When The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid came out in 2007 as a slim novel, it was labeled as the first post 9/11 literary work from the point of view of the Islamic radical or fundamentalist and, as Hamid’s second novel, it had broken all the records of his first.
The book’s opening lines introduced a Pakistani narrator, Changez. Getting into the long monologue, his distant, formal language and tone, along with his slightly-concealed fury, added an edginess and yes, a creepiness. There was also a maddening ambiguity in his musings where you never quite grasped whether he was pro or anti-America, pro or anti-Islam, what he was reluctant about. And, if he was truly a fundamentalist (based on the commonly-accepted post-9/11 definition), which particular principles he was most adhering to. Various incidents in the story heightened the ambiguity — how he described his pursuit of the American dream, his reactions to 9/11 and its aftermath, his post-9/11 FBI altercation, his growing perceptions of Western capitalism as a form of fundamentalism, etc. In fact, fundamentalism, as the key theme of the book, was explored and offered up in many different forms throughout for the reader’s interpretation and reaction — although hardly ever in its commonly understood and accepted religion-motivated form.
All that said, the book was a stirring account of a young Pakistani immigrant who loved America but failed to find within it his desired ideals of love, happiness, and success. And, all the while, a dangerous sort of nostalgia for the country he had left behind gnawed at him constantly. His beautiful, well-off but emotionally unstable girlfriend, Erica (whom Hamid intentionally presented as an open avenue for readers to explore as representative of “Am-Erica”) turned out to be just as disappointing an object of his love as the country — spurning him for memories of her dead boyfriend and, eventually, getting admitted to a mental institution before disappearing altogether. He was also then mistreated and spurned by the country he loved, causing him to lose faith in its capitalist fundamentalism. All this damaged his very sense of identity and, reluctantly, he turned away from his life in America and headed back to Pakistan and a career in academia. The story ended without much of an ending. You didn’t know what might have happened to Changez or his nameless American friend, despite the taut, suppressed, violent undertones throughout. For a book that was mostly two characters talking in a tea-shop in Lahore, Pakistan, this sort of cliffhanger was a skilled literary feat that left me somewhat physically breathless.
Whether you believed that Changez, on returning to Pakistan, became a terrorist, or that the American he was conversing with was indeed a spy, or that the ending was a serious altercation that took the life of one or both of them, based on how the book’s narrative unfolded, you never knew for sure. Hamid wanted readers to explore their own biases and reactions in response to the many open questions his story raised. For example, why is it easy for us to assume, given the two characters’ situations and nationalities, that the Pakistani is the fundamentalist? Or that death will be the end-result of such a meeting of opposites? He described this, during a BBC World Service Book Club discussion as an intentional construct, where, if you think of the ending as a two-beat note, he wanted to end on the first beat and leave the readers to interpret what the second beat might be.
Having read a book such as this, which puts much of the onus on the reader to actively participate in the narrative, practically as the third main character sitting and listening at that tea-shop in Lahore, Pakistan, it was hard to imagine how it would all translate into a movie, where characters and story cannot be so amorphous, and “something must happen” to keep the passive viewer watching. Had I not been a long-time fan of Mira Nair, the director, I would likely have steered clear of this particular adaptation after having loved the book so.
Nair had explained, when the movie came out, that, for cinematic reasons, there was much less ambiguity in the movie than in the book. A backstory was added for the nameless American (now called Bobby Lincoln and played by Liev Schreiber), and there was even more background for Changez (played by the incandescently brooding Riz Ahmed). Also, the ending was a lot more definitive, both in terms of what happened to the two characters as well as the question regarding Changez’ potential radicalism.
As a more visual medium, a movie cannot but reveal in images that which words in a novel can effectively conceal or present as shadowy silhouettes. For example, in the book, violence is hinted at through the sudden metallic glint of a concealed gun or the implied restlessness of the American as if waiting for someone. In the movie, these things have to be visualized rather more clearly and they lose some of that undefinable mystery/suspense.
Let’s consider the movie as a creative work on its own. Working with what Nair has often referred to in interviews as “the bones of Hamid’s novel,” she and her screenwriter, William Wheeler, embellished and filled out the movie story in a way that retained a fair bit of the mystery of Changez’ possible terrorism till the very end, while giving us more context and enough dramatic tension and action to keep the plot moving. In giving the movie version more structure than the novel, they created a sort of espionage thriller and added a few more characters and backstories.
