They say that every story in the history of time is born from one of seven plot lines. The victory of good over evil, the underdog rising to shine, the supposedly-meek taking on the powerful and emerging victorious, the quintessential David and Goliath story has always been my favourite kind. What can I say, I’m a sucker for the underdog. In the most cliche fashion, I feel for the David in every one of these stories and get teary eyed at all the predictably soppy moments in his/her journey and shut the book or come out of the movie hall determined to give it a second, third and a fourth go. So its no wonder that I loved Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist even more than the Mohsin Hamid’s novel by the same name. In fact, I loved it so much that despite dragging my mildly hungover and sleep-deprived self to catch the first oddly-timed show, I managed to get myself to grab a quick lunch and go right back to catch the next oddly timed show. Sacrificing even my Sunday siesta.
Yep, I loved it that much. I’m just going to come out and say it: the movie beat the book, for me. And that almost never happens. I think it worked exceptionally well because unlike most adapts that take a novel in its pure form and crunch it down to translate its visual representation, this one took the essence of the story, the core themes of the book, and dressed them in a film-friendly plot. So while the basic premise for both was the same — Changez Khan’s narration of coming into his own — the novel did it via an aching love story in the tumultous post 9/11 period, and the movie chose to tell the story with a greater focus on his struggle with religious fundamentalism during the time after 9/11 and the resulting transformation in his dreams in life.
I’ll admit, I went in to the movie with no expectations because I am usually disappointed when a loved book is turned into a movie. So I was prepared for whatever was to come. A large part of the impetus to go was to watch Meesha Shafi act, given my perpetual crush on her. It didn’t matter that it is a small and simple role.
From the moment go I was totally into it. The Coke Studio-heavy soundtrack definitely helped. The opening titles begin with Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammed performing Kangna in the home of the protagonist, one of my most loved qawwalis from Season 4, and the whole scene, juxtaposed with the opening crime. Beautifully built into a crescendo until all hell breaks lose. Musically and cinematically. Goosebump-inducing stuff for me. I’ve looked high and low to find the opening 10-odd minutes of the movie, with zero luck, so I’ll give you this.
The way the story is told is really genius. The narrative unfolds over a few hours of the protagonist narrating his life story, with events going back and forth, threaded together by a not so subtle expose of the economic and religious machinery at work in international relations, especially in the wake of a crisis like 9/11.
Through the underdog’s story, the role the superpower plays in influencing perceptions of entire nations and people is revealed. The world was quick to label every Muslim a terrorist and America got away with some high levels of arrogance, xenophobia and meted out several acts of widespread violence and injustice. While watching it, squirming in my seat, I also did acknowledge that its probably why they have never been attacked at that level ever again, unlike closer home, where bomb scares, threats and explosions are becoming part of every day life.
But how can that kind of blind xenophobia ever be justified? Stories like The Reluctant Fundamentalist bring the flip side to the fore. It gives the underdog’s point of view importance and shows that eventually everyone’s battle is about coming into ones own. Whether you are an economic superpower, a religious fundamentalist or just an ordinary man chasing the American Dream, the journey is the same. Of achieving a dream, however big or small, and invariably the path to get there is to stick to your fundamental beliefs, unflinchingly.
Changez’s personal crisis develops when his personal dreams clash with those of his country and home. Like I said, the story is revealed over a conversation had between him and a journalist, but actually covers a large span of his life. And even though it is told in that painfully beautiful style that is Mira Nair’s work, the plot is tight, with adequate surprises and twists and turns, and had me glued right till the end, despite having read the book.
Cinematically too, it was beautiful and a couple of scenes, like the opening one, a couple of tea house sequences and the burial in the end, had me choked up. In one word, gorgeous.