There’s a line in the film adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (movie on Rotten Tomatoes | book on Goodreads) that I absolutely love. A teacher in Pakistan speaks to his students about the American dream and asks, “Is there a Pakistani dream? One that doesn’t involve immigration?” As a Filipino who immigrated to Canada, that line struck a chord in me. The character was speaking about Pakistan, but it’s a question that is just as relevant to the Philippines and, I imagine, to many other countries worldwide. Even more powerful, I watched the movie last March 3 at TIFF Bell Lightbox, during the TIFF Books on Film series, and the author had flown in all the way from Pakistan to speak with Eleanor Wachtel after the film. Speaking about the line I loved, Hamid said, “It’s not that there should or shouldn’t be a Pakistani dream, but that Pakistanis should dream whatever the hell they want.”
Hamid’s point was that Pakistanis shouldn’t be lumped together into a single ideology, and indeed his story argues against fundamentalism of any kind. The result is richly textured, highly ambiguous, utterly real characters whose story just blew me away. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about a Pakistani man named Changez (Riz Ahmed) who is living the American dream as a Wall Street executive — he is brilliant and ruthless, cold-heartedly suggesting companies cut a large section of their workforce to save on costs. In many ways, he has everything to love about America and the opportunities it has given him to escape the comfortable yet less affluent life he had in Pakistan with a poet father. Yet when 9/11 happens, he faces a crisis of identity and an indefinable urge to return to his roots.
Hamid doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable material. When Changez first hears of the collapse of the World Trade Towers, he sits on his hotel bed in the Philippines, half in shock, and smiles. The effect is chilling — we are so used to the proper, understandable response to 9/11 that seeing a hero smile at the news makes us unsure what to think. It wasn’t a smile of evil, and I’m not sure how to describe it, but bravo to Ahmed for pulling off the scene with such complexity that we as viewers are compelled to dig deeper rather than immediately condemn him. In the film, Changez confesses his reaction to 9/11 to an American reporter (Liev Shrieber), who looks at him with disgust. It’s not that he was happy, Changez explains. Who could be happy at the death of so many people? It was just at that moment, there was a sense of satisfaction at arrogance brought low. Didn’t the reporter ever feel that?
In his interview after the film, Hamid explained that he got the idea for the scene from seeing the reaction at his gym in London when news of 9/11 broke on the TV screens. “What kind of gym was this?” a horrified Wachtel asked. Hamid joked it was an Al Qaeda training facility but immediately explained that it was a regular gym, and that the faces of the people he saw reacting much like Changez did were from a variety of backgrounds. Obviously, he explains, none of them were actually thrilled at so many people dying, but that split second satisfaction intrigued him, and he wanted to write it into his book. “One of my themes as a writer is to re-complicate what has been oversimplified,” Hamid told Wachtel, and indeed Reluctant Fundamentalist does just that. It raises much more questions than it answers, and is immensely more powerful for it.
Reluctant Fundamentalist is somewhat unusual in that Hamid himself collaborated on the adaptation, so it was great hearing his insights into the different mediums. For example, he said that both versions employed ambiguity but in very different ways. He joked that the film version of ambiguity lay in its lack of English subtitles for the lines in Urdu. The lack of subtitles wasn’t a big deal through most of the movie until one of the final scenes where, after a climactic moment, the protagonist Changez gives a long, impassioned speech in Urdu, other characters nodding sagely at his words and I wondering if the mystery around his words was deliberate. Apparently not, since the first thing Hamid did after the film was translate the speech for members of the audience who “don’t speak Urdu and may be wondering how the film ended.” (Hamid did say that the DVD had subtitles, so this might have just been a one off fluke.)
Listening to Hamid talk about the making of the film was such a great opportunity to glimpse behind the scenes and see how what worked so well in a book was adapted to work well in such a different way in film. Hamid said that for him, a successful film adaptation was not a literal translation of the book to the screen, and that it had to be different in order to take into account its different medium. Unlike film, “in a book, there’s a greater space for creative co-imagination for the reader,” Hamid said. “Novels invite the reader to create their own story.” Hamid has a great respect for both mediums and particularly for how the differences between the two allow for different, yet equally rich, storytelling experiences. When asked what his favourite thing about the film was, Hamid cited the music, because “it’s so deeply important and different from what I do.”
I haven’t read the book. After the movie, I want to, though given some of the changes in the adaptation that I actually really like (for example, Changez’s girlfriend is much stronger in the movie, due to director Mira Nair’s desire to portray strong women, and also the movie continues Changez’s story far beyond what the book covered), I think I might end up liking the movie more. Still, I love the story and I’d love to see how it’s interpreted on the page. The book is available at the TIFF store, along with the other titles on the TIFF Books on Film series.
Next up on TIFF Books on Film series is on March 31, 7 pm, about filmmaker Agnieszka Holland on her adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square, about the conflict between a sheltered young woman and her domineering father in the high society of 1850s New York. For the full schedule of TIFF Books on Film 2014 and details on how to purchase tickets, see the TIFF website.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist and all the books in the TIFF Books on Film series are available at the TIFF store.
Thank you to TIFF for a ticket to see The Reluctant Fundamentalist with Mohsin Hamid at the Books on Film series in exchange for an honest review.
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