April issue 2013

By | Here and Now | Published 7 years ago

It seems to be the season of ‘unfilmable novels getting their big screen adaptations.’ Recently, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi were successfully adapted into movies, and even Salman Rushdie gave screenwriting a go with Midnight’s Children. Now, at long last, it is Mohsin Hamid’s turn and what a relief it is to count The Reluctant Fundamentalist, directed by Mira Nair, as a worthy adaptation.

Let’s be clear about one thing: though a deeply engaging read, turning 200-odd pages of monologue into an engrossing two-hour film is a tricky proposition. The idea of watching two men — one American and the other Pakistani — hunched over a table in a Lahori café for hours on end debating politcs, religion and what have you is an unappealing one. Thankfully, Nair pulls it off.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an intriguing, international thriller and not much is removed from the core themes of its source. In essence, this is a discourse between East and West and while Nair has explored these themes in previous films (Mississippi Masala, The Namesake), her latest film takes it a step further with a more layered narrative.

The film begins in Lahore, in medias res. Bobby, an American journalist, meets Changez, a Pakistan professor. Changez claims to be a lover of America, but spreads his controversial views across the campus. Bobby, on the other hand, is both the good and bad cop, and is as untrustworthy as he is charming. The young Pakistani tells the American about his student days, which are shown to the viewer in flashbacks, of how he came to America ‘to win’ and initially did a fairly good job of it. He also tells Bobby about his complicated relationship with the grieving Erica (Kate Hudson) — the relationship being a metaphor for Changez’s love-hate relationship with America itself. Questions of hate really emerge post-9/11 though, as Changez’s grows disillusioned with his home-away-from-home. A life-changing conversation in Turkey prompts him to quit his prestigious job and leave his old life behind. The prodigal son returns to his native home, but is unable to integrate into a society that has now turned hostile towards him.

What follows is Changez’s steady transformation into a ‘reluctant‘ fundamentalist. Essentially, Changez is not a fundamentalist; he abhors extremism as much as the life he has left behind, he tells Bobby, but Bobby isn’t convinced and the film doesn’t convince either. There is a half-baked CIA storyline forced into the plot and the ending is unnecessary — these are the weakest sequences in the film. Where the book was masterful in its playful assumptions vis-a-vis Bobby and Changez’s respective agendas, the film is clear about who these men are and what they want. Adding insult to injury, the screenplay opts for a hefty dose of melodrama towards the end, which doesn’t go well tonally with the suspenseful scenes prior to it.

What’s noteworthy about this film is that it looks at two different perspectives in comparison to the recent award-winning films like Argo or Zero Dark Thirty, which solely portray the American view on political events.

The entire cast does justice to their roles but Riz Ahmed as Changez is particularly spellbinding. He carries the film from start to finish, and with aplomb. Liev Schreiber, as the bulky Bobby, also turns in a memorable performance.

A few shortcomings aside, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an above average film and hopefully it will inspire moviegoers to read Hamid’s book as well.

 

Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany