Thursday, May 30, 2013

Reluctant Fundamentalist - a Movie Worth Watching

I had long wanted to read Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist but couldn’t get round to doing that before Mira Nair’s movie adaptation arrived. I watched the movie at the theatre last week. It’s both a thriller and a thoughtful film. It has all the trappings of a ‘sexy’ movie with drama, sex, romance and a fast-paced narrative and also an underlying tension, a constant anger and protestation.

The story starts with the kidnap of an American professor in Lahore. Following the kidnap Changez (the protagonist) is being interviewed by a CIA agent, masquerading as a journalist, involved in the search operation to find the professor and Changez is narrating his story starting a decade back in 2001, a year before 9/11 happened. The narrative moves back and forth taking the viewer through Changez years in the US and the modern day Lahore. Chanez’s past, in the US, explains the choices he made in life in the later years following 9/11.

Changez comes from a liberal Muslim family which is on a financial decline. Changez a bright chap goes to the US for studies and laps up a job in an investment banking company, a dream start to a career in the US. Similarly, Changez has a fulfilling emotional life: he is in a passionate affair and live-in with an artist (Kate Hudson). As Changez starts climbing the career ladder, 9/11 happens and his world starts changing and so does the world of Muslims in America. As Americans’ patriotism and schizophrenia rise making the land suddenly inhospitable to ‘outsiders,’ Changez goes through a series of experiences (humiliating frisking at US airport, being arrested for nothing by police etc) which leave him humiliated challenging all his preconceived notions about the US and his position in it as a Muslim.

And this inner churning gradually brings into sharp relief the questions of identities which had until now lain dormant in Changez. The more his Muslim identity (made aggressive by post-9/11 experience) asserts itself, the more mortifying Muslim-belittlements (made through conversations in office in surcharged post 9/11 atmosphere and general attitude towards them in the US) feel and the wider the cracks in Changez’s American dream get.

Finally an office visit to Istanbul pushes him off the cliff: he returns to New York, resigns his job and goes back to Pakistan.

The performances are very understated. There were enough opportunities for Changez (Riz Khan) to break out into an angry anti-West rant but he didn’t; yet the simmering anger comes through effectively.

But the most important aspect of the movie (or perhaps the book) is its emphasis on the fact that those outside the circle of fundoos who identify with the ‘Islam under attack’ phenomenon think it’s their identity (or people who share it globally or the lands they inhibit) which is under attack and not so much the religion. And it’s precisely how the occasionally drinking Changez who doesn’t give up his dalliance with alcohol even after embracing the cause of his faith/land/people - feels after 9/11. However, how Changez’s espousal of the cause is different from his other comrades across the world is that unlike them Changez doesn’t believe in violence.

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