Friday, May 24, 2013

A playful book and a sober film - thoughts on The Reluctant Fundamentalist

A few years ago, during this long conversation about his novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid told me that the idea of art as artifice – “as a frame that is playful and stylised” – was important to him. The book is about a Pakistani man named Changez who goes to the US to study in Princeton, gets a job with a valuation firm, feels empowered by the American ideals of opportunity and equality – but finds himself becoming more defensive about his cultural identity in a divided, post-9/11 world. Importantly, this story is told in an abstract way: it takes the form of a long monologue addressed by Changez – now back in Pakistan – to an unnamed and voiceless American tourist, who becomes a stand-in for the reader. Changez’s tone is exaggeratedly courtly (“Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America”) with a possible undercurrent of threat, so that the reader can’t quite tell what his intentions are, and what the eventual result of this meeting might be.

Actually, the meeting need not even be taken at face value; it could simply be a storytelling device akin to the use of a sutradhaar or a katha-vaachak. “The effect I was reaching for,” Hamid told me, “is that you’re in a theatre and there’s one actor on the stage taking you through the play.” Watching a film in a large darkened room packed with strangers is an unnatural experience by its very construct, he pointed out. “Similarly, in a book, which is a packaged good, why can you not have an intermediary who allows you as a reader to move from your own world into the world of the narrative, while discussing that movement?”

It is ironical that Hamid used a cinematic analogy to discuss the “unreality” of his narrative structure, for Mira Nair’s new movie version of The Reluctant Fundamentalist has made the story less circular, and more like a conventional narrative. For Hamid, the very nature of his dramatic monologue implied a bias: the reader only hears the Pakistani side, the American never speaks. But Nair clearly wanted a more balanced approach, and her key change is to provide a context to the meeting between Changez and the American, doing away with the latter’s formlessness and giving him a distinct identity, voice and purpose. This inevitably also meant expanding the bits of the story set in Pakistan.

Does it work? Yes and no. The film, which is an earnest attempt to bridge the gap between civilisations in our troubled times (from the beginning, Nair seems to have been very conscious about dealing with a Big Theme and about her role as a healer and facilitator), has some beautiful things in it. I liked the use of music, which incorporates Sufi motifs with western ones (the end-credits composition by Peter Gabriel is very effective) and laterally comments on the action: a line from the great poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, translated as “I don’t want this Kingdom, Lord / All I want is a grain of respect” plays over a scene where Changez decides to relinquish his US job and return home. And Riz Ahmed brings a lot of dignity to a difficult role; a lesser performance could have completely sunk the film.

However, transferring an allegorical novel to a visual medium – and thereby literalising it – can be a tricky business. Theoretically it should be possible to watch the film on its own terms, as an independent creation, but this is not always easy, given the more obvious symbolism in Hamid’s story - for example, the main female character is named "Erica", a clear stand-in for America, which Changez is unable to truly possess or take stock of. Such devices are tied to the abstractness of the novel and can seem heavy-handed in a film that adopts an otherwise realist structure. (This is not, after all, a Bunuel or Godard movie.)

Still, whatever you think of the book and the film, this is on many levels an interesting test case in the adaptation process and in an understanding of the differences between literature and cinema. A new book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist: From Book to Film, contains short accounts of the film’s making through the eyes of Nair and crew members including screenwriter Ami Boghani, production designer Michael Carlin and editor Shimit Amin. But some of the most entertaining footnotes come from Mohsin Hamid himself, as he reflects on novel-writing and filmmaking. “For me a day’s work is like entering a quiet, sheltered, unhurried cocoon,” he notes, “For a director it’s like talking on three different cellphones while riding a unicycle on the wing of an airplane in heavy turbulence.”

[Did a version of this for Business Standard. An earlier post on adaptation here, including notes from a short chat with Hamid two years ago, while the film was being made]


  1. Liked the post, Jai, especially the part on how Hamid created a narrator who was almost like an actor talking to audience from stage in his novel. This explains what I did not like in the movie like it starts with kidnapping of that American professor and it ends with its resolution, which gives the film a very tight feel, which I imagine the novel did not (I have not read the novel, so I am not sure). Besides, in my view, Nair really cliched America with that loud music playing in the first shot of US we see, repeated use of NewYork's skyline to hammer the point and her mostly single note American characters. This coming from a director who is aiming to bridge the gap can be off-putting. Her use of hand held shots in many scenes was again unnecessary to me. I agree Riz Ahmed brought a lot to the film. I was reminded of Rajit Kapur's performance in Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda. Watching this film had strangely resulted in me appreciating Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda even more since Benegal kept the loose ends loose and very successfully avoided the urge to tie the loose sends; a trap which Mira Nair fell into

  2. Nice post. Must watch this number now on a big screen, before it is pulled off malls.

  3. Hi again,
    Mm, very nice, and I didn't know that Mira Nair had done the film! I'm not surprised, though, that she didn't/couldn't stick to Mohsin Hamid's one-sided viewpoint, it was a challenge that probably is too literary anyway. I wonder if I'll try and watch it... What do you think, if one has read (and enjoyed the book)?

  4. As someone who taught the novel to Year 12 students for 3 years and have now finally seen the film adaptation, I am shocked and disappointed to say the least. The idea of America's loud voice finally being silenced, so the Pakistani voice could be heard, was totally lost in the film. As was the symbolism. Why involve kidnapping and death in Lahore, what was the purpose? The main themes, purpose and message of the novel was lost. I though I was watching American propaganda with a bit of a feel good message at the end.