Mohsin Hamid’s novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist was a global bestseller. Mira Nair’s adaptation has not become a phenomenon in the same way, despite being an improvement on the book.
The book took the form of the “fundamentalist” addressing the reader as if he/she were an American who has followed him into a Pakistani tea shop. The opening sentence sets up the scenario: “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?” In this case the American, Bobby, is played by Liev Schreiber, while Riz Ahmed plays his biggest role yet as the possible fundamentalist Changez Khan. As well as using this clever and engaging narrative device, the book addressed lots of timely issues raised by the 9/11 attacks by showing how Changez came to be a terrorist suspect. The film fills out the slender story told in the book.
Fear and uncertainty is introduced early on in the book, as Changez reassures his guest (you, the reader): “Do not be frightened of my beard: I am a lover of America.” In both film and book we are left wondering whether this is a feint or we really have nothing to fear – can a Muslim with a beard really be a lover of America? The excitement of this premise is added to by director Mira Nair who has introduced a new plot line about an American professor who is kidnapped by terrorists.
More significantly, the background of Changez the fundamentalist is filled out. He comes from an upper class Pakistani family that is cultured, but downwardly mobile. Young men from respectable families that have fallen on hard times are something of a preoccupation for Hamid, whose first novel Moth Smoke features a similar character. Perhaps these men are ciphers for South Asia’s venerable Moghul culture which has undergone a similar process of decline from an age of courtly sophistication and power.
Whatever Hamid’s intention, the family of his hero Changez Khan (Urdu for Genghis Khan, the all conquering Mongol king) is liberal and mellow. His father (played by the great Om Puri) is a poet – Urdu poetry and qawwali devotional music create a pleasant picture of the family home and of Pakistani culture. But as everyone knows, poetry doesn’t pay the bills. Changez heads to Princeton and then to make his fortune as a Wall Street consultant.
Soon he’s living the American dream, even if it means downsizing and ‘rationalising’ businesses for the ruthless Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland). Things become all the more dreamy when he meets a nice American girl, Erica, played by Kate Hudson. But this is a cautionary tale about the after effects of the 9/11 attacks, at least partly. The attacks lead people to change the way they look at and even act towards Changez. In turn, he becomes more aware of the effects his work has on people – ie laying them off.
There are two genres, or sub-genres, of film that The Reluctant Fundamentalist brings to mind. Most obviously the post-9/11 procedural thriller of the Zero Dark Thirty or Homeland variety. If those thrillers showed what happened to the minor characters who get wrongly arrested, and humiliated, in the search for the genuine terrorists, this would be it. The change in the national mood in America from being wounded and jumpy to downright paranoia definitely rings true.
If your name is Changez Khan and you work on Wall Street, it is entirely natural to pillage and sack. Red blooded capitalists might see Wall Street consultancy as a good thing, but not Mira Nair. This brings us to the other type of film The Reluctant Fundamentalist engages with – the financial satire. Some have said that this is handled rather clumsily, but Changez suffers very similar misgivings that Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox does in Wall Street. It may be that criticism of big business in movies just tends not to be subtle.
It’s a truism that one man’s terrorist is the next man’s freedom fighter, but this is a thought we all have to engage with nowadays. Likewise, we all have our own fundamental truths, even if they do not involve flying planes into skyscrapers or putting on a suicide vest. The Reluctant Fundamentalist might not be the most white knuckle of thrillers, but it definitely raises some interesting issues about the modern world and reminds us that in the end it’s humans like us at stake.