, while Donovan is simply wasted in a stock part. On the other hand it’s always good to see the authoritative Puri, even when as here he’s not given enough to do, and Haluk Bilginer makes a strong impression as the Turkish publisher as well.

One has to respect Nair for her ambition. But though one can admire the film, that’s balanced by regret for its flaws.

MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN

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It’s an old truism that an author is often too close to his own work to oversee its translation to the screen. One need only think of the screenplay that Vladimir Nabokov fashioned for “Lolita.” It’s a magnificent piece of writing, of course, but would have never worked on screen, and Kubrick was wise to shelve it and concoct his own. The same principle applies to this adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel. But here, it hasn’t stopped the author from being the guiding spirit behind “Midnight’s Children,” composing a screenplay which has apparently been dutifully followed by director Deepa Mehta. The result is a sprawling, lumbering epic that manages to preserve a substantial amount of the book’s content but achieves little of its magic.

And magic is a central element in “Midnight’s Children,” in terms of both story and style. And in a few instances the film manages to evoke it. One’s hopes are raised at the very start, when the sequence about a young doctor’s odd courtship of a beautiful patient, whom he’s allowed to examine only in part—through a hole in a sheet cordoning her off from him to preserve her honor—captures the wry, affectionate tone of the original.

But the descent following that scene is fairly precipitous. The focus soon shifts to the novel’s larger purpose of personalizing the failure of the promise of Indian independence through the story of individuals caught up in the often-tragic events of the new country’s (or more properly countries’) initial decades. Rushdie’s conceit is that children born in the first hour following the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, when British rule officially ended, were endowed with special powers, and that two of them—one a princeling from a fine family and the other a pauper from the slums—were switched at birth. The latter, well-heeled Saleem (Darsheel Safary), possesses the ability to hear the others’ voices in his head and to summon them for ghostly conferences. The former, surly Shiva, proves his nemesis at these meetings. But when his supposed father finds out that Saleem is not his true offspring, he banishes the boy to the household of his aunt, who’s married to Pakistani army officer Zulfikar (Rahul Bose), a martinet integral not only to the overthrow of the civilian government but, in time, to the war that led to the violent detachment of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971.

And the naïve Saleem (now played by Satya Bhabha) is caught up in all these events, as also is Shiva (Siddharth) , who has grown into a stern military man himself, a celebrated hero in the army of Indira Gandhi (Sarita Choudhury), portrayed as a tyrant whose belief in supernatural powers leads her to persecute midnight’s children. That brings about a direct confrontation between him and Saleem, who’s one of his victims.

There’s lots more incident and plenty of other characters in the film, but to catalogue them would be as wearisome as keeping them straight while watching the film. Some are lovably colorful (like the elderly magician who becomes a major player in the picture’s last section), but in the end all of them seem like pawns in a tale that in the last analysis has a strong streak of fatalism to it. Rushdie himself intrudes from time to time to deliver narration designed both to explain transitions and comment on events from a position of genially Olympian omniscience, but one gets the feeling that the real function of his interventions is merely to paper over defects of adaptation, a problem exacerbated by Mehta’s literalist approach to material that really needs a more fanciful spirit.

And though visually “Midnight’s Children” has a luscious look, courtesy of Dilip Mehta’s production design, Dolly Ahluwalia’s costumes, and Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography, the central performances are conspicuously weak. That’s especially the case with Safary and Bhabha, both of whom go to amateurish extremes in portraying Saleem’s naivete (a sign either of Mehta’s lack of directorial control or her misjudgment). There’s compensation in the witty turns by Bose, Rajat Kapoor (as Saleem’s doctor grandfather) and Charles Dance, who’s a marvel of imperial haughtiness as the man who turns out to be Shiva’s actual father. But the ineptness at the center is fatal.

One can appreciate Rushdie’s desire to introduce his novel to a larger audience by bringing it to life on the screen. But “Midnight’s Children” suggests that the book might well be, as many of its readers believed, simply unsuited to film adaptation. Whether or not that’s the case, Mehta’s bloated but tinny epic certainly doesn’t do it justice.