Reluctant Fundamentalist Book Vs Movie Essay

A probing conversation between Changez (Riz Ahmed), a young Pakistani activist, and Bobby (Liev Schreiber), an American agent, forms the core of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. IFC Films hide caption

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IFC Films

Coming as it does amid intense public debate about the alienation of immigrants in America, the release of Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist is both timely and slightly eerie.

The movie, based on a well-received novel by Mohsin Hamid, charts the political and spiritual journey of Changez, a driven young Pakistani who arrives in New York determined to succeed, American-style.

As new immigrants go, Changez — played by charismatic British actor-rapper Riz Ahmed, who has liquid black eyes and a soulful stare that gets right under your skin — is unusually privileged. First comes Princeton, then a ritzy job as a business analyst under the mentorship of a tough boss (Kiefer Sutherland, middle-aged at last), and an arty, pale-skinned girlfriend fetchingly played by Kate Hudson.

Changez, in short, seems to have it made. His work assessing the profitability of small companies around the world — and ruthlessly downsizing or toppling them if they're not — troubles him not one iota. That is, until Sept. 11 comes, bringing in its wake a surge in American patriotism and a jittery hypersensitivity about dark-skinned faces that offers Changez his own private education in arbitrary injustice. A beard appears on his Christlike face, and when next we see him he's delivering firebrand speeches against foreign invaders at a Lahore university.

In America, Changez is mentored by a hard-charging boss (Kiefer Sutherland) at a high-profile business analytics firm. IFC Films hide caption

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IFC Films

In America, Changez is mentored by a hard-charging boss (Kiefer Sutherland) at a high-profile business analytics firm.

IFC Films

This may not add up to quite what you think, though. With the kidnapping of an American professor in the opening scene in Lahore, The Reluctant Fundamentalist positions itself as a thriller. Yet it's framed as a teahouse conversation between Changez and Bobby (Liev Schreiber), an American journalist with his own conflicts of loyalty and belief. As a student protest against a repressive Pakistani government gathers steam around the two men, heavily monitored by the CIA, it's Bobby who must listen to Changez's story — all of it, the young Pakistani insists.

With author Hamid's help, Nair and her co-screenwriter, William Wheeler, have ironed out some crucial ambiguities in the novel's account of the uneasy relationship between the two men. In the book, the identities of both remain tantalizingly undefined; in the movie we learn early on that Bobby is an ambivalent CIA operative, torn between his sympathy for the protest movement and his growing conviction that the United States has a role to play in the war-torn region.

The changes work fine for dramatic purposes, and Nair adroitly manages the tension between talk and action. Darting back and forth in time and place, between Lahore and New York (Atlanta, actually, but you'd never know) she unfolds a tale of a man trying to find home in two key global cities, each with a vibrant culture of its own.

Nair likes to have fun even when her material is somber, and for this movie she deploys a rich palette and a multi-culti but mostly kitsch-free score that fuses old and new with a lovely Sufi devotional piece, and is peppered with Pakistani pop. She indulges her sensual side with a wedding, as well as a cheeky turn by Pakistani singer Meesha Shafi as Changez's America-obsessed sister.

Who is Changez? "I am a lover of America," he tells Bobby as he begins and ends his story. Yet he also loves his birthplace with equal fervor and critical scrutiny, and suggests the two countries have more in common than meets the eye. The word "fundamental" pops up just twice, once from the mouth of Changez's go-for-broke capitalist boss, and again from a newly radicalized Changez.

Like Hamid, Nair sees more hope than threat in the fractured identities that increasingly dominate our fluid world. But she won't go all the way with him to disturb our media-fed pieties. When Changez recounts his immediate response on seeing the planes plow into the World Trade Center, Bobby is shocked. I was too.

Yet in context, this is less an assertion of malice or callousness than a surge of reflexive anger toward a nation that has rewarded his efforts to become a model citizen with only the most contingent acceptance. Attention must be paid — so it's a pity that at the end, in a departure from Hamid's enigmatic restraint, The Reluctant Fundamentalist collapses in a heap of wool-gathering humanism that feels warm to the touch, yet fatally hedges its political bets.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

  • Director: Mira Nair
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Running Time: 130 minutes

Rated R for language, some violence and brief sexuality

With: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber

Rita Bhimani finds the new-look gatsby gaudy, louche, lurid

Oi boi ta dekhechho? Have you “seen” that book? Bong though I am, I still fail to comprehend why this highly literate community insists on referring to a movie as a “book”.

But then, today, with movies leapfrogging from books and getting larger than author-imagination avatars, (think Goynar Baksho, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and, ah the new threepenny operatic The Great Gatsby) I thought it was time to find out if anyone is reading at all.

