An AXIS Cross
The film scores over the book in its instant appeal. It is tight and full of action, and Mira Nair’s additions to the plot bring it to life. Seen by itself, the film would have satisfied us
Peggy Mohan Delhi
My first glimpse of The Reluctant Fundamentalist was the film version, in a small cinema in an American university town. There were no subtitles, and the energy and the dialogue here and there in Urdu and Punjabi drew me in at once. I knew much of it was only atmospheric, but it could easily have left an American audience feeling excluded. I left the hall wondering if the film was meant for them or for me.
I decided to get hold of the book to find out where it had all started. At first, the style jarred: a long and voluble discourse addressed to an American listener who is never named or described. But, after a while, the story took over, and I found myself enjoying the ride.
In truth, there is nothing in the novel that would be new to anyone from India or Pakistan. We all remember our own ‘sneaking admiration’ for the men who brought down the Twin Towers, and our understanding that we must not say out loud that we were anything but shocked and saddened by 9/11. But the intent of the novel is not news.
By leaving the listener vague, Mohsin Hamid is using the story to appeal to the post-9/11 American public to hear him out. He has carefully constructed his story and peopled it with an unobjectionable Pakistani hero and a rainbow array of reasonable liberal Americans: a young bright Black executive who befriends our hero at work, a gay mentor concerned about his state of mind, and his girlfriend’s mother, a white American who feels his pain. It is not a book aimed at us.
The story itself is an allegory. The woman he loves is Erica (as in America), and the dead man she loves is Chris (Christian America). The hero is a young Pakistani with a high-paying job in a valuation firm in New York who dreams of being accepted into upper class America if he manages to marry Erica. Familiar!
But, what did Hamid gain, I wonder, by naming his hero Changez Khan? American readers would miss the symbolism, and to us the name elicits a laugh. Any publisher in India or Pakistan would have brought this up.
Mira Nair gives the American listener in the story a face, though not a voice. He is no longer the benign American reader but an agent on a mission, and not on Changez’s side at all. This, to use a film image, is an axis cross. Changez is no longer talking to us: it feels as though we are with him as he explains himself to a dangerous American outsider.
There are places, however, where Nair’s changes work. She has shifted Changez’s moment of epiphany from Chile to Turkey, where the man whose firm he is assessing likens him to the janissaries who were trained to turn on their own people in the service of the sultan. As Changez walks on the street wondering who he really is, a little boy in a white circumcision gown crosses his path. No comment. Effective.
What did Mohsin Hamid gain by naming his hero Changez Khan? American readers would miss the symbolism, and to us the name elicits a laugh
It is in the film, too, that the cryptic use of ‘fundamentalist’ comes across most strikingly: scenes in Changez’s New York office where he is being indoctrinated into the ‘fundamentals’ of the destructive work he must do, counterposed later with a scene of an extremist trying to recruit him in Pakistan, speaking of the ‘fundamentals’ of the Quran. It is a light-bulb moment. I wish Nair had just let it go without feeling the need to underline the message with a flashback to New York! The book is subtler: you have to look for this.
In the film you only get to hear Changez’s voice in dialogue. This makes him much more convincing. In the book, where he is also the narrator, he sounds so much like an English butler that you feel you have blundered into The Remains of the Day. There are Pakistanis in the US who do talk like this, but they tend to have been educated in Britain, and to be a generation older. Not 22-year-olds fresh from Pakistan via Princeton. It is possible that Hamid gave his hero this British voice deliberately as a quaint touch to charm the American reader: an acceptable ‘other’. For me, it rang false.
The film, however, does not even try to capture the otherworldly fragility of the book’s Erica. Hamid has taken pains to make her remote, harmful only to herself and never intentionally to Changez. She is a woman beset by nostalgia and trapped in a fantasy world that denies the present, and her end is inconclusive. Ironically, she even passes on this trait to Changez, who lives the rest of his life in Pakistan, claiming to ‘love’ America, imagining Erica by his side, and wishing he could reach out to her somehow even though she is probably dead.
In the film Nair has pepped her character up, made her edgy, reckless, and actually guilty of causing her boyfriend’s death. A tragic America helpless in the face of a changed world has been replaced with a louder, more aggressive America, capable of bad intent. Both views are valid. But, while Hamid’s intent is bringing his American reader around, Nair does not coddle the American viewer, and prefers to go with what she can easily film.
The film does not even try to capture the otherworldly fragility of the book’s Erica. Ironically, she even passes on this trait to Changez, who lives the rest of his life in Pakistan, claiming to ‘love’ America, imagining Erica by his side, and wishing he could reach out to her somehow even though she is probably dead
Where the film scores over the book in its instant appeal. It is tight and full of action, and Nair’s additions to the plot brings it to life. Seen by itself the film would have satisfied us. The novel, on the other hand, takes time to grow on us, and when it wins us over it is through the power of the idea behind it, the skill with which Hamid has constructed his characters to save everyone’s face. The book is, above all, a work of persuasion. Its centre of gravity is America. For the film it is Pakistan that comes across as bright and warm and full of life. Like a walk through the same terrain, only taking a different path.