As The Reluctant Fundamentalist premieres in Pakistan on Thursday, the film’s subject continues to be as pertinent as when the words ‘suicide attack’ and ‘religious extremists’ became a regular part of our political discourse. When Mohsin Hamid published his book in 2007, the slim novella was preternaturally timely: barely six years after the 9/11 attacks, Hamid managed to capture the anxiety, disillusionment and alienation of American Pakistanis facing the fallout of the war on terror.
Strip searched, deported, pulled off airplanes, and grilled and scrutinised endlessly, these students, residents and citizens of Pakistani/Muslim origins in the US were dismayed to find out that they could no longer achieve the American dream they aspired to.
The novel centred on a young man, Changez, whose disillusionment leads him from Wall Street to the lanes of Lahore as he abandons his American dream and becomes what some may call ‘radicalised’. Years before the Raymond Davis incident was splashed on our front pages, The Reluctant Fundamentalist depicted Changez recounting his metamorphosis to an American – presumably an intelligence operative – at a café in Lahore.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist may have been an artistic endeavour, but it hit a raw political nerve, resonating deeply with readers, not all of them necessarily of a Muslim background. Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, who was enchanted by Lahore when she first visited it, resolved to make a film set in that historical city. A ‘mongrel’ or ‘hybrid’, much in the same manner Hamid describes himself, Nair had lived in South Asia as well as the US, and could identify with the situation presented in the novel. Of course, though she is rarely introduced as such, Nair is the wife of the esteemed scholar Mahmood Mamdani, who has written extensively on the war on terror and has questioned the assumption that people’s political behaviour can be deduced from their religion.
“There is no reason to believe that Changez is religious,” stresses Hamid. “But because he is mistrustful of the US, he is perceived as a fundamentalist. It is a political issue; I don’t think it’s about religion.”
The book contains a critique of US foreign policy, but more deeply, it shows the reciprocal mistrust in east-west relations. Hamid’s book has steadily accrued accolades since its publication, including a run as a New York Times bestseller and a nomination for the Booker Prize. With this film adaptation starring big names like Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland, it will reach a much wider audience. Its release in Pakistan is a reminder of the kind of art that results from collaboration across borders, and also of the raw talent that this nation posseses.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 24th, 2013.