September Issue 2012
Interview: Mohsin Hamid
When you wrote The Reluctant Fundamentalist did you ever imagine that a film would emerge from the story?
As a writer, I am, at least, as influenced by film as by other novels. I watch a lot of movies and read a lot of books; they are both forms of story-telling. It is sort of a fantasy to have your book made into a film — it’s such a cool thing. The idea that this completely interior, one-person-sitting in a room by themselves for years endeavour can be transformed into a group activity — hundreds of people working together — seems like a magical sort of a dream. So you hope for it, but I never really imagined what a film of the book might be like.
I don’t write my novels thinking of how they could be filmed. Novels do some things much better than films and films do some things much better than novels. So it’s best for a novel to be a novel and a film to be a film. So if you ask me if I ever imagined it would be a film, the answer is yes, but if you ask me if I had any idea about how it could be made into a film, the answer would be, I had no idea of how it would happen.
Have you seen the film and how true is it to your book?
I’ve seen several rough cuts, the last was two months ago. But I haven’t seen the final, finished, polished product. In a film, polish is a big part of the illusion of cinema, so comparing the rough cut to the final film is difficult.
Do you think the film has done justice to the novel vis-Ã -vis adaptation?
I would put it slightly differently; I don’t think the job of a film is to be a novel on screen. A film is a work of art that is inspired by, in this case, a novel. A lot of people may say that the film didn’t do justice to the novel etc…but I would ask, is the film itself a good film? The reason why that is the right criterion to judge is because, a novel works by allowing the reader to do much of the imagining in their minds as they read it. It’s like going to a shop and buying tomatoes, onions, rice and lentils etc. and cooking a meal. It’s your shopping list. A film is like a meal that’s been cooked for you. You know what things look like, sound like — it’s all pre-imagined for you. So, it’s natural that readers will feel that the film may not do justice to the book, because the film is somebody else imagining, not you. But, I don’t think it’s the right lens to view the success of a film. What’s more important is, does the film work aesthetically? Are its politics in the right place? Does it have real integrity and power?
Did you have any input in the writing the script? Did the scriptwriters, William Wheeler and Ami Boghani coordinate with you at any point?
Mira tried to find someone from Hollywood to do it and had enormous difficulty, because she could find people who could do Wall Street, but they couldn’t do Pakistan, or people who could do Pakistan but couldn’t do Wall Street. Finally, she asked Ami Boghani, who at the time was Mira’s assistant and later became a co-producer of the film, and me, to write the first couple of drafts of the complete screenplay under her guidance. Ami and I produced a couple of drafts, after which Wheeler was hired to take it to a different level, since neither Ami nor I are trained screenwriters. Ami and I had the ability to capture some of the scenes and ideas that would be difficult for other people to write about, but Wheeler brought the big-budget Hollywood mechanics into the screenplay.
It was a collaborative effort. It certainly isn’t my screenplay, but my fingerprints are on it.
Did you find it difficult to make the transition from novel to screenplay?
Yes, it was extremely difficult to adapt the novel and it took years. Mira optioned the book for a movie in the spring of 2007; just a couple of months after the book came out. Five years later, the movie is about to be released. And most of those five years were taken up figuring out the terrorist story! The first two years Mira took it forward with other people, and in year three Ami and I came on board. Then in year four Bill took it forward and the fifth year has been the actual filming and production.
What was changed in the book for purposes of cinematic impact?
The book had to be compressed, as all books have to be, to become a film. And books can do certain things that a film can’t do — you can step back and describe things and you can skip over things and you can move much more easily between things. Then, there are things in the film which aren’t in the book. New characters were created and a whole series of decisions and changes had to take place to make the book into a film, particularly this book which has a very strong, in your face, formal construction — it’s a dramatic monologue.
The book tries to construct a situation of ambiguity in which the reader, using his own impulses and view of the world, constructs some kind of meaning. The film also tries to portray ambiguity, but it is much more conclusive and neatly tied up than the novel, which is partly because films tend to work that way and partly because commercial imperatives mean that audiences expect certain things in cinema, and partly because the film is the vision of many people, most importantly, Mira Nair.
How true-to-the-book are the actors who play your characters — especially Erica (Kate Hudson) and Changez (Riz Ahmed)?
I think the character of Changez is quite close to the character in the novel, and he’s fantastically played by Riz Ahmed who is a brilliant actor. The character of Erica is still there but she has changed in some important ways from the novel. Kate Hudson is in a non-glam kind of role here — and one I’ve never seen her in — and she’s done a fantastic job. Jim, Changez’s boss at Underwood Samson, is also quite faithful to the book and Kiefer Sutherland does a great job. The biggest change, of course, is the character ‘You’ in the novel. In the movie that character is played by Liev Schreiber and ‘You’ gets a name and a whole back story.
Some of the film was shot in Lahore. Were you present at the shooting and at other shooting spells as well?
The Lahore segment is filmed both in Lahore and Delhi since it was nearly impossible to get insurance to bring these actors over to Pakistan. I went to Delhi and spent a few weeks there while they were filming. So from a photograph, they painstakingly rebuilt the exact replica of a portion of a street in purani Anarkali in Delhi. When you walked out of the set, you couldn’t tell that it was a fake building — there were tailors working inside, fruit-sellers selling fruit in air-conditioned comfort. It’s only when one walked around the back, that one saw it was just plywood. The artwork involved in creating the set was enormous. But it’s often cheaper to make a replica than film in the actual location.
