Filmmaker Mira Nair says that her latest film The Reluctant Fundamentalist showcases the sub continental side of things

If one were to call Mira Nair the dynamic face of international cinema, nobody would contend it. The 55-year-old auteur has helmed classics such as her debut feature Salaam Bombay! (Oscar nominee and winner of the Golden Camera at Cannes), Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding, which was the real breakout film for Bollywood. The New York-based director and producer (her production company is called Mirabai Films) created a stir at the 43rd International Film Festival of India in Goa with her latest film The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The closing film of the festival, it was awarded with the first Centenary Award and Silver Peacock.

On receiving the award, Mira said: “As a child of the hundred years of Indian cinema, and as its perpetual student, to be given this first Centenary Award is a huge honour. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a global film, but its heartbeat is fiercely desi.”

Mira has successfully adapted novels to screen. She collaborated with Julian Fellowes (yes, of the delicious Downton Abbey fame) for the big-screen adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. There was also the lyrical The Namesake adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel and My Own Country based on Abraham Verghese’s memoir. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on Mohsin Hamid’s path-breaking book sees Mira returning to the printed word. Starring British Pakistani actor and rapper Riz Ahmed as the protagonist Changez, the political thriller tells the story of a young man out to make his fortune on Wall Street forced to do a rethink post the events of 9/11. The film also stars Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schrieber, Riz Ahmed, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri and Chandrachur Singh, and is shot in Lahore, Istanbul, New York, Atlanta and New Delhi. We caught up with the filmmaker for a quick chat at the airport.

How did you get attached to the film?

Attached? It is in my blood, baby! I am only teasing you, taking off on the word attached! (laughs). The first inspiration came when I visited Pakistan in 2004. My father was born and educated in Lahore and came to India after the Partition. As young Indians, we never had a chance to visit Pakistan. It is only recently that we have been able to see the country. Six months later, I read Mohsin’s book and saw this was a way of portraying modern Pakistan, outside of the mayhem and the terrorism. This is a chance to have a dialogue with America. For the last 10 years, we have only been seeing the American point of view. This is a chance to see the sub-continental side of things.

After Vanity Fair and The Namesake, this is yet another film based on a novel. What are the challenges you face when translating from book to film?

From book to film — I don’t look at it like that. It is the subject matter that grabs you and helps you make the decision.

The Guardian has selected The Reluctant Fundamentalist as the book that defined a decade. Has this created added pressure for you?

There is pressure and a lot of it, self-inflicted. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a complicated, non-linear novel, a monologue which needed to be rewritten for film. It took three years to write and was in the making for five years. The movie is a comment on what is going on in the world today, and charts out the upheavals of the past decade. It was shot in four continents with major stars. However, despite being such a massive undertaking on such a large scale, I had complete creative freedom, which was the greatest gift.

Riz Ahmed, who plays Changez, has played a similar role in Michael Winterbottom’s The Road To Guantanamo. Was there a danger of typecasting?

I don’t think Riz has ever played such a role. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, he plays a wide spectrum of roles. He speaks colloquial Urdu in Lahore, romances Kate Hudson, plays a high roller on Wall Street… He is the real deal. Riz is British-trained and very authentic. The reviews are speaking of a star being born.

Congratulations on the first Centenary Award and Silver Peacock…

The Reluctant Fundamentalist being chosen for the award is the cherry on the cake. The audience reaction was fantastic. Everywhere the film has been screened, the reaction has been great.