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Pakistani questions the ‘fundamentals’ of the American dream

Updated May 28, 2013 11:09am


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Riz Ahmed stars in Mira Nair's film adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist". — Courtesy Photo
Riz Ahmed stars in Mira Nair's film adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist". — Courtesy Photo
Riz Ahmed as Changez Khan. — Courtesy Photo.
Riz Ahmed as Changez Khan. — Courtesy Photo.
Riz Ahmed and Liev Schreiber. — Courtesy Photo
Riz Ahmed and Liev Schreiber. — Courtesy Photo

Mira Nair’s film adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist was always going to be a daunting task – ultimately the end result was somewhat of a mixed bag.

Changez Khan, played brilliantly and earnestly by Riz Ahmed, is a college professor in Lahore, suspected by the CIA of having ties to a local terrorist organisation and its involvement in the kidnapping of an American professor.

We find a defiant Changez sitting in a tea house across from Bobby Lincoln, a sweaty and red-faced American journalist played by Liev Schreiber, questioning him about his possible involvement in the kidnapping

Driving into flashback, we learn that Changez was not always the fiery college professor teaching revolution in Pakistan. He was raised in a family headed by his father, an Urdu poet with dwindling fortunes, and thus had to work hard to eventually find his way to Princeton.

The film unfurls in a non-linear manner and a narrative that is interlaced with a series of incidents that are at times stale and predictable and at times quite real and intimate. The script does not delve as deeply into his psyche as might be hoped, but operates superficially on the situational complexities of the plot.

Changez emerges as a straight-talking Ivy League go-getter who loves the US, and its "level playing fields,” and impresses his way into a job at a Wall Street valuation firm run by Jim Cross, a smooth corporate tough guy played with a sly urbanity by Kiefer Sutherland, who appears as less of a character and more of a symbol of American capitalism.

At the firm, Changez’s stock rises as a brilliant analyst, with a keen eye for ruthlessly cutting the fat in businesses and increasing their profitability. And with it come the luxuries of a life in New York and a six-figure income.

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He meets and falls in love with Erica, a bohemian photographer mourning a dead lover. Their courtship is one of the highlights of both the novel and the movie, and Kate Hudson brings believability to her character, despite her significantly diminished role.

Nair's Changez though, becomes both a replacement and an exotic accessory in Erica’s life, “the ultimate downtown status symbol,” he later realises, which is a tragic departure from Hamid's novel, where she plays as much of a defining role as the events of 9/11 in changing his life's trajectory.

It isn't an accident that Erica is “America” missing one syllable.

In a startling scene, Changez allows a smile to cross his face as the 9/11 attacks unfold before him on television. “David had struck Goliath,” he says.

Changez finds himself as an outsider despite his Wall Street cred. He is predictably searched at an airport in silent humiliation and the post 9/11 xenophobia starts to seep in to his life. He starts to grow a beard in apparent rebellion. And while the scenes are filmed well, they feel a touch tired and clichéd after 11 years since the event.

And thus begins Changez’s battle for identify. After 9/11 people around the world had to choose sides, rekindling George W. Bush’s appalling, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” but as Changez says, "I didn't pick a side — it was picked for me."

With his sense of belonging shaken, Changez’s life begins to spiral out of control as the work that he does coupled with the political climate of the time starts to smack of American hubris. He finds himself caught in the limbo between the attraction of what he thought was a free society and his loyalties to his roots, all laced with the pain of a romance gone afoul.

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Finding nothing left for him in New York, he returns to Lahore, where he becomes a professor, instantly popular amongst his students, and eventually finds himself the object of suspicion by the CIA — an unenviable position to be in even in the best of times.

It’s plain to see that Nair went to great lengths to ensure the authenticity of the settings. The smooth flow of the visuals, though often broken with the unsteady hand-held camera work, is still appealing. Her use of music to drive the emotion has always been one of her strengths and it’s true in this case as well.

But the changes between the novel and the screenplay are unsubtle and contrived, and the unseemly attempt to make it more suspenseful robbed it of its depth and its intimacy, and many fans of the book are surely destined to be disappointed.

Hamid's novel is a personal story of a young man falling in love with a country and a woman, and how it all goes awry just as fast as it happens.

But despite its shortcomings there are many aspects of the movie that salvage it, most notable of which is Riz Ahmed's stand-out performance.

Although unwieldy at times, and suffering from a tinge of heavy-handed and simplified metaphors about being Muslim in post-9/11 America, the film is nonetheless a relatable exploration of the immigrant identity in the US.

"The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is playing across theatres in Pakistan, including the Atrium, Cinepax and Cineplex in Karachi.


