Anse Rainier (Gary Richardson), an American professor at Lahore University, is kidnapped and held for ransom. Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), an American journalist in Pakistan, arranges to interview Rainer’s colleague Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), whom he suspects is involved in the kidnapping.
Meeting Lincoln at a café, Changez declares his admiration for America’s “level playing fields” (though he’s shown playing soccer on an immaculately lawned field as he says this, equal opportunities for economic advancement is the obvious implication). His father (Om Puri) is a respected poet, but money was always difficult for the family and Changez was only able to attend Princeton University on a scholarship. After graduating, he joins a top Wall Street valuation firm, Underwood Samson, and starts a relationship with an American photographer, Erica (Kate Hudson).
In Manila on business during the September 11th attack, Changez returns to the US and is quickly picked out, then invasively strip-searched at the airport, leaving him furious at being unfairly targeted/treated. Leaving work, he is further mistakenly arrested and interrogated by federal agents. His relationship with Erica is strained, largely because she feels responsible for the death of her former boyfriend in a drunk-driving accident and still feels as though she’s cheating on him. At the opening of Erica’s art show, Changez is angered to discover she has used intimate details of their relationship in her art, and breaks up with her.
Valuating a publishing house in Istanbul, Changez learns that the firm is financially worthless. He is also surprised to discover (from firm’s owner) that his father’s work/poems were translated into Turkish – he is given a copy of the published book. He has a change of heart and refuses to close down the company, infuriating his boss and mentor Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland). Changez resigns from Underwood Samson.
During his interview with Lincoln, Changez says he was approached by a terrorist cell to become a mujahid and was tempted to accept, angry and disillusioned by “the arrogance, the blindness, the hypocrisy” of the US. He refused when told about the “fundamental truths” of the Quran, echoing a phrase from Jim Cross during their first encounter, “focusing on the fundamentals.” Changez explains that both Islamic fundamentalists and blind capitalists like Underwood Samson similarly simplify and exploit people for their own means.
Changez’s visa expires and he returns home to Lahore and is hired as a university lecturer, as departing foreign professors have left vacancies. He voices dissatisfaction with US intrusions in Pakistan, bringing him to the attention of the authorities, who raid his office and home, threatening his family. Lincoln is seen nearby, and Changez reveals that he knows Lincoln is working for the CIA, (having taken a photograph of him surveilling when Changez’s office was raided previously) and deducing that Rainier was the one who recruited him.
As Lincoln and Changez talk in the café, protestors gather outside, and Lincoln is pressured by his superiors to learn Rainier’s location and complete “turning his target”. The protests grow hostile, and Changez mentions he has heard of a butcher shop and discloses address of possible location. Contact is lost before the information can be phoned to Lincoln’s fellow operatives.
Changez raises Lincoln’s suspicions by texting, but says he was communicating with his sister, Bina (Meesha Shafi). Furious at receiving a picture of Rainer dead, Lincoln blames Changez and demands to see his phone. Holding Changez at gunpoint, Lincoln uses him as a shield in the crowd of his protester students. The crowd destabilizes and Lincoln falls, accidentally shooting and killing Changez’s “brother” Sameer (Imaad Shah). Another student fires at Lincoln, wounding him, and Lincoln is quickly removed by CIA agents, learning that Rainer was found dead that morning and Changez had told the truth – he had no involvement. Checking his phone, he confirms text was indeed sent to his sister.
Changez delivers a eulogy at Sameer’s funeral, as Lincoln recuperates in a hospital, recalling Changez’s words as he listens to the recording of the interview – “Looks can be deceiving. I am a lover of America… although I was raised to feel very Pakistani”…