The unreluctant filmmaker

Embrace change: Changez Khan (Riz Ahmad) finds solace in the arms of Erica (Kate Hudson).

Embrace change: Changez Khan (Riz Ahmad) finds solace in the arms of Erica (Kate Hudson).

Mira Nair knew she had to direct Mohsin Hamid’s acclaimed novel from the very first time she read it.

IT IS 8.30am in New York, and Mira Nair is on her second cup of chai at her home there as she settles in for her phone interview. Hearing the filmmaker on the other end of the line is undeniably thrilling, for her voice sounds exactly the way I’ve always imagined it would: warm, rich, rhythmic and colourful – yes, I may be ascribing characteristics of her movies to her, but what else is an ardent fan to do?

It is particularly exciting that our interview is on her recent film adaptation of the Mohsin Hamid novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a pet project of hers that she signed on to do even before the book was published. Indeed, there is much in the book’s tale of a young Pakistani’s eventual disillusionment with the American Dream and his struggle in deciding where he fits within his homeland’s identity, that spoke to the 55-year-old director.

“My first visit to Pakistan in 2004 or 2005 as an invited director was the initial inspiration for this movie,” shares Mira. “It was like being enveloped in an embrace of love, hospitality, Sufi music, culture and poetry! It was an experience that felt oddly familiar to me because my father was educated in Lahore (Pakistan), and I have been in similar environments in India.

“This is a contemporary Pakistan we never get a sight of, even just beyond the border in India. When writing about Pakistan, Indian authors largely deal with the Partition (the seccessation of Pakistan from India in 1947), and not Pakistan as it is today.”

That desire to depict a contemporary Pakistan crystalised for Mira when she was later given Mohsin’s manuscript for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, particularly as she noticed the parrallels between her own experiences and those of Changez Khan, the book’s protagonist – like him, and for that matter, his creator Mohsin, Mira was also raised in South Asia but educated in the United States.

“I immediately felt uniquely positioned to tell the story, to create a dialogue about two worlds so estranged, two worlds with their own monologues. This is especially so when the American monologue is so predominant, I really wanted to give a voice to the faceless people of Pakistan,” she says.

Moreover, the character of Changez captivated her, much as he did scores of readers around the world in Mohsin’s Booker Prize-nominated novel.

“I love that it is a coming-of-age story of a brown young man, but in today’s age, told with nuance and complexity,” she says.

One of the few Indian filmmakers – a female filmmaker, at that – to have made their mark internationally, Mira is known for her unique approach to filmmaking that blends South Asian and Western sensibilities.

She first made a name for herself with the 1988 classic Salaam Bombay!, which earned her an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film nomination as well as many other prestigious awards.

She is, however, perhaps best-known for her colourful, lively ode to Indian families and weddings, Monsoon Wedding in 2001, which was both a critical and commercial darling. The movie earned her the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, making her the first female recipient and only the second Indian after the great Satyajit Ray.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is by no means Mira’s first book adaptation; she brought William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair to the screen in 2004, and received many accolades for her adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake in 2006.

Nevertheless, she admits that The Reluctant Fundamentalist was by far the most difficult adaptation she has worked on, as the entire book is framed as a monologue where Changez narrates his life to a nameless American in a café over the course of one evening. Add to that the fact that the book famously ends on a very ambiguous note, and any filmmaker would have quite a challenge on their hands.

As such, Mira made several key changes to the book’s story, while keeping to its spirit.

The movie begins with an American professor at Lahore University being kidnapped by a terrorist cell. An American journalist, Bobby Lincoln (played by Liev Schreiber), arranges to interview Changez (Riz Ahmed), an anti-American professor at the university who is suspected of being involved in the abduction.

What unfolds is the story of a extraordinary journey where a young man learns that finding one’s identity is a matter of choice.

“It took three years to adapt the screenplay! I had to invent the character of Bobby, the reason these two men had met and why Changez would tell him his story,” explains Mira. “I also did not think I could muster up the ambiguous ending in the movie, I thought that as viewers, we had to know. So instead, I tried to preserve the spirit of that mystery, by us never knowing throughout the movie whether Changez will eventually become what he is suspected to be.”

Casting was no mean feat either; besides Schreiber, the film also boasts talented actors like Kiefer Sutherland, Kate Hudson, Om Puri and Shabana Azmi. The character of Changez, in particular, was a big challenge, and took Mira a year and a half to find.

“As soon as I met Riz, however, I had him audition one scene, and I gave it to him. I was looking for a combination of beauty and intelligence, but a great part of the role is also being able to listen, which is not easy to do onscreen. The bonus I got with Riz was an innate sex appeal and charisma, which is very important to this role.

Released earlier this year to much expectation, The Reluctant Fundamentalist has been garnering mixed reviews, though there has been much praise for Mira’s realisation of Pakistan and Riz’s elegant portrayal of a complex character.

Mira, however, remains proud of her work.

“It seems to be engaging people, many of whom see themselves in it, which is always what I set out to do with my films,” she says. “My universe and movies are about atmosphere, colour, culture, and what people surround themselves with. I’m trying to create a cinema that pulsates not just life, but truth.”

> The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens in cinemas nationwide on Oct 17.