In addition to local actors and scenes, a place can be conveyed very strongly through music. Mira came to Lahore several times and recorded a chunk of the score here — the main composer combined the big names with lesser-known Lahore singers and mixed them into the score.
How was your interaction with Mira Nair? Is it essential for the writer and director of a film to be on the same wavelength?
Part of the reason why Mira was the director I chose to hand over my baby to — because there were other directors who were interested in making a film about The Reluctant Fundamentalist — is that when I met Mira at lunch in London, I immediately got the feel, the vibe, the impression that this was someone I could trust. Not that I felt I couldn’t trust the others, but I immediately felt comfortable with Mira. That, in addition to respect for her work made it a relatively easy choice for me to go with her. And I have not felt, in the last five years, that I have put my trust in the wrong place.
One can say that your book is a layered comment on empire and the rise and fall of civilisations? Do you agree? And do you think the filmmakers will do justice to this?
I hate to explain my book too much. Is it a comment on empire and the rise and fall of civilisations? Sure, the word empire is used in the book and the idea of belonging to particular nations or tribes does come up, but I will leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions as to what I am saying or what the book is about. When you deal with this kind of material you are dealing with political material. Whether its film or a novel, what you want to do is to allow the reader or the viewer to reflect upon their positions. And certainly, the film tries to do this. It doesn’t do it in the same way as the novel, and some might argue that it has different messages embedded in it, but the overall project which is to make people think, from a standpoint of integrity, is very constant between the novel and the film.
Do you think the film could become just another 9/11 movie?
There are two ways to answer that question. The first is that for any movie to become just another 9/11 movie, rom-com, family saga or whatever, implies that it didn’t do very much. So much depends on how powerfully the film will resonate with people who watch it.
Second, this film isn’t really about 9/11. The event is an important catalyst in the novel and in the film, and in world history. But what’s happened since is not just about 9/11. It is about pent-up forces in America, the Middle East, all over the world, and the interaction of those forces over the last decade, of which we have become much more aware. In both the novel and the film, 9/11 is background and none of the characters are directly involved in it.
When you wrote the The Reluctant Fundamentalist in 2007, how was it received in the West?
The novel has gone on to sell over one million copies all over the world. There are a million people out there who have read this book and a million people have a million different points of view. I’ve had people come up to me and say they have either liked or disliked the book. Some liked the book for the exact same reason that others disliked it and I found some of the reasons offered for either totally incomprehensible.
Often in Pakistan people tell me ‘it’s a stereotype, people think Pakistan is a terrorist state and you’re affirming this.’ This view suggests that person hadn’t read the book. Or maybe as a writer, I hadn’t done my job very well because the novel isn’t about a Pakistani who becomes a religious fundamentalist. Maybe the title tends to throw a lot of people off. Some people in America said that they thought Changez is a stereotype, a religious fundamentalist, and the question I asked them is, ‘what is a religious fundamentalist anyway?’ The novel attempts to subvert that whole idea and say that we can take religion completely out of the equation and still have behaviour that looks like religious fundamentalism, and we can look at that behaviour more closely to see if it’s violent or not. We can also be manipulated into regarding the world in certain ways by incomplete information.
I’d often get the completely opposite point of view, which is that ‘you failed, you tried to write about a religious fundamentalist and I don’t think you managed to do that.’ Again, I would say that Changez is very carefully designed not to be a religious fundamentalist. Those are some of the more frequent criticisms that I get about the book.
Moth Smoke was converted into a TV serial. Given its box office ingredients would you want that to be made for the big screen as well?
Rahul Bose optioned the film in 2008 when the Mumbai attacks happened. And suddenly we went from Indo-Pak dosti, to really strained relations, no visas and no funding for any kind of artistic collaboration. The most recent that I’ve heard from Bose is that he is optimistic that he will go ahead with the project. But you never know in the movie business until things actually happen. At the back of my head, I’ve had this dream of (if Rahul doesn’t make it) an animated version of Moth Smoke. It could be kind of fun. There have been mixed reviews about the Pakistani television adaptation. A group of young Pakistani filmmakers approached me back in 2002 when Pakistani TV serials were just taking off. They wanted to make something that would push the boundaries and set a different kind of standard. To encourage this endeavour, I didn’t charge them any money for usingMoth Smoke as the basis of their adaptation, but reclaimed the rights to make a movie out of it internationally. This was my attempt to be a collaborative partner in the Pakistani media’s cultural and artistic scene. I think too often in Pakistan, we have a culture of pulling each other down which is terrible for the creative arts. So many people in my writing career have given me a break along the way and helped me out. Without that, it’s very hard to make any progress as an artist or writer. And I try to do the same for other people whenever I can. Daira was a ground-breaking piece of work and at that time one didn’t really see such a topic on Pakistani television. Although it was in silhouette, surely it had the first kiss that appeared on Pakistani television. Daira had a real degree of commitment and integrity on the part of the people who made it, despite budget constraints and the state of Pakistani cinematography and editing.
When is your third novel coming out?
It’s going to come out in March 2013. I can’t tell you much about it except that I am very happy it is finished and it is not very long. I’ve become quicker now; Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist both took seven years and this new novel will have only taken six by the time it comes out. In a way The Reluctant Fundamentalist was quite different to Moth Smoke — some people even said it was like the two books were written by two different people. I think the third novel is quite different to the previous ones and when you read it, you will understand how all three were written by the same person.
This interview was originally published in the September issue of Newsline.
The writer is a former assistant editor at Newsline