Director Mira Nair views her new film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, as a chance to fulfill what she sees as her life's purpose: telling the stories of people whose lives straddle two worlds, like her own.
Fittingly, the movie premiered Wednesday as the opener of the Venice Film Festival, a city that historically has been a bridge between East and West.
'I believe that I have actually been put on this earth to tell stories of people like me, who live between worlds'—director Mira Nair
"I believe that I have actually been put on this earth to tell stories of people like me, who live between worlds," the Indian-born and New York-based director told a news conference. `'I am a child of modern India, but I was raised by essentially a father who came from Lahore, before it was partitioned" and became part of Pakistan.
The movie, based on the novel by Mohsin Hamid, tells the story of a Pakistani man with a bright future as a Wall Street analyst whose allegiances come under scrutiny following the Sept. 11 attacks.
The story unfolds as an American journalist, played by Liev Schreiber, interviews the once-promising financial analyst Changez Khan, portrayed by British actor Riz Ahmed, after he decides to return to his native Lahore and against the backdrop of the kidnapping of an American academic.
Kate Hudson plays his girlfriend and Kiefer Sutherland is his former Wall Street mentor in New York City flashbacks.
View of modern Pakistan
Making the film gave Nair an opportunity to explore Lahore, which she had first visited only six years ago, and the city's music, poetry and Urdu language infuse the film.
"Modern Pakistan is nothing what you read about in the papers, which is full of corruption, beheading and terrorism and so on," Nair said.
Nair said she was drawn to Hamid's novel because "it was essentially a dialogue between East and West."
"We all know there has been an enormous schism, a wall between East and West, since, in this last decade," she said. "So I sought very much in the dialogue between America and the Islamic world in The Reluctant Fundamentalist to really bring some sense of bridge-making, some sense of healing, a sense of community that goes beyond the stereotypes, goes beyond the myopia, goes beyond the ignorance."
Ahmed's character, Changez, is in love with the opportunity the United States offers him, and he is smart and brash enough to catch the eye of Sutherland's Jim Cross who sees himself in the hungry outsider and promotes him.
"God Bless America, indeed," Changez says at one point while playing varsity soccer for Princeton. "And God bless its level playing fields."
Nair plays handily with the notion of "the other" and the role appearances play in promoting stereotypes.
It's not surprising when Changez is profiled at the airport returning from a business trip to the Philippines just days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. But it gets more personal when fellow associates start whispering behind his back as he grows his beard longer in an exploration of his identity.
"Looks can be deceiving," Changez tells the reporter as they start the interview in a teeming Lahore tea house. "I am a lover of America."
Nair also seeks to expose the roots of fundamentalism, not just religious fundamentalism that inspired the 9/11 terrorists, but also what the film calls "economic fundamentalism" of the West, epitomized by the Wall Street firm. Each pulls on Changez' loyalties.
9/11 pivotal moment
The 9/11 attacks are a pivotal moment in the film, which is showing out of competition at the festival.
The movie also marks a watershed for Nair, who was awarded Venice's top prize, the Golden Lion, for her movie "Monsoon Wedding" just days before the World Trade Center collapsed. She had left Venice to promote that movie in Toronto when the attacks occurred.
It took her a week to get back to New York and her husband and son.
"It was quite shocking when I got back because it felt like images I had seen in my part of the world, refugee camps, helicopters, a sense of war, a war zone, and it was in our backyard," she said. "And so suddenly, (New York) became a place where people who looked like us were 'the other.' And that was painful, and that was also part of the inspiration to try to make this film."
This year's festival ends Sept. 8.