There is perhaps some heavy-handedness in showing a lot of police action: American intelligence roaring into the town square in black jeeps, the crowd scene with gunshots, etc. I believe this is an attempt at realism. We know enough now, from all the post-9/11 publicized accounts of other terrorist captures how something like this might go down. If the CIA has strong reasons to believe that a Pakistani terrorist is responsible for or involved in the kidnapping of another American, they are hardly likely to simply send in a lone undercover spy to talk it out with the terrorist. So, at least, Nair and company did not sacrifice plausibility as they added their own interpretation to how the story ended. In fact, Nair and Wheeler gave us their interpretation of that second beat of the ending that Hamid had wanted readers to create in their own minds based on their own interpretations.
The final two scenes between the two main characters were, perhaps, not as climactic. Changez gave a passionate eulogy for the friend whom Lincoln had accidentally shot dead. And, by way of this eulogy, he rejected the very religious fundamentalism that he had been suspected of throughout. Lincoln sat in a hospital, recuperating from his wounds and listening to the recording of the tea-shop conversation, which ended with Changez’ words: “Looks can be deceiving. I am a lover of America.” This is perhaps a bit on the nose and rather unsubtly Hollywoodsian — an opportunity missed to go against the grain and leave some loose ends for the audience to mull over.
One part of the story I wish they hadn’t changed at all is Erica’s sub-plot. The movie version of her story arc is very different, including the denouement. I will not give it away here, but suffice to say, the changes in the movie did not enhance Erica’s story better than the book version.
A few words about the main cast. Riz Ahmed has done some work related to 9/11 through his music and other films. So, while he brought that knowing sensibility to this movie as Changez Khan, he also offered up much more with his haunting voice and a face that spoke volumes. Liev Schrieber as Bobby Lincoln, the American undercover spy-journalist, did what he does best — become his character entirely even though there wasn’t much for him to do in this particular role. Kiefer Sutherland as Jim Cross, Changez’ boss at Underwood Samson, the consulting/private-equity firm, stopped just short of becoming a caricature of American capitalism, thankfully. The only jarring note, character-wise, was Kate Hudson as the complex Erica. I cannot say whether it was a question of the scriptwriting and directing versus the acting but, somehow, given everything that Erica represented in Changez’ life, the whole performance fell a bit flat.
A few words about the secondary characters. Nair remained, I found, true to the sentiments of people from this part of the world through her portrayals of the family members, corporate coworkers, university students, etc. These were all necessary foils for the main character and helped bring out various aspects of the character’s story or traits, regardless of the brevity of their screen time. Incidentally, two of India’s finest actors — Om Puri and Shabana Azmi — had small roles as Changez’ parents. As usual, they executed them perfectly.
The highlight of the movie, besides Riz Ahmed, was the music. In particular, this early rendition of a Sufi song by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammed, two well-known Pakistani musicians. A richly-layered composition and, actually, not even purely Sufi but borrowing heavily from many other Eastern musical forms and traditions (none of which I can claim any sort of expertise on, so we’ll leave it there.) Mori Araj Suno (Hear my Plea), heard when Changez was leaving Istanbul after resigning from his American job, was sung by a popular Pakistani singer, Atif Aslam, and beautifully evoked the silent Changez’ conflicting emotions. Meesha Shafi, who played Changez’ sister in the movie (no such character in the book), sang the song, Bijli Aaye Na Aaye (Whether Lightning Falls or Not) with as much joy and passion as her movie character portrayed. Listen to the entire soundtrack — it’s so good.
Some critics have complained about Nair serving up her usual “lesson in multiculturalism” with this movie. But the entire story, even in Hamid’s novel, is about the multiculturalist challenges of America, given the great melting-pot that it is. And, while I did not take Nair’s adaptation as any more of a lesson than the original book it was based on, given the regular news about cultural intolerance, perhaps a bit of a lesson now and then is not entirely unwarranted.
Finally, there is this ongoing controversy around both the book and the movie. Some people, who consider themselves to be non-fundamentalists, object to empathizing with fundamentalists. Others, who consider themselves to be religious fundamentalists, reject the portrayal of their fundamentalism as simplistic. Whichever camp we might fall into individually, the luxury and privilege we are afforded to debate in this manner, through creative storytelling rather than blood-shedding, can never be taken for granted.