Much is being said about The Reluctant Fundamentalist in the press after its international and nationwide release in May. Mohsin Hamid’s book has become a critical hit since it was first published, even finding its way into the required reading list of courses taught at universities in America.
The film, directed by Mira Nair, plays an important part in the global dialogue itself: it’s the first time an international film has chosen to tackle the ‘tricky’ subject of Pakistan or Pakistanis and their plight after 9/11 from our perspective. The film has been receiving mixed reviews — some critics say it is brilliantly made, but has at its core a story ‘too ambitious in its message’. Other comments have used the story to talk about America’s own past and how the film parallels the plight of the Japanese in the US after Pearl Harbour.
The important point to note, however, is that people are talking about The Reluctant Fundamentalist. So instead of launching into the age old review and opinion, Images on Sunday (IoS) speaks to the makers themselves about their own thoughts behind the project and the complicated subject of the film.
IoS spoke to Mira Nair the day after The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s international release about her inspirations, the making of the film and about Pakistan.
IoS: Monsoon Wedding is probably your first film that comes to my mind. What made you choose TRF?
MN: The first bolt of inspiration came during my visit to Lahore in 2005. My father was raised there and we grew up speaking Urdu, reading Faiz and hearing about Iqbal Bano and Noor Jehan. So being there was really moving because it seemed deeply familiar; the warmth was unbelievable and I was exposed to the highest level of cultural expression in music, art, poetry and fashion.
But that’s not what you hear about when you read about Pakistan in the international press. I felt inspired to make something about Pakistan and 18 months later, I read Mohsin’s manuscript for TRF. And how any director looks at a piece of work to be a springboard for the tale that he/she wants to say, Mohsin’s novel became that for me.
IoS: What did you want to say with the story?
MN: I wanted to tell the world about of a modern Pakistan and also have a dialogue with America within it. Both in the post-9/11 world and I also feel very much that this country has had a conversation with America which has been more of a monologue than a dialogue. And so this story, I hoped, would create that dialogue.
IoS: Would you say that this is a film about Pakistan?
MN: I think it’s a very important step to tell the story of not just Pakistan, but also America and Pakistan, especially to people who don’t know what the consequences and ramifications of this war are. Over here, when speaking of films, you hear about American soldiers going off to war and the trials of being involved in conflict, but the story is always from that perspective.
What I want TRF to achieve is to tell the story from a different perspective. I don’t see this as a purely 9/11 film but a coming of age story of a person who begins to question the truth that has been handed to him. I want to show a different perspective — of a character affected by everything that is going on and where he goes to be heard and have a voice. The idea behind the film is not that Changez becomes a radical but that he begins to question that which is going on in the world and his place in it.
IoS: After the recent bomb blasts in Boston, there has been a growing concern that Pakistanis especially will have to deal with the same hostility that they had to face after 9/11. How do you think this film will be received in America in light of that?
MN: We’re already seeing it happen here. But what I’ve also noticed is that audiences are coming in droves to watch the film. I think it’s because everyone wants to know why incidents such as these are happening and why they are happening to them. It was in George W. Bush’s tenure that this whole ‘us versus them’ mentality emerged but it’s been a long time since then and people now are realising that we cannot continue with that perspective. We can’t keep blaming a whole group of people for the actions of a few. Just like the attack on the gurdwara in Wisconsin does not mean we punish an entire population for the acts of a few gunmen.
IoS: Did you shoot a lot of the film in Lahore?
MN: We shot almost all of the exterior and cityscape of Lahore in the city itself in four days. But the hard part was getting the actors to come and shoot there because we couldn’t get insurance due to the security situation. So we shot the remaining parts set in Lahore in Delhi. Delhi is like a sister city to Lahore in terms of architecture culture and landscape, and so we found a bunch of pockets of Lahore in Delhi. It’s not like shooting Palestine in Morocco. But I was very concerned with making the film as authentic as possible so a lot of our details, stitching, props etc. came from Lahore and there was a lot of back and forth that had to happen to achieve that. And we had a lot of help especially since we were working with Mohsin, Meesha, Abu Muhammad, Ali Sethi and others.
IoS: How was it like working with Mohsin and Meesha?
MN: Mohsin was a big part of the project. He wrote the first two drafts of the film, in fact we wrote the second draft together in Lahore. He was completely generous and very involved with the story that we wanted to tell. It’s been wonderful to find a brother in the universe. And Meesha was a star before she was born. Changez actually has a brother in the book, but Pakistani women are such powerful forces and strong, and I wanted to have that vibrancy in the film. After meeting Meesha we changed the story to cast her.
IoS: And you’ve used the Kangna song from Coke Studio as well?
MN: Yes we have, we’ve used the song from Coke Studio but we also recorded our own version of the song with different embellishments to cut fit it into the film. It runs in the opening few minutes of TRF.
IoS: Any parting thoughts?
MN: This is the first contemporary Pakistani film since Bol and Khuda Kay Liye and the first international film and we’ve used Pakistani music, talent, actors, writing and language and I’m happy to be a part of that passage. The world should know our richness. And if we don’t tell our own stories then no one else will. It’s up to us to tell them.