First day, second show of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. I ask the young American tourist next to me whether he has read the book. “A long time ago,” he says a tad apologetically, as does a friend from across the aisle, but who prefers to talk about the 1974 version of the movie. The hall is only a quarter full, and as it disgorges its viewers, who snatch their hunners on depositing their 3D spectacles, I find them sullen, bored and as I venture to ask one such dour individual if she preferred the movie to the book, she looks cuttingly at me and says, “What book” before melting away into the fatuous frat crowd.

What is it about this new-look Gatsby that makes it so indigestible, almost as if one had partaken of the florid feasts that were exaggerated on screen? Why does Luhrmann delude us into a 3D overdrive of a timeless classic through a picturisation that is gaudy, louche, lurid? How is it that there is no palpable frisson between Jay Gatsby and his much-longed-for love Daisy? And what is it that fails to convince us about Meyer Wolfsheim, the man who claimed to have fixed the 1919 Baseball World Series — played by Amitabh Bachchan, and possibly meant to lure Indian eyeballs — when it was a rougher and more raw Jewish gambler we had imagined from the book.

For those of our readers who are unable to take a schoolmarmish rap on the knuckles for not having read F Scott Fitzgerald’s book, let’s just rewind to the rather more elegant version of the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow movie where romance, the underlying passion, the Jazz Age cadences, the prohibition era of fortunes and hemlines soaring upwards (with the unbridled flappers, or women who represented the roaring Twenties) — came through in a subtle vitality. It was like the Fifties version of Devdas, while the current over-the-top screen scream that is Gatsby is akin to the garish Sanjay Leela Bhansali rendering. Both characters, incidentally, rather flawed, attempting to be busy leading fantasy lives, both emerging from the era of the Twenties, and, today, both with nary a thought for the author.

Truly, how easy it is to tread the movie route, and yet how much more satisfying to pick up the Great American Novel that is The Great Gatsby and to be able to trace the whole ethos of the 1920s and of Fitzgerald’s own life projected into his novel. As a student of American literature in the US in the Sixties, it was required reading, but it went beyond that for me. It was whimsy, it was the imagery that every page held of the shimmering waters of Long Island Sound, of the glimmer of silks and the glamour and caprice of an unreal world which saw us climbing ladders with Gatsby as he “mounted to a secret place above the trees” where he “could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.”

More than attempting to understand Fitzgerald, himself flawed and wallowing in self-pity, in bookish fashion, it was in the discussions with fellow students that the character of Jay Gatsby came to the fore. Fitzgerald shared this era with Joyce and Hemingway. And it was Hemingway who counselled Fitzgerald to “forget self-pity” and have less of himself in his books. One of these students, George, was someone I imagined to be Gatsby incarnate, so handsome was he in his demeanour, so easy in his charm, and yet so subdued and controlled about his past. But he quickly shattered such illusions to make me see the “colossal vitality of illusion” that was Gatsby, the “universe of ineffable gaudiness” that “spun itself out in his brain”. Until my illusions became “a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm”. (All quotes Fitzgerald’s, and not from my deluded classmate.)

And so we come back to the refrain of book versus movie. To understand the Great American dream, the lyrical prose of Scott Fitzgerald, the opulence and the decadence, the prohibition and the flouting of it, the swing of the Charleston and the swing of fortunes, an unreal romance, and really, to read, a thoroughly hedonistic tale could be a great deal more satiating than a chintzy whirligig that leaves you wanting to be “borne back ceaselessly into the past”.

Mira Nair turns the delicately-flavoured phirni that the novel is into a multi-course Lahori meal, feels Devapriya Roy

That a work of literary fiction will lose a significant percentage of its subtlety in the course of translation to celluloid is a bit of a given. In any case, Mohsin Hamid’s bestselling 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a slim book which I admired greatly for its pared-down elegance and complex treatment, is a difficult one to adapt into cinema. Particularly because the most obvious cinematic motif it seems to offer — the angst of a young, upwardly mobile Muslim protagonist in post-9/11 America — is precisely the reading the book ought not to be reduced to.

In the novel, the Pakistani protagonist, Changez, addresses an unnamed if slightly suspicious (read CIA) American, whom the reader will eventually know nothing about, in the historic Old Anarkali Bazaar of Lahore, and in the course of a single evening deepening into night, narrates the story of his life, interrupting it with delicate explications on food and custom that evoke a redolent civilisational aura. It is a deliciously executed narrative device.

