Martin Amis once said that an artist should let at least 10 years pass before dealing with a cataclysmic event. Hindsight and introspection put things in better perspective. Mira Nair seems to have picked up this dictum as her screen adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist releases 11 years after the towers crumbled on the fateful day of September 11, 2001.
The two best novels on life post-9/11 are, arguably, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Hamid’s novel. Nair has meatily distilled the latter into a movie with help from the writer himself. The film opens in present-day Lahore where an American, an English professor at Lahore University, is kidnapped by extremists. The officials believe Changez Khan (a charming Riz Ahmed), a professor and alleged sympathiser of the kidnappers, might be involved. Around this time, Changez also agrees to an interview with an American journalist Bobby (a functional Liev Schreiber) for a piece on the “militant academia” of Pakistan. Readers of Hamid’s novel will remember that Changez talks about his corporate exploits in New York with a random stranger — Schreiber is that stranger here.
Fresh out of Princeton, Changez lands a plum financial-analyst position at Underwood Samson, a consultancy firm, and rises under the tutelage of his bare-knuckled boss Jim (a ruthlessly brilliant Kiefer Sutherland). However, the post-9/11 paranoia leads to a few ridiculously humiliating situations for Changez that trigger a sea change in his reverential attitude towards America. His mostly on-off relationship with Erica (a somnolent Kate Hudson), who is not yet over her deceased boyfriend, does not help either.
There’s not much wrong Nair could do with a source as compelling as Hamid’s novel. In fact, some of the liberties that she takes with the novel’s plot are the movie’s weakest links (the climax, the missing out of major events, major alterations of secondary character’ lives, etc). That said, this is probably her best film after Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala.
Yes, plot-wise, the movie moves on steroids as compared to the novel’s organic self. But then, the canvas of the movie is bigger. Nair must be commended on her non-judgmental take on 9/11. She doesn’t paint either party in broad strokes. In one of the movie’s many standout scenes, the confrontation between Schreiber and Riz Ahmed literally crackles the screen up.
Nair had tackled the Islamophobia that followed 9/11 in a short film for a collection of movies titled 11’09’’01. In a way, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is her full-length dip into the subject. For starters, her casting is impeccable. Riz Ahmed ends the year on a high note after his incredible performance in Ill Manors. After his previous turn as a gloriously bonkers Muslim in Four Lions, Ahmed carries his pain as a Muslim very ably here. As the wet-behind-the-ears corporate guy he goes overboard but is in his elements in the movie’s darker phase.
His near four-minute monologue at Kate Hudson’s art opening screams “breakout performance”. Of course, there’s something pat about how Changez discovers his “true” identity but even that is handled cliché-free by Nair, who owes a huge credit to the cinematography of Declan Quinn. His camera is unfussy but could not have better captured the essence of Lahore. Shimit Amin’s deft editing too deserves mention.
That brings us to the all-important question: is the movie better than the book? Speaking at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, the writer Lionel Shriver had said that Lynne Ramsay’s film version of her We Need To Talk About Kevin is an “elaborate trailer of the book”. Nair’s largely superb, occasionally muted movie too is a trailer for Hamid’s book. For all its many virtues, Nair tries to cram in too many themes— paranoia, xenophobia, war philosophy and unnecessary political jokes— which leave the secondary characters barely any breathing space. It’s a testament to Om Puri’s experience as an actor that he manages to shine through.
Nair has a genuine winner on her hands.
PVR Pictures is releasing the film in April 2013