Filmmaker Mira Nair’s adaptation of Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, seems to have been released at the right time. Nearly twelve years after two planes ripped through the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the world has contorted into something unrecognizable, unnerving and unsettling.
And Hamid’s book, published in 2007, along with Nair’s film, released this year, reminds us how drastically our lives have changed during this time. In the post-9/11 world the clash of ideologies has become the new war, fueled by xenophobic stereotypes, upon which a massive, invisible border has taken root between East and West; separating and confusing those on both sides.
Released in Pakistan this month, a friend and I watched the movie on a Monday evening at a cinema in Lahore. It’s a terrific production, carrying Nair’s unique, cinematic signature. The talented Riz Ahmed plays the role of Changez Khan, a young Pakistani from the city of Lahore working on Wall Street. The stark contrast between Khan as an endearingly earnest, boyishly charming young man before 9/11 and after – as a jaded, slightly mysterious, older, more intellectual version of himself – is played out remarkably well by Ahmed.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But what’s fascinating about the book and the movie is that both stand as a coming of age story amid politics, xenophobia and most importantly, the question of self. Although the story is framed as a patriotic quest for identity and a return to one’s roots for imperative answers – leaving behind the comforts of the first world – The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a story about a boy who becomes a man. He loves and loses, and yet, he has the privilege of experiencing life outside Pakistan, giving him a holistic understanding of geopolitics, minus personal judgment.
But perhaps, what is most fascinating, heartrending even, is the relationship between Khan and his American girlfriend (played by Kate Hudson) – from its tingly initiation to the way it evolves, grows and then peters away after the tragedy of 9/11, and the greater tragedies that ensue because of it.
Their love and friendship represent an innocence, an understanding, an education of two disparate cultures that are eventually wrenched away from each other and marred by politics and media. This poisonous cocktail taints the mystery of their innocence and love, replacing it with rigidity, and eventually, a significant consciousness of the self – especially in Khan’s case.
He is a changed man when he returns to his homeland. He goes back to his roots, to Lahore, Pakistan, where he begins teaching at a local university, only to again become embroiled in the events that followed 9/11.
When the movie was over, my friend and I walked towards our car in quiet contemplation. As we made our way home, we passed a few security checks, slowly snaking past steel and concrete roadblocks, as armed young men with alert, suspicious eyes looked into each car, simultaneously flagging down motorcyclists and suspicious vehicles with tinted windows.
Security checks; suspicion; a lack of trust; misconceptions; the East and the West; the pursuit of the self: The Reluctant Fundamentalist sheds light on all of these things. The production truly was released at the right time, and leaves one with a hollow, albeit troubling feeling that our world will never be the same again.
Sonya Rehman is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She can be reached at: [email protected].