Sunday, January 13, 2013

Coming apart



Writer Martin Amis once said that to deal with a cataclysmic event an artist should let at least ten years pass. Hindsight and introspection will put things in better perspective. Mira Nair seems to have picked up this dictum as her screen adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist hits the screens eleven years after the towers crumbled on the fateful day of September 11, 2001.

The two best literary novels on post-9/11 are arguably Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Hamid’s novel that Nair meatily distilled into a movie with help from the writer himself. The movie opens in present-day Lahore where an American, an English professor at Lahore University, is kidnapped by extremist forces and the officials believe Changez Khan (a charmingly propulsive Riz Ahmed), a professor and alleged sympathiser of the same forces, might be involved. At the same time, Changez agrees to an interview with an American journalist Bobby (a functional Liev Schreiber) for his piece on “militant academia” of Pakistan.

The readers of Hamid’s novel would remember that Changez talks about his lucrative corporate exploits in New York with a random stranger, here Schreiber is that stranger. Fresh out of Princeton, Changez lands up with a plum financial analyst position at Underwood Samson, a consultancy firm, “the Navy SEALs of finance”. While he is rising under the tutelage of his bare-knuckled boss Jim (a ruthlessly brilliant Kiefer Sutherland), Changez feels amazing and looks as if he’s ready to get a full-length Ayn Rand tattoo on his back.

However, the post-9/11 paranoia results in quite a few ridiculously humiliating situations for Changez and that triggers a sea change in his so far reverential attitude towards America. His mostly on-and-off relationship with Erica ( a somnolent Kate Hudson), who is not fully over her deceased ex-boyfriend, is not helping him either. Honestly, it’s baffling that irreparable cracks still appear in relationships these days on the basis of whether to have a child or not.

There’s not much wrong Nair could do with a source that is as compelling as Hamid’s novel, where every sentence fizzes with subdued energy. In fact, some of the liberties that she took with the novel’s plot are the movie’s weakest links (the climax, the missing out of major events, major alterations of secondary character’ lives). That said, this is probably her best film after Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala.

Yes, plot-wise, the movie is steroidal as compared to the novel’s organic self. But then, the canvas of the movie is bigger than the novel. Nair needs to be commended for her non-judgmental take on 9/11. She doesn’t paint either parties in broad strokes. Like Seurat, she carefully etches out the details. In one of the movie’s many standout scenes, the confrontation between Schreiber and Riz Ahmed literally crackles the screen up. Two differing ideologies whose aim is the same never collided better on screen in the last twelve months.

The all-pervasive Islamophobia that raised its hood post-9/11 has already been tackled by Nair in a short film for a collection of movies titled 11’09’’01. So, in a way, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is her full-length dip into the subject. For starters, her casting is impeccable. Riz Ahmed tops off this year on a very high note after his incredibly good performance in Ill Manors. After his previous turn as the gloriously bonkers Muslim in Four Lions, Ahmed over here carries his pain as a Muslim very ably. As the wet-behind-the-ears starry-eyed corporate guy he goes overboard but he is in his elements in the movie’s darker phase.

His near four-minute monologue at Kate Hudson’s performance art opening night screams “breakout performance” at the highest decibel-level possible. Of course, there’s the pat inevitability as to how Changez discovers his ‘true’ identity but even that has been handled cliché-free by Nair and she owes a huge credit to the intoxicating photography of Declan Quinn. His camera is very unfussy but nothing could have better captured the essence of Lahore. Like a gadfly, Quinn’s camera hangs on Changez’s face for one more moment and that shows his existential despair at its very best. Shimit Amin’s deft hand at editing too deserves a special mention.

That brings us to the all-important question: is the movie better than the book? Speaking at this year’s edition of Jaipur Literature Festival, the writer Lionel Shriver said that Lynne Ramsay’s film version of her book We Need To Talk About Kevin is an “elaborate trailer of the book”. Mira Nair’s largely superb, occasionally muted movie too is a trailer for Hamid’s terrific book. For its many virtues, it however needs to be mentioned that Nair tried to cram in too many themes— paranoia to xenophobia to war philosophy to unnecessary political jokes— which left the secondary characters barely any breathing space. It’s a testament to Om Puri’s years of experience as an actor that he still manages to shine through this mini mess. His takedown of the financial consultancy business is utterly imperious.

By the way, the naysayers should be told not to compare this with Khuda Kay Liye. The ridiculous discourse and kitschy elements of that movie render the comparison a levity of juxtaposing exquisite cheese and rudimentary chalk. Mira Nair has a genuine winner in her hands.

1 Comments:

At 6:07 AM, OpenID rantingsofadelusionalmind said...

Still not convinced that it will as good as the book itself. And I must thank Jai Arjun for planting that doubt in my mind, through his post.

I'd love to see the book being adapted as a soliloquy. Something like a 127 Hours, where the protagonist reminisces about the incidents of the past through a flashback. I think that'd make a more powerful film. That is, assuming of course, that Nair wanted to be the film as close (or "true') as possible to the book.

 

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