The Reluctant Fundamentalist

By Mohsin Hamid

Screenplay by Ami Boghani

Motion picture direction by Mira Nair

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

I saw the film before I read the book. I was confused by the film’s ending as I didn’t know exactly where its fictional protagonist (nor the author for the matter) stood and what exactly had transpired; I figured my confusion would be cleared up when I read the book a few days later, but, lo and behold, I was left more confused than ever and OUTRAGED! I was outraged by what I consider its author, Mohsin Hamid’s dishonesty on some very important issues and by how both its screenplay writer, Ami Boghani, and its director, the well-respected Pakistani director Mira Nair, had so bowdlerized the script as to make parts of it unrecognizable from the novel. (She was also the director of the movie Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, a provocative movie set in 16th century India. In 2001 she released Monsoon Wedding (2001), a film I thought wonderful about a chaotic Punjabi Indian wedding. She also directed The Namesake.)

I don’t consider The Reluctant Fundamentalist Ms. Nair’s best work. I didn’t like the novel’s conceit--the novel uses the technique of a frame story, which takes place during the course of a single evening in an outdoor Lahore cafe, where a bearded Pakistani man called Changez (the Urdu name for Genghis) tells a nervous American stranger about his love affair with an American woman, and his eventual abandonment of America. There is no dialogue between the two; the narrator does all the talking. We don’t really know who the American is, nor why Changez is telling him his story.

He says he comes from a well-to-do Pakistani family whose fortunes have fallen in recent years. For a while he lived the immigrant’s dream. Because he’s so clever he got admitted into Princeton and Harvard, graduated at the top of his class, and was hired by the elite valuation firm of Underwood Samson. For a while the world was his oyster. He thrived on the energy of New York and fell in love with an elegant, wealthy woman who promised him entry into exalted Manhattan society.

What his company did was evaluate other companies, seeking ways in which they could cut costs and increase profits. As the companies streamlined operations of course unnecessary jobs were eliminated. Changez was taken under the wing of a supervisor well pleased by the ruthlessness with which he addressed his work.

All of this changed after 9/11—secretly Changez finds he was pleased by the efficiency with which the terrorists carried out their plan—the sheer audacity of it! Now, because of his ethnicity he is under suspicion whenever he travels. For reasons of her own that have little to do with him, his beloved Erica withdraws from him… All of these things lead him to question his life in the United States―he decides to quit his job (knowing he is giving up all chance of every landing such a handsome position again) and returns to his family in Pakistan.

Mr. Hamid does not make Changez’s politics entirely clear—he becomes a popular teacher in a college in Lahore, where he tells his students that “no country inflicts death so readily upon the inhabitants of other countries, frightens so many people so far away, as America,” yet he denies that he is in cahoots with terrorists of the marauding gangs of students intent on violence.

Perhaps the book’s ending is clever—I found it devious. Changez and the stranger walk through the streets on Lahore arriving at the man’s hotel. The waiter from the restaurant has followed them, (whatever that means.) As Changez reaches to shake his hand, he sees him reaching into his jacket and detects a glint of metal: “Given that you and I are now bound by a certain shared intimacy, I trust it is from the holder of your business card.” And so the book ends.

I am currently a part of writing group in Los Angeles in which the majority of writers are interested in writing screen plays. A cardinal rule of screenplay writing I am given to understand is “show, don’t tell.”

I can imagine that when the time came to turn The Reluctant Fundamentalist into a movie certain problems arose. For the most part, My Dinner with André notwithstanding, a conversation between two people, actually here a monologue, does not make for interesting filming. That being the case, I can understand that changes needed to be made; what I am shocked by is the degree to which changes were made.

The list is long. Take how Changez’s relationship with Erica is represented. In the book she is a budding writer who is emotionally shattered by the early death of her fiancée. In fact, she is unable to move forward and eventually is incarcerated in a mental institution, where she disappears, presumably because she has taken her own life.

Now if that’s a bit of stretch, consider how things have been changed in the movie. In the movie she has been changed into a photographer; they meet when she is doing a shoot in Central Park because inadvertently he was included in one of her pictures. In the book the couple never successfully consummate their union―her loyalty to a dead lover have made her unresponsive. In the movie, they do make love, however, the relationship is destroyed when she uses their relationship as the subject for a show. Changez is outraged, berates her for being drunk on the night when she was driving and her lover was killed, and walks off. No such thing happened in the book.

At times the movie improves on the book, like when Changez tells Erica that in his culture mourning is allowed to widows for only a certain length of time and then they are expected to move on with their lives. When they make love, he suggests that she pretend he is her dearly departed lover.

In the movie an American professor is kidnapped and murdered, something that doesn’t happen in the book. Changez is persuaded to examine his values on a business trip to Chili. In the movie it’s a trip to Turkey. In the movie his father is a poet. In the book his profession is not named. In the movie his mother is disturbed when he tells his father that he supplied the money for his sister’s wedding. This incident is not recalled in the book.

And so on. All of these contrivances, even those that may have improved the story, left me confounded and feeling as though I was being jerked about. But, the thing that I find the most disturbing is that, with such interesting material at hand, Mr. Hamid has little to contribute to struggle between east and west that is so troubling our world. I’m only mildly interested in reading his latest novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

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