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Comments (26) Closed

Naved May 27, 2013 07:24pm

When will we stop publishing these negative stereotype stories about our homeland. Dawn needs to learn lessons from history. These are false issues and stupid stories. When will we wake up

pathanoo May 27, 2013 07:34pm

Why is it that Muslims in the West suffer most from alienation? Why is it that they always blame the West for their problems? Why is it that they want the West to conform to their 7th century ways? Why is it that they beg and grovel to get permission to get in (or get in illegally) the West and then all of a sudden start screaming discrimination and oppression? Have they ever rationally, objectively or fairly considered the reason why not only the West but the WHOLE NON-MUSLIM WORLD IS WARY OF THEM AND RATHER NOT DEAL WITH THEM? I will give you a reason to ponder......... How many Muslims in the West criticized the Boston Bombing by two chechan Muslims? I THOUGHT SO!!

Tariq May 27, 2013 08:25pm

Neither the book nor the movie is relatable to this immigrant and millions of others who have continued to thrive in the post 911 America. My own recollection is that of the dozens of Non-Muslim American friends who called in the immediate aftermath of the 911 attacks to make sure we were not being harassed or ill-treated. I am proud of the restraint and fairness Americans displayed after the terror attacks. Particularly as compared to the way Pakistanis behaved last year after the news of a little known anti-islam video, which was seen by about six people before Pakistanis made it into a household name.

Of course, nobody will write a book or make a movie about people like me or millions of other Muslims who have continued to thrive in the post 911 America. That does not fit in the with the victimhood narrative these people want to push. .

Syed May 27, 2013 08:53pm

I have serious reservations on the above obscene picture shown by Dawn in this Land of the Pure.

sfomann May 27, 2013 10:17pm

@Tariq: Thank you Tariq. Exactly my experience in the US

Ketan May 28, 2013 01:57am

Is this supposed to be a review ? The piece is full of the film' s summary and only a small part of it is devoted to original commentary by the author .Disappointing

independentthinker May 28, 2013 02:08am

@Tariq: How do you define "Thrive"? If making money in the U.S. is considered "thriving", then i guess a lot of Pakistani's are still thriving! However, at the border crossing, because of your origin, you are being harassed and asked many irrelevant questions, when you are due for a promotion, because of the color of your skin and the country of your origin, you are being denied, when you are being served at a restaurant and you notice, it is not the same as the family sitting on the next table who happen to be caucasian - you know things have changed. I live in Canada and used to cross the border into the United States without any questions before 9/11. Since that time, i have been pulled over at least a dozen times and most of the times, have been asked the same questions again and again, and when i ask why? the response is - in case if you answer it differently this time! So, you can't say things haven't changed - if you think they haven't - you are just being ignorant!

S May 28, 2013 04:01am

@Tariq: Yes if u mix in their culture and society then u can thrive very well, Americans r very accommodating. Unfortunately there r many people who don't want to leave their own culture and identity. And these r the people the movies r based on and Americans can be very biased against them.. And believe it or not, such people out number easily those who feel ashamed of their religion and culture.

Akil Akhtar May 28, 2013 04:34am

@pathanoo: How many in the west and especially thier media or leadership condemn the massacre of thousands in Iraq for no reason, I thought so too. Why yhave they done what they have done to the palestinians...for so long without any conscience. We continue to think if the master is angry then we must have done something wrong.

Sameena May 28, 2013 05:08am

An indian actor, a girl wearing non traditional pakistani dress while sitting in a house in lahore with her mother and father...just not original. And yes unfortuntaely there are 2 kinds of people in this world, one who willify the whole nation due to a wrongdoing of an individual and the others who are wise enough to see not all muslims are same. I think this movie is simply a poor and cheap effort to become famous by the director.

danial tariq May 28, 2013 05:17am

Well, I guess it is not every American that need to blamed for post 9/11 posture or reaction, however one thing for sure is that their state policies which are in general for themselves and does'nt care much about other people' life and property. Their reaction for purely justified, like any extremist reaction would be justified after his family die in an air borne strike from some toy, being operated some thousands of miles away. it is these emotions of mankind that have resulted in this scenario, that we are characters of, and situation would get even worst by expressing our emotions of revenge or retaliation.

my2cents May 28, 2013 05:44am

@Tariq: People in Pakistan need the same kind of patriotism as yours for their own country. Trust me things arent as bad if the countries are just left alone. They can fix themselves without someone from outside constantly telling them what they want and how they want it done. The question here is about the duality and having two different standards dealing with two similar scenarios. If one fails to recognize that then they are not thinking outside the box and may be a part of a bigger problem not so obvious to the most perhaps.

