Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Fraught Pakistan-U.S. Relationship Laid out in a Kind of Film Noir ; Mohsin Hamid Teams Up with Mira Nair to Bring His Novel to the Screen

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Fraught Pakistan-U.S. Relationship Laid out in a Kind of Film Noir ; Mohsin Hamid Teams Up with Mira Nair to Bring His Novel to the Screen

Article excerpt

Mohsin Hamid teams up with Mira Nair to bring his novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" to the screen.


It seems far-fetched that "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," Mohsin Hamid's 2007 best-selling novel, would be turned into a movie. First, there's its narrative structure. A young man greets an American tourist in a cafe in the Pakistani city of Lahore and proceeds to tell his life story. That's the entire book; we never hear from the American or anyone else.

But also, the young man, Changez Khan, is a Pakistani radical, not a sympathetic type on American screens. Finally, as the tale unfolds, clues mount that he might be a terrorist and the American might be a spy who has come to kill him, though this remains ambiguous -- a literary trait hard to capture on film.

And yet the movie is opening in the United States on Friday, directed and co-written by Mira Nair, who may also seem an odd choice -- "an Indian director making a Pakistani film in America," as she puts it. It played at the film festivals in Venice and Toronto last year.

From another angle, though, Ms. Nair is a natural fit. Her father was raised in Lahore before the partitioning that carved out Pakistan of India as a separate nation. Later, as a lawyer in New Delhi, he helped found the India-Pakistan Friendship Society. Ms. Nair first visited Lahore only in 2004, when she was 47, as a result of a speaking invitation.

"The trip had a big impact on me," she said in an interview here. "There was this incredible feeling of familiarity -- the hospitality, the music, the artistic expression: Modern paintings are everywhere. We never see this aspect of contemporary Pakistan on our screens."

She resolved to change that.Two years later she read Mr. Hamid's novel in galleys, saw it as an ideal vehicle and arranged to meet the author at his home base in London. A fan of her films, he sold her the rights and helped with some early drafts of the screenplay.

Ms. Nair made clear that for cinematic reasons, they would have to fill in some of the novel's blanks. They had to establish who these two characters were from the beginning. (Along with the screenwriter William Wheeler, they decided that the American was a C.I.A. officer working undercover as a journalist and that the Pakistani was a popular professor with militant connections.) And they had to decide what happens at the end -- what the characters do after the novel's deliberately inconclusive last page, and how their actions reflect not just their roles in world politics but also their value as human beings.

It's a risky proposition commercially to make a film about a clash of ideas in a foreign country, much less a clash of ideas in Pakistan. In fact this film almost wasn't made. One prospective investor offered Ms. Nair's longtime producer, Lydia Dean Pilcher, $2 million. Ms. Nair recounted that when the investor was told that the budget would have to be much higher, he replied: "You have a Muslim as protagonist. Two million is all it's worth."

The Doha Film Institute in Qatar, which had first agreed to finance half the film's budget, stepped in to cover the entire cost, which amounted to just under $15 million.

The film, starring Riz Ahmed as Changez and Liev Schreiber as the American, received mixed reviews at the Venice festival in August. Time magazine called it "tense, thoughtful and truly international." The Guardian praised its "bold and muscular storytelling" but cringed at the adaptation's "rather feeble liberal-humanist" touches.

"The book is about the mutual suspicion that the two men and the two countries, America and Pakistan, have of each other," Ms. Nair said. "We use the enigma of the situation -- is he a spy, is he a terrorist, are neither, are both? -- as the springboard for a dialogue, a bridge connecting them, and connecting us, making each of us see ourselves in what we had regarded as 'the other. …

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