'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' slaps you with an uncomfortable truth

Last Updated: Fri, May 17, 2013 11:39 hrs

How do you transform a book that is essentially an existential angst of the protagonist, into an exciting cat-and-mouse thriller full of intrigue, mind games and politics - ask Mira Nair and Mohsin Hamid - says Satyen K Bordoloi.

[Note: This column does not contain spoilers. It is meant merely to enhance your understanding of the movie (before or after you have seen it), and hopefully of the world.]

The problem with adaptations of books into films is the same as raising a baby - neither comes with a user manual but carries a world of expectation for its 'creator' to make the 'creation' reach its full potential.

The true skill of a director, one might argue, can never be seen unless s/he adapts a book. Satyajit Ray scorched the world cinema frame with a stunning debut that was a tinkered adaptation, while Andrei Tarkovsky's adaptation, Solaris, was hated by the writer of the book, but cineastes consider it a masterpiece.

Despite endless book adaptations both in commercial and art-house cinema, why the above two director stand out (among a few other notables) is because they did not merely adapt the books, but tinkered with the original source. The result - the adaptations of both these directors, those who've read the book and seen the film argue, work better than their original source. 

There's one more film you can add to the "tinkered-adaptation" super-sub category - Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Both the book and the film beat with the same soul, have their hearts in the same place, yet their bodies, their demeanours and idiosyncrasies are different from one another. Indeed, in a rare example, both the book and the movie (writer Mohsin Hamid also worked extensively on the screen story as well) seem to enhance and expand on one another. 

One of the strongest example of such a co-existence is Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke film and book 2001 - A Space Odyssey which were interestingly created together.   

If you look into the history of book adaptations, Mira Nair's film adds a new chapter to its history. The film takes on the universe of the book and expands it, changing quite a bit to create a taut, engaging thriller that is as political as it is thrilling. 

The book is a soliloquy of the protagonist who seemingly chats up a stranger to tell his story. The film meanwhile is a dialogue between two people, apparently holding opposite ideologies. American journalist Bobby (Liev Schreiber) is investigating the kidnapping of a friend and mentor professor. Like the CIA, he suspects that Changez (Riz Ahmed) a professor in a Lahore college, who teaches revolution, is responsible for the same.

As the two men sit together for a cup of tea, the viewer is treated to a cat and mouse game between the two as both try to outsmart the other even as Changez tells Bobby his story while trying to understand his story. Why does Changez tell almost a stranger, his story? Is Changez responsible for the kidnapping? Is there more to Bobby than meets the eye? 

As the film advances, like a camera zooming out, it reveals more of the landscape and thus the many truths and lies both the men, their countries and their ideologies hide.

If you look at the film merely as a thriller, you'd perhaps be disappointed. There have been many better thrillers. But judge it as a political thriller and you'll find few films in the history of cinema that match its conviction and its ability to slap you with the truth. But it is an uncomfortable, even an 'inconvenient' truth, hard to understand, harder to digest.

This is one of the most important films of our post 9/11 world because it addresses most of the important questions that have plagued the world since. Did America overreact after 9/11? Was America more after vengeance than justice? Is the Muslim world vengeful now or can they react any differently? Is there any other way for the Muslim world than resorting to an unwinnable war against a much powerful enemy? Can the western world do any better than to attempt to decimate the opposition - the entire Muslim world - completely? These are uncomfortable questions and the answers more so.

That Mira Nair had the guts not only to ask them, but to tackle them with such verve and intense energy, raises the bar for political cinema overall.

At the face of it, the film doesn't seem to take any sides, pitting both adversaries (not just the two antagonists, but their political ideologies) as the victims of circumstances.

Yet, just because the film does not take sides, it does not mean that it doesn't take a stand. The film takes a very strong, determined political stand. But telling you what that would be revealing the ending.

So go with the flow. Understand the politics of the two antagonists who sit for a cup of tea and conversation in a decrepit place (a metaphor for what we have turned the world into), try figuring out for yourself who's right and who's wrong - maybe you'll realise both are right, maybe you'll realise both are wrong. Maybe you, like the enlightened Buddha, will discover a middle path. 

But one thing is for sure - if you are a fairly aware person, sensitive or even open, you'll come out with enough thoughts to last you a long time.

There are enough allusions, allegories and metaphors in the film, just like in the book, to delight a discerning viewer. Take the one about 'fundamentals'. The book and the film find similarity between the 'fundamentals' of mercenaries of the financial and religious worlds. Both of them are equally ruthless, and destroy cultures and civilizations - one with bullets from guns, the other with numbers projected in excel sheets.

It tacitly blames America for being the training ground for the 'terrorism' of 'reckless and unaccountable capitalism', the harbinger of a 'capitalistic democracy' that is intent on the hostile takeover of the world, mostly through their merciless economic policies but sometimes also with their guns. The film is more direct in this accusation because it sits on the high-plinth of the present where it can see the immediate past, i.e. the financial collapse of 2008.  

In an indirect way, the story blames both the 'fundamentalists' for the decay of civilisation that has led to a very unstable and ruthless world where man is baying for another man's blood.

The truth about the world we live in is hard to digest. Yet, if you want to know how the world did end up becoming such a dangerous a place, if you are indeed interested in reading between the popular rhetoric, go watch The Reluctant Fundamentalist with an open mind, delve into its many layers, try and discover with its protagonist the story as to why people do what they do and perhaps, just perhaps you'll emerge wiser from the theatre.

And if you do, that will be the first step to un-complicate the world we live in, to 'un-fundamentalise' it. The very first step.

 Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.

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