Mohsin Hamid's novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was a relevant story when it was published in 2007. Five years later, its cinematic adaptation deviates very little from the original storyline, and yet remains relevant as ever.
After the kidnapping of an American professor in Lahore, his colleague, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), meets with American journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), at a small tea house in Lahore. Over the course of their conversation, Changez's life story unravels in flashbacks. A Princeton graduate, he lived the American dream - a high-flying job on Wall Street, an upper-class American girlfriend with serious emotional baggage (Kate Hudson), a Gordon-Gecko-like boss (Kiefer Sutherland) and such brilliant prospects - without ever losing the usual comforts of a middle-class Pakistani family back home. Life was good. And then the 9/11 attacks happened, bursting the bubble he lived in. As people around him start treating him differently on account of his ethnicity and religion, Changez himself starts seeing the world, and his own place in it, differently. But is the reality of the world around him enough to shake his own fundamentals? Is he really the 'fundamentalist' they see him as?
The story is quite powerful, not least because it is the voice of the 'other'. Changez's love affair with America and Americans, which turns sour through no fault of his own, isn't a far-fetched tale. The blatant xenophobia that gripped American society, after the Twin Towers were attacked, has been well-documented and analysed for years. This is one date from the recent past that effectively changed the course of history, for ever. Here we see its effects, first hand, on a character we find easy to like. But Changez's story is not just about the wider political issues; it is about his own life falling apart, it is about the identity crises he goes through, it is about the realisation that while he appears to be one of the 'villains' to people around him, he has actually become a 'victim' of their changed perception.
The novel, narrated in its entirety in the first person by Changez, poses many messy questions and leaves the conclusions ambiguous. The film, on the other hand, does tie up loose ends and concludes on a far less ambiguous note. I have heard this often, and it usually is true, that a film based on a novel, is never really as good as the original text. This is probably because when you read the book first, you imagine, on your own, how the characters look, speak and behave; you effectively direct the film in your own mind and another film maker's vision just does not measure up.
Still, there are rare directors who can raise the written material to new heights with their renditions. Mira Nair is one such director.
Salaam Bombay! (1988) is considered her masterpiece and Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996) earned her some notoriety, but for me it will always be Monsoon Wedding (2001) that is her most important contribution to cinema - as it straddles a line between commercial 'Bollywood' films and 'Alternative' cinema, yet comes out a victor of 'World' cinema. When she was signed on to direct Vanity Fair (2004), it surprised me a little less than Shekhar Kapur directing Elizabeth (1998), but it seemed a bit odd to imagine her presenting a 19th-century, quintessentially English novel by William Thackeray. And yet, despite the odd casting of Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharpe, the film is a decent adaptation, with interesting changes to the original characterisations and even more interesting embellishments to the atmosphere of the time. Next, she took on Namesake (2006), a particularly flawed first novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, who writes such beautiful short stories. Mira turned a mediocre novel into an excellent, moving film and extracted phenomenal performances from Tabu, Irrfan Khan and even Kal Penn. For years, her name was attached to Johnny Depp's project, an adaptation of Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram, which never got made. And now, she's back with an adaptation of another best-selling novel.
Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, though quite profound in its subject-matter and written in an unconventional style, is not a great piece of literature. He may be limited as a novelist, but thankfully his script, co-written by Ami Boghani, has better fleshed-out characterisations. And it is definitely to Mira's credit that she has not only done justice to the themes in the book, but has delivered a far superior product.
Her lead actor does not disappoint either. Not enough praise can be levelled at Riz Ahmed for his brilliant portrayal of Changez. He is an emerging British-Pakistani talent, whose string of politically-charged films and music put him in very good stead for this role. And he has already 'played' this part for Radio 4's 'Book at Bedtime' series, so he may not have needed as much time in figuring out Changez's motivations, as another actor might have. Riz's face records every emotion so effortlessly - from innocence to awareness, from joy to silent rage - it is quite breathtaking. In fact, in the first flashback of the film it is almost jarring to see the switch from the hardened features of the protagonist now, to the bright, young, hopeful look he carried in the past. Also, I was particularly impressed by his Urdu accent - yes, in the long eulogy at the end (written by Javed Akhtar), you can hear his struggle to get it just right, but it's barely noticeable unless you are a Lahori yourself. Best of all, his accent in English never becomes caricaturish - being a British Asian, it must have been difficult for him to deliver the convincing Asian-American accent that private-school-educated Pakistanis often have. Riz has carried the entire film on his young shoulders and there is not a single scene to which he has not done full justice.
As for the other performances, Liev Schreber is excellent and the scenes between him and Riz have the kind of chemistry that the writers could only have aspired for. Veterans Shabana Azmi and Om Puri, as Changez's parents, and Lahore-born newcomer Meesha, as his sister, deliver strong, natural performances in their very short appearances. Nelsan Ellis is typically charming and Haluk Bilginer brings his usual poise to the canvas. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland. Their characters seem half-baked at times - and for some reason, their acting is quite unreal and unconvincing in some scenes. Kate's scenes with Riz lack the chemistry essential to the story and Kiefer's last scene is a tad over-the-top. Though not actually bad, theirs are the most disappointing of contributions to this otherwise strong ensemble.
The cinematography is exquisite - from the hand-held camera work for indoor scenes to the beautiful shots of the various cities the story travels to. And as usual Mira Nair's choice of music for the soundtrack is simply brilliant. She has selected well, from the vast array of Pakistani music styles, with Kangna, a mystical qawwali by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, Atif Aslam's classical-based Mori Araj Suno and Overload's rock-based Dhol Bajay Ga. Mira, who is not from Pakistan, has managed to recreate Pakistan on screen with far more authenticity in dialogue and soundtrack than most of her peers from India have ever done (except for one odd use of 'bhaiya' instead of 'bhai' at the beginning of the film - you will almost never hear the former term in Lahore).
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an important film, a film that matters. Its success will hopefully facilitate dialogue, debate and discussion about the harsh times we live in. It is not a masterpiece though, and it is not Mira's best work. But it is a vast improvement on the book. And while the writing, direction and editing of some peripheral scenes could have been much better, the overall experience is quite excellent.
Definitely recommended, even if only for the mesmerising effect of Riz Ahmed's intensity.