Books that are made into films end up fascinating readers and film enthusiasts alike. For the readers, it is a matter of finding out whether the key characters live up to their own visualisation of the roles and the intrigue surrounding the casting of characters. For film-lovers, it gives a chance to go back to the book and relive the experience in words.
When it was revealed that Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s best-selling fictional novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” was being made into a feature-length film, it brought a great deal of excitement – not just to the readers but also film enthusiasts as the entire project was had been undertaken in the form of a cross-border collaborative effort. The film “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is based on Hamid’s novel, which was published in 2007 and became an international bestseller with over a million copies in print. Renowned Indian director Mira Nair is behind the film, which will have the honour of opening the 69th Venice International Film Festival (29 August – 8 September, 2012).
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” boasts an all-star cast, including Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Martin Donovan, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Haluk Bilginer and Meesha Shafi. It tells the story of a young Pakistani man, who is chasing success on the Wall Street and ultimately finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis, and the enduring call of his family’s homeland.
Dawn.com met with Hamid to learn about the film project, the transition and the experience of working on a large-scale unit as compared to simply penning his thoughts on paper.
Dawn.com: When you were first approached for the project of making “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” into film, what was your reaction to it?
Mohsin Hamid: I was excited. And a little nervous. I liked the idea of a movie adaptation, but at the same time it felt strange handing over my book to someone else. A number of directors had approached me. In the end I picked Mira Nair because I respected her and because when I met her I thought she was someone I could trust.
Dawn.com: Could you visualise your narrative in a cinematographic venture?
Mohsin Hamid: Not completely. It was easier for me to see it as a one-man play, with Changez alone on a stage. Parts of the novel seemed easy to film, but the frame, the dramatic monologue, less so.
Dawn.com: Was it hard to readjust the novel when it came to writing the screen-play?
Mohsin Hamid: Very hard. I didn’t want to do it. I thought it would be best to stick to writing novels and leave the film to Mira. But after two years, Mira couldn’t find anyone she thought could do the screenplay. Some people could write Wall Street but not Pakistan, others could get the desi context but not the corporate one. So she asked me to get involved. I wound up working closely with her and two other writers.
Dawn.com: How different was it in collaborating with a screenplay writer?
Mohsin Hamid: Completely different. But mostly I enjoyed it. Once I let go of control I was fine, because in a film it’s the director, not the screenwriter or the novelist, who gets to shape the final vision.
Dawn.com: How difficult it was to translate the mental struggle that Changez experiences while in America into the screenplay?
Mohsin Hamid: Very difficult! I worked with Mira and Ami Boghani, my co-writer, for a few months to produce the first couple of drafts. Then Bill Wheeler revised it for more than a year, writing even more drafts. And they were doing last-minute changes on set. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if things were going to work until the scenes were actually shot.
Dawn.com: Writing a novel is a lonely business, how was it to work on a large-scale unit?
Mohsin Hamid: It’s great. Like taking a hermit to a party and letting him dance.
Dawn.com: When you’re writing a novel, do you have a specific physical description/perception for each character? And in the film are they similar or did you have to re-create them?
Mohsin Hamid: I tend to keep physical descriptions of characters pretty spare. That way readers get to create them in their imaginations. So I didn’t really have a “mind’s-eye view” of my characters. More of a feel. And that feel was obviously going to be different from everybody else’s.
Dawn.com: How involved were you in the filming process?
Mohsin Hamid: I was involved, but more like a consultant rather than someone working on it full-time. I visited the sets and gave feedback on the rough cuts of the film. I went to the Lahore recording sessions for the sound-track. Mira’s a very generous, inclusive film-maker. She regularly asked for my opinion. But a novel writer is part of the supporting cast in making a film, not the star.
Dawn.com: Did you have any input on the casting? Did they fit the ‘look’ of the characters you had created?
Mohsin Hamid: I didn’t have too much input, really, but I thought most of the casting choices were excellent.
Dawn.com: What did you think of the casting Riz Ahmed and Kate Hudson for the characters of Changez and Erica?
Mohsin Hamid: They were both outstanding. Riz blew me away. He’s an incredibly talented actor, and this was a very difficult role. And Kate’s Erica was different from anything else I’ve seen her do.
Dawn.com: We have heard about Mehreen Jabbar being the second unit director, are there any other crew members from Pakistan?
Mohsin Hamid: Many Pakistanis were involved, but I’m not the expert here. You’ll have to ask Mira for a list of names. I did bump into several personally, though. Ali Sethi and my sister Zebunnisa were on set as advisors to Mira and