Born into a feudal gentry that is fast losing its eminence to a new brand of nouveau riche, Changez embraces the American dream (Ivy League education, office with a view of the Manhattan skyline, gori love interest) with the peculiar hunger specific to middle- and upper-class South Asians who leave behind, with palpable relief, their raucous polluted overpopulated corrupt often-politically tumultous homelands, to study and settle in the West: proverbial lands of milk and honey, “level playing fields” and superior opportunities.

In the case of many youths from the Muslim world, the watershed moment of 9/11, however, complicates this narrative, even as America goes to “war” in the most medieval manner. And though 9/11 does not really become a fulcrum in the plot, it forces Changez to examine deep civilisational questions, reflect on the ideas of modernity, mimicry and materialism that are mostly the theoretical preserve of post-colonial scholars, not economic hitmen.

The Mira Nair film, on the other hand, is far more dramatic. In a manner of speaking, it turns the delicately-flavoured phirni that the novel is, “a little rice pudding with sliced almonds and cardamom”, into a multi-course Lahori meal, “a purely carnivorous feast — one that harks back to an era before man’s knowledge of cholesterol made him fearful of his prey — and all the more delectable for it.”

The movie opens with the kidnapping of an American academic, a colleague of Changez. The scenes alternate with a rousing Sufi performance at Changez’s house (Changez, now a popular radical professor at the university in Lahore, is played superbly by Riz Ahmed; his parents are Om Puri and Shabana Azmi). The focal conversation, between Changez and an American journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), is played out in a tea-house that is smack-bang in the middle of student protests led by Changez’s student Sameer (Imaad Shah). The tea-house is also being surveilled by a team of CIA operatives, straight out of Body of Lies or some such spy flick, who indulge in their tech-savvy intrigue, willing to endanger hundreds of young students in their quest to liberate the “American national”.

Not everything is lost in translation naturally; much is gained. There is great music, competent acting, fine cinematography and some great lines (at one point Changez tells Bobby, “Innocent until proven guilty. I learnt that from CSI Miami”). The fact that the kidnapped academic and the journalist, both accultured Urdu-loving sensitive men are in the employ of the CIA, highlights a very important strand in the exceedingly dirty and devious war the one against terror is. But then, that is nothing strange. The link between imperialism and scholarship goes back hundreds of years. This is probably the first time, though, that mainstream cinema has portrayed its modern avatar so explicitly.

My one major quibble with the film is the portrayal of Erica (Kate Hudson). The book draws a powerful conflicted love affair, with Changez as the strange third tangling in a haunting, if slightly morbid, love affair between Erica and Chris, her dead childhood sweetheart. It is Chris that Erica loves, and Changez is merely filling in for his white Upper East Side rival. The symbolism of this is completely lost when the kind and complex American Erica of the book, the haunted writer who withdraws herself from the world and ultimately disappears, is replaced by a self-indulgent artist.

But my main problem is a deeper one. By emphasising the Islamic radicalisation angle — from fullbody cavity search at JFK to a mistaken arrest, it uses all possible cliches — the film ends up drawing attention away from the other, more insidious brand of fundamentalism that is, for lack of a better term, American turbocapitalism, and its brute attempt to divorce the human factor from the balance sheet, all in the name of increasing shareholder value.

Changez’s questions are not merely relevant for the youth of the Islamic world, after all. It is perhaps even more relevant to India which exports the largest number of bright students to America every year, many of who end up working directly or indirectly for the United States department of defence, and who, thus unwittingly, become foot soldiers in an essentially fundamentalist game: the quest for global dominance. There are others who live and work in India but belong essentially — and unquestioningly — to a similar order. By making the film so much about the Muslim identity, perhaps it ends up diluting the deep South Asian “third world”, and ultimately human questions at its heart.

The game-changing moment for Changez in the book comes in the course of a conversation he has in Valparaiso, with an old publisher whom his company will render redundant:

“Have you heard of the janissaries?”

“No,” I said.

“They were Christian boys,” he explained, “captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army.... They were ferocious and utterly loyal: they had fought to erase their own civilisations, so they had nothing else to turn to.”

The truth is we can all become janissaries today, unless we actively, consciously resist the processes that seek to render us so.

I would recommend very strongly the book and/or the film, particularly to all genteel Bengalis with children or grandchildren who are currently in school or college and dreaming the American dream, dreaming nightly of becoming janissaries. It is time they gently nudged the Rabindrasangeet-singing, calculus-mastering children of our lands towards raucous polluted overpopulated corrupt often-politically tumultous but essentially homegrown dreams.

Devapriya is the author of The Vague Woman’s Handbook

Rita, a public relations expert, studied American literature in the US

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