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Faithful to fundamentals


Sitting in a teashop of Lahore's Old Anarkali, the narrator in The Reluctant Fundamentalist suddenly asks his American guest, "Are you familiar with 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' ?" The narrator adds that he was sure the film was faithful to the book, the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. Mohsin Hamid, the Pakistani author, whose lyrical prose helped in the tension-soaked 'us or them' atmosphere post-9 /11, probably didn't know he would be writing the screen story for his own book soon. Now that he has done so for Mira Nair's adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, shown this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, he can't complain.

A 128-minute thriller evolves from a 184-page monologue in Nair's film. "A monologue film was not going to sell any tickets, " says Nair, quickly adding, "It is a joke". Hamid's narrator, Changez, played by Riz Ahmed, a Pakistani who lives in England, gets a name and face for his American guest, brilliantly performed by Liev Schreiber (Bobby). The film, however, retains the essence of the book, about a young Pakistani living the American dream in Manhattan returning home to discover a Pakistani dream when the terror attacks on the twin towers turns his life upside down.


Hamid, born in Lahore and educated at Princeton and Harvard, spent three years working on the screen story for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was published to rave reviews in 2007. "Mohsin is a master of his own craft, " says Ami Boghani, a USbased Pakistani, who co-wrote the story for the film. "He was fully involved with the writing of the screen story and knew the changes we were making to his book. "

After the first draft of the story was written, Hamid took it to Lahore to write the second draft in his study. "Mohsin was a massive guiding light, " says Nair, whose father was born in Lahore. The screenwriters changed the venue of Changez's second visit abroad as a financial analyst for the Manhattan firm to Istanbul from Santiago, Chile. However, the poetry of Lahore, with which the American high finance boy identifies Pablo Neruda's house in Valparaiso, retains its emotional flavour even in Istanbul. In fact, the story of the janissaries - Christian boys captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army (then the greatest army in the world) - fits into the Istanbul locale like a Lahore resident would in Delhi. "The core of the film is the talk about the janissaries, " says Nair. He is explaining Changez's character, a bright Princeton grad recruited to America's high finance battle corps, ferocious and loyal like the janissaries as Hamid describes his character in his book that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007. "It is about identity. What am I doing? Whom am I serving?" adds the Salaam Bombay director.

The film, which will be released in India in December, was shot mainly in Delhi, where the crew found a tea-house at Ajmeri Gate for shooting the scenes involving the narrator and his American guest. "This building was an extraordinary art deco home built by a Lahorian, " says Nair. For the exteriors, they shot for four days in the streets of Lahore, where the film is set, along with Manhattan, Manila and Istanbul. The shooting in Delhi, to create the Lahore interior scenes, lasted for 25 days. With all that footage they got, Nair gives due credit to her editor Shimit Amin. "Editing is the tour de force of the film, " she says.


In Nair's hands, a book about Pakistan and America becomes a film about Pakistan and India. Hamid's book, which is a conversation between a Pakistani and an American to dispel the myopia on both sides about capitalism and fundamentalism, turns into a vehicle for bonhomie between Indian and Pakistani artistes in the film. Nair says she travelled to Lahore several times to record the film's score with Pakistani musicians. Om Puri and Shabana Azmi play the role of Changez's Pakistani parents. Along with Kate Hudson, the Almost Famous actor who plays the role of Erica, the American girl who falls in love with Changez, and his boss Jim (Kiefer Sutherland), appear Indian actors Imaad Shah (Naseeruddin Shah's son) and Adil Hussain. "It is truly a confluence, an India-Pakistan film, " says Nair, who wanted to do a film on contemporary Pakistan, which she knew before the shooting started only from the Western side, having lived half her life in New York. "In truth, the film was not inspired by 9/11, " she says, adding the "brilliant mind game" of the book provided an ideal setting to analyse an increasingly sad divide of the East and West. "It was absolutely the most difficult movie to make after Salaam Bombay, " says Nair, who makes Hudson speak Urdu words like mohabet. "She is very specific about little details like even eyeliners, " says Hudson of Nair's work. "It was amazing to work with a director like that, especially if I have the last word, " she jokes. Nair had to wait for two years to find financing for the film until the Doha Film Institute came onboard. An India-Pakistan-USA co-production, the film is certainly faithful to the subcontinent.

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