First Cut

In conversation with Mira Nair

Mira Nair on the setsWhile finishing ‘The Namesake’, in New York in 2007, Nair read the manuscript of Hamid's unpublished novel, ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’. She found it immensely readable and was thrilled to have found a springboard from which to enter the worlds of both modern-day Lahore and New York. Through her own Mirabai Films and Pilcher's New York-based Cine Mosaic, the two optioned the film rights to the novel.

Mira Nair is in India passionately promoting her forthcoming release ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’. Excerpts from a candid chat:

Q. ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is essentially a monologue. How difficult is it to translate a book like that into a film?

It was possibly the most challenging adaptation that I have ever been involved with in my work so far because when a director chooses a novel you bring a lot of things to it; you want to inhabit that world for more than few years of your life. So I view a novel as a springboard for my imagination and besides the inherent challenge of making the monologue of the book into a dialogue on screen.

I wanted to amplify the Pakistani family in the film, I also wanted to add a third act to the screen, that is, what happens to Changez once he comes back to Pakistan. In the novel he is betrayed by America and he returns but we don’t know what he is going back to do. And I wanted this third act of what he would do in Pakistan.

In today’s world the film had to be reflective of the contemporary changes that happened politically over the last decade, so that it would not be a dated film but a timely film.

These were broadly the three challenges, for which we worked closely with Mohsin Hamid, Ami Boghani and then a third writer Bill Wheeler who came in and sort of worked with us to make it the human thriller that it has become. I wanted very much to film the story as if the audience was walking a tightrope and the main question was in our writing, that we kept asking was, “Is he?” or “Isn’t he?”, “Is he this?” or “Is he that?”, “Is he a terrorist or is he a teacher?” What is he? And not just Changez but the American as well.

Q. Both ‘The Namesake’ and ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ explore the migrant experience. As an Indian based out of the US, has that helped you better identify with the mindset of your protagonists?

Yeh, I have lived in many parts of the world for a long time and I think that gives me a very expansive world view and I understand the see-saw of living between worlds. It’s not that I always gravitate towards making film about them per say but surely I know a way to enter that world.

I wouldn’t call this a migrant tale, ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, this one is more a coming of age story, of a young man who is in love with America, who goes from Pakistan, who is betrayed by America in his heart, he returns and how he finds his own voice. It was also about that in some ways about Gogol but ‘The Namesake’ was also about the parents and their story. But yes, the story of people who live between worlds and this is the new globalizing world, whether you come from Chennai to Delhi, whether you go from Lahore to New York, we experience the same things. Where is our home? When we return to home, does it feel like home anymore? All those questions are universal but ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is much more global, much more ambitious landscape because it is just not about the migrant, not just about the young man, it is also about how we understand the fundamentals of profit and money and the fundamentals of terror.

Q. ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ asks uncomfortable questions about what it meant to be a Muslim in post-9/11 America. Post Boston do you think the response from the average American has been more mature?

I think we are defined not just by events but by our reaction to events and we have seen the consequence of the reactions to the 9/11 incident. The government at that time set up a very clear distinction between you are either with us or against us, you are either good or bad, that kind of schism, that either or, created a kind of monologue that America has with the rest of the world. No one really has a consciousness of what it is like to be on the other side and this is what is so important if we want to change the course of events.

We have to reach a hand out. If these kind of policies go on, militarism becomes the order of the day, then these kinds of responses keep happening. And what ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ seems to do now (we opened it in the US last week) and the response has been pretty terrific, in terms of audiences and even reviews and so on. People are now seeking understanding about how do these boys become like this and when you see my film, not that it will give you all the answers, it will make you understand that the American dream, while it is open and accessible to people but it is also an illusion of acceptance because in one stroke they cast you out. So there is a series of small slights and then bigger humiliation that make you feel that you will never belong. That rankles people and that makes them do insane things.

I think there is certainly a point of hunger, of wanting to know, who is the other and at least in this movie and in our setting up of a conversation between an American and a Pakistani, you begin to understand that the person you have seen and thought of as the “other” could really be yourself.

Q. We just celebrated Satyajit Ray’s 92nd birthday. From Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’ to your ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, how have Western perceptions of Indian films and filmmakers changed?

I think India is much more on the map of the world; we are a nation to contend with economically and even creatively. The cinema abroad is still quite restricted but within India there is a much greater sense of innovation, vigor and much greater muscularity because distribution has become so different now, it allows for much more varied, much more experimental cinema than what we have seen before.

Q. What’s your opinion about the latest crop of directors like Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and others who are pushing the envelope of so-called ‘commercial cinema’? Do you think the sensibility of the average Indian viewer is changing?

I think a lot of the work is very exciting, I liked ‘Kahaani’ very much, I liked ‘Delhi Belly’ very much, the appetite for these films is definitely there. The audiences are very sophisticated too and want this kind of a film that takes story seriously, that has humour, that has a certain pace, that doesn’t repeat itself, that is new. These are the films that I am excited about.

Q. You have made films on the works of sub-continental writers like Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake) and Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist). Are there others that you want to work with like Amitav Ghosh? In fact, I believe you and Amitav Ghosh were contemporaries in Delhi University. You were in Miranda and Amitav Ghosh was in St Stephen’s?

Ya, we are close friends, Amitav and I. I would love to but right now, I am doing ‘Monsoon Wedding’ on stage as a musical on Broadway. I don’t have a plan to adapt another book in the near future but I keep reading and my eyes are open and it could happen again without a problem.

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