How do you feel about a film that opens with a scene of the kidnapping of an American professor in Pakistan interspersed with shots of qawwali in a private garden, generous flow of liquor, and chaotic movement in the bazaar? In a nutshell, the very opening scene of Mira Nair’s film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s eponymous novel, offers you what to expect from a film set in post-9/11 Pakistan.
While the kidnapping of the American professor, Anse Rainier, hints at the kidnapping and heinous murder of Daniel Pearl and situates the film in the larger context of America’s War on Terror in which Pakistan is a trusted ally, the opening scene also foregrounds facets of Pakistani life that are often forgotten – the professor walks out with his Pakistani partner from a movie theater, testifying to the Pakistani predilection for films in the midst of violence that marks everyday life in Pakistan; the liberal flow of drinks in the qawwali party hosted in Changez’s house; Changez’s sister’s aspiration to become an actress.
Yet, what’s so new about these facets of Pakistani life? Do these glimpses merely try to retrieve the ordinary (and ordinary for a particular social class) or these are fleeting moments that highlight the bizarre turn that Pakistan’s social, cultural, and political life is taking with the hardliners (nationalists?) trying to offer resistance against American intervention in Pakistan’s domestic politics?
So far so good. However, when I decided to watch the film, I was mostly interested in seeing how well the novel was adapted into a film. Let’s not forget, Hamid’s novel, narrated in the second person, makes for a very challenging adaptation as the novel is written as a monologue with an American visitor to Pakistan after the traumatic events of 9/11. Mira Nair understands this complexity and very cleverly chooses to retain Changez’s story – a Pakistani boy studying in Princeton on scholarship, landing a dream job with an American firm in New York City, falling in love with an American girl, and finally having his dreams shattered in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. This part of the story is retained because it resonates with a global audience, western as well as non-western. Yet, Changez’s monologue with an American visitor in the Anarkali Bazaar is sacrificed as the monologue, when translated onto celluloid, doesn’t offer enough drama for a sustained audience interest.
Nair, and her team of scriptwriters, which include Mohsin Hamid himself, did what appears to be the most sensible. Take Changez’s story from the novel and replace the part played by the silent American visitor with that of an American journalist, Bobby, who doubles up as a CIA agent, more like his mentor, Prof. Rainier, who once worked as a CIA operative in Afghanistan. Nair’s American interlocutor is no silent visitor but an active negotiator with Changez on behalf of the CIA to secure the release of the abducted American professor.
In the course of the tense moments of negotiation, Changez’s American life, his American dream, and his disillusionment are cut in and cut out. The power of Changez’s speech is muted as the film deals with the much larger issue of American policy of global intervention. In fact, the film doesn’t merely restrict itself to Pakistan but connects it to the domestic policy of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s own controversial intervention there. Underlying the story of Changez is the narrative of Daniel Pearl, something that limits the film as well as opens it up to a wider context of the messiness of Pakistan’s domestic policy which has been held hostage by the US in recent years.
There are numerous moments which stand out in the film – Changez being pulled up at JFK by the security, taken to another room for questioning, and stripped; Changez’s near break down with anger seeing how Erica, his American love-interest, makes public as art installations after 9/11 some of their most intimate conversations; Changez’s reminder to his father that it’s money earned in a consulting firm through firing ordinary workers that the cost of his sister’s wedding could be borne; the old publisher in Turkey telling Changez how he is merely a cog in the machine of American economic imperialism; Changez reminding the American journalist of his complicity with the CIA. These are all poignant moments – filled with suspense, drama, and pathos – that make for excellent cinema.
Yet, does the film finally work? At one level it does as it succeeds in depicting the complexity of America’s foreign policy and its impact in other parts of the world. At another level, the film fails as it verbalizes the silence of the American visitor in the novel, thereby reducing the symbolic power of Changez’s speech. The film, as an essentially dialogic medium, couldn’t retain the power of Changez’s speech in the novel, which denotes the chance of the silenced to speak.
However, Mira Nair must be credited for her ability to create a narrative of undecidability. She offers no solutions to Pakistan’s current problems. She is merely interested in showing the murkiness that defines America’s foreign policy and the messiness of Pakistan’s domestic policy.
Finally, like the novel, or more than the novel and that’s where the real credit to the film is due, Nair succeeds in foregrounding the futility of binary narrative of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Changez and his interlocutor, Bobby’s vulnerability, anger, and their susceptibility make them human, first and foremost. In the midst of gruesome events, the enactment of these essential human feelings across racial, geographical, linguistic, and cultural barriers makes the film a worthwhile watch.
[Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the dept. of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in South Asia. Check out his Personal Website.]
[This was first published in Cafe Dissensus Blog which is the blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine.]