I believe I may have been put on this earth to tell stories of living between worlds. My father grew up in Lahore before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. As a child of modern India, I was raised like a Lahori — speaking Urdu, quoting the poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, listening to the ghazals of Iqbal Bano and Noor Jehan — yet there was a wall between our countries that could never be crossed.
It was only in 2004, when I was invited to show my films in Pakistan, that I had the chance to visit the land my father loved, to discover that the country, the culture, the people all seemed heartbreakingly familiar. I was immediately inspired to make a contemporary film about Pakistan, especially in this day and age when the schism between official America and Muslim people becomes more pronounced with each passing day.
The great gift came in the form of Mohsin Hamid’s elegant mind game of a novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the enigmatic coming-of-age story of Changez, a young man in Lahore who loves America, achieves the American dream and then, as the world changes around him, begins to question his place in it.
A story about how we, East and West, regard each other.
Over the last few years, we have seen many films about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but always told from the American point of view. We have seen noble films of soldiers who return home in body bags, but we will never know the name of the Iraqi woman who has lost her family and her home in the name of freedom and democracy.
In this film, the encounter between the characters of Changez and Bobby mirrors the mutual suspicion with which America and Pakistan (or the Muslim world) looks at one another. We learnt that, as a result of America’s war on terror, Changez experiences a seismic shift in his own attitude, unearthing allegiances more fundamental than money, power and maybe even love. But other forms of fundamentalism are revealed along the way, including the kind practised by Changez’s former employer, Underwood Samson.
Their model for global expansion is ‘Focus on the fundamentals’. From the title of the film, and from the increasingly tense atmosphere arising between Changez and his American listener, the expectation is that Changez is moving towards the revelation that he has gone, however ‘reluctantly’, all the way over to the dark side of extremism. But is that really the case?
In adapting the story for the screen, The Reluctant Fundamentalist became a human thriller, an unflinching dialogue about identity and perception and issues around the divided self in the era of globalisation.
When electing to make a film, a filmmaker chooses to inhabit a world in which she or he wants to be immersed. For me, one of the joys of making The Reluctant Fundamentalist was revealing Pakistan in a way that no one ever sees it in the newspapers, with its extraordinary refinement, the searing poetry of Faiz, its heart-stopping Sufi music and ancient culture that is confident in fashion, painting and performance.
This world is fluidly juxtaposed with the energy of New York, the ruthlessness of corporate America and, through our hero Changez’s love for the elegant, artistic Erica, reveals a portrait of Manhattan society at the same exalted level once occupied by Changez’s own family back in Lahore.
In the bones of Mohsin’s tale, I saw a dialogue between one side and the other. And it is this dialogue that embodies my own life story. I travelled from India to America when I was nineteen and, like Mohsin, have lived more than half my life outside the subcontinent. Unwittingly, my films, my work and life came to be about the seesaw between these worlds, in which I felt both an insider and an outsider.
And like many of us who live hybrid lives, I railed against the line that was drawn a decade ago when Bush coined the ‘axis of evil’ and built a wall of myopia between one way of life and another.
If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will — that is the mantra by which I live. The Reluctant Fundamentalist gave me the chance to create multi-layered characters, to move things out of the hot-blooded political debate and into the human, emotional dimension, to see beyond the terrible stereotype that is constantly projected on our television screens and, if we have done our work right, to create a bridge between worlds that will not know each other unless we have a dialogue.
The film is dedicated to my father, Amrit Nair, who sadly passed away in July 2012, the same month the film was completed. He and my activist mother, Praveen Nair, taught me to disregard the arbitrary borders that separate us, and inspired me to love the land that we come from.
It is also made for our 21-year-old son Zohran and other young people like him across the world, to urge them to look beyond what is handed to us as truth and, as they make their way into adulthood, to grapple with the fundamental questions of where we belong, what we stand for, where we matter.
Excerpted from Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist: From Book to Film with permission from Penguin Books India.
Mira Nair is an award-winning filmmaker.
The views expressed by the author are personal.