Mira Nair leaves you in no doubt how precarious a journey her latest film The Reluctant Fundamentalist had from script to screen.
“It kept happening and not happening. We had two financial partners. We were in prep, and then one of the partners just disappeared,” says India’s best-known English-language film director of her latest work, which opens in US cinemas next week.
Hollywood’s financiers gave a $15m production budget and a famously thrifty director the cold shoulder.
The plotline of a Princeton-educated management consultant’s journey towards Islamic extremism was a hard sell. At one point in the film, the Pakistani-born protagonist gazes in admiration at footage of the World Trade Center towers as they come under attack – a reaction many will find distressing, especially after the bomb attack in Boston last Monday.
As ambitious as a Bond film in its five-country narrative, the adaptation of Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s Booker prize-shortlisted book equates the economic fundamentalism of hard-headed western business and the violent religious ideology sweeping the Islamic world. Parallels are drawn between their dehumanised adherents, and swift, brutal judgments.
“The tough part was raising the money,” says the 55-year-old creator of Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala. “I’ve made 10-plus films. But the odyssey to finance this in the Hollywood recession was dire.
“There’s hardly anything in the serious drama realm that’s being made. There are only the ‘tent-poles’, the blockbusters in sequel. Nearly all distributors of specialised films have gone. There are just one or two distributors left when there were 15 before. It’s a frugal time.”
Even with a line-up including US stars Kiefer Sutherland, Kate Hudson and Liev Schreiber, and Indian counterparts Om Puri and Shabana Azmi, Nair struggled to sway studios. Doubts persisted that a tale of a self-confessed lover of America being repulsed would sell tickets.
More than a decade on from the September 11 attacks, exploring what radicalises educated people and asking awkward questions about the US’s place in the world – only thinly addressed by recent releases such as Argo and Zero Dark Thirty – remains taboo in Tinsel Town.
The money that brought the film to life came from Saudi Arabia, with later support from Qatar. Hani Farsi, chief executive of his London-based family investment group, the Corniche Group, and the owner of the Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge, signed the cheque.
There were other obstacles. Riz Ahmed, a 30-year-old British actor and rapper of Pakistani origin who plays the lead role, was refused a visa to film the scenes where he plays a rising star in consultancy Underwood Samson in New York. Nair, Harvard-educated and a New York resident when not with her husband in Kampala and family in New Delhi, had to use social connections to John Kerry, now secretary of state, to get Ahmed into the US.
When the film was screened at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts last month, the audience discussion was dominated by sharing experiences of how people with Muslim-sounding names are humiliated by US immigration officials.
Then there was Pakistan. Insurance costs were sky-high and risks for US nationals overwhelming in a south Asian country convulsed by militant attacks, kidnappings and seething radicalism. During the five-year making of the film, life imitated art with the arrest of a suspected CIA operative, Raymond Davis, on the streets of Lahore two years ago, and then the killing of Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani hide-out.
Most of the action, including the central scene of the protagonist in an edgy conversation in a café with a journalist-cum-CIA agent, was shot in the Indian capital of New Delhi. To keep costs down, so too were scenes that were set in the Philippines and Turkey, and most of the post-production was done in New Delhi too.
“I wanted to shoot there [in Pakistan] so desperately ... But we couldn’t. It was too insecure,” says Nair. “It was on my head if something were to happen. So I had to accept it. No one goes to Pakistan to make movies. You stick out. The personal responsibility was too heavy to put people at risk. Fortunately, Delhi is the twin sister to Lahore.”
So why did Nair shoot for the moon? She could have taken up an easier invitation to direct a sequel in the Harry Potter series or embraced the lucrative dance-led Bollywood genre.
After all, she needed a rebound from the long delays that have dogged Shantaram, a backpacker’s journey in India starring Johnny Depp that has never got off the ground, and the disappointment of Amelia, a critically panned 2009 biopic based on aviator Amelia Earhart, with Hilary Swank in the lead role.
The answer, as with many of Nair’s successful films from Salaam Bombay onwards, is a personal connection with the subject, and a desire to tackle gritty issues. Salaam Bombay describes the hunted life of street children; Mississippi Masala, interracial love in the US; and Monsoon Wedding, the silence about incest within Indian families.
“I’m the bullheaded type and I really don’t give up if I fall in love,” she says of her themes.
Nair had longed to make a film about Pakistan. There were sentimental reasons. Her father, a civil servant in the elite Indian Administrative Service, grew up in Lahore, when Pakistan’s second-largest city was part of northern India before partition in 1947. During her childhood in the southern Indian state of Orissa, she relished her own Punjabi identity, learnt Urdu and adored ghazals, the heart-rending ballads of the north. She long considered Lahore, with its painting, poetry and courtly manners, as a Venice of the east – only now “two guys with guns come along and throw you into the back of a Pajero”.
“I immediately was captured by The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” she says. “It gave me a springboard into contemporary Pakistan and a dialogue between Pakistan and the rest of the world. Adaptations are springboards into the world you want to inhabit for the next few years.”
That is where the sentimentality ends, and Nair’s political theatre begins.
“I wanted to make a film about contemporary Pakistan and not one riddled by partition and the weight of all that because [as Indians] that is all we see. We don’t see anything that is now.”
More broadly, she wanted to tell a tale of a global conflict from the other side, and took The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film about the Algerian revolution, as inspiration.
“From Vietnam’s Deer Hunter to Iraq, films are never about the person who has had his house destroyed. I want to tell the other side ... It’s really about this duel, this dance.
“At its heart it is a thriller. The colour is all very well but it’s what is going to happen. Is he or isn’t he [a fundamentalist]? That’s an amazing razor to walk on,” she says. “The elegance of the story is that you don’t know what side our hero is on.”
Unlike Hamid’s book, Nair’s softer, homespun optimism wins out. The protagonist’s lover in New York does not fade away with anorexia, depression and suicide. The climax of the book is left darkly to the reader’s imagination; less so in the film, where the hero steps back from violence. Monsoon Terrorist is what Hamid, who worked on the adaptation, dubs the film.
Lighter fare is almost certainly next. Nair is working on taking Monsoon Wedding to Broadway as a musical. Six out of 12 songs have been written and composed.
The pull of high-rolling, Hindi-language Bollywood is also strong. Nair tells how her accountant entreats her to turn to more commercial cinema. “‘I trade on your name,’ he says, ‘but when I look at your bank account, I say: why, why don’t you make just one Bollywood film, please?’”
He should not expect Nair to break a habit of a lifetime. “My films, no one else will do,” she says.
James Lamont is managing editor of the FT