Heena May 28, 2013 07:24am

@Tariq: Very well said. I am a single mother living my American Dream. In America, I have created financial, social, physical, and emotional security for myself. In America, there is care, compassion, hard work, charity, human dignity, there are human rights, and yes, the leveled playing field. In Pakistan, women are being stopped from voting!!!! America is moving forward and Pakistan is moving backwards. So glad I am an American Woman and not a Pakistani woman any more.

Ahmed Muzafar May 28, 2013 08:00am

I'm a muslim Pakistani American and love USA till death. I came to USA had good morals and ethics of a nice Pakistani educated middle class family. I worked hard here in my favorite country USA and now I have everything possible a person would want to have a happy life. May Allah bless USA Aaameen!

Munir Abbasi May 28, 2013 08:26am

Mr. Haqqi

Don't you think you spoiled the fun? I think after you have suggested most of the plot, there will be no fun watching this movie.

AB May 28, 2013 08:27am

@pathanoo: Because every Muslim hate USA and if anything bad happen in America Muslim Rejoice And love it BTW I am Pakistani catholic and blessed to be in america

DrBashir May 28, 2013 08:32am

@pathanoo: They have been condemned. Just the mainstream media doesn't cover it as vigorously.

Samofnj May 28, 2013 09:02am

@pathanoo: Pathanoo.......You were right al long in your comment till Boston carnage......Almost every Muslim in UN including organizations condemned the Criminal act of Boston carnagelike ICNA, ISNA....etc.......My local masjid had a special sermon on Jumma prayer highlighting UNISLAMIC nature of the act committed by misguided lads.

gul May 28, 2013 02:45pm

Let me say one thing frankly, the hard work if they do in their own country, they can be so prosperous as in US...In the foreign they are read to work as dish washer, sweeper, gas station filling worker etc.....whereas in their own country they dont even imagine it.

Shubs May 28, 2013 03:58pm

@Sameena: Umm, Sameena, Mira Nair really doesn't need this film to "become famous". A Padma Bhushan awardee by the Govt of India, her list of film awards, including an Academy Award nomination, Golden Globes, BAFTA, Filmfare, Venice International Flim Festival, Golden Camera at Cannes etc. can fill a couple of pages. She made Salaam Bombay way back in 1988, Mississippi Masala in '91, Kamasutra in '96, Monsoon Wedding in '01, Namesake in '06...and the list goes on. Sometimes, you should take off those religion-tinted glasses and actually look at works of art with honesty.

roquefort May 28, 2013 04:30pm

@Tariq: This has been my mantra too.Living in a free secular society has so much to offer.To be able to walk on the street,wear as I please,go shopping ,see movies n tolerance in abundance that too in an Asian country where I have been living with my European passport has become my home.I wouldn't change that for anything.

Samreen Feroz May 28, 2013 05:03pm

@pathanoo: As soon as some extremist muslim kills someone, EACH and EVERy muslim is taken itno account like a knee jerk. Pathan i agree with what you say, but you should leave out space for people who are less apprehensive towards violence occurring in the name of Islam and are more open to making others realize that yes the guy who murdered many was a Muslim , but I AM NOT LIKE HIM. I am a normal person , with normal beliefs and a rationale thinker.

Its time to stop adding fuel to the fire!

Hassan May 28, 2013 05:20pm


Have you ever been to Lahore or Karachi to see what women wear these days? Most young girls don't wear traditional Pakistani clothes.

Hassan May 28, 2013 05:24pm


Every time an attack happens, I hear this phrase how many muslims spoke against them? What is the benchmark here? Why do we need to speak about it? It is not any different from a lunatic using religion to justify their craziness. There are thousand of muslims who did criticize on forums, tv, comments sections but you know for people like you nothing is enough. How about we start with the two guys' uncle who called them losers?

AB Uzair May 28, 2013 05:42pm

@pathanoo: I did. As well as all the Muslim organizations, Imam council of New England, Islamic Society of Boston etc. Our Imam condemned the bombing, the bombers and their senseless ideology in his Friday sermon. Our mosque and a Islamic school near Boston collected funds for the victims and donated them to OneFund Boston (the fund set up by the Governor). The Imam of Boston's largest mosque in Roxbury, appeared on National Public Radio and condemned the bombing and bombers both. All Muslim cemeteries and mosques in the area, refused to arrange the funeral services of the bomber who was killed. Everyone in our mosque is donating a percentage of his/her salary to OneFund Boston. What else do you want us to do. Please let us know.

shahid May 29, 2013 12:53pm

@Hassan: My perception is have not been in Lahore or Karachi in recent times or else you would not labeled like this. The class you are referring is less than 1%. They cannot be representative of the rest 99%. Correct your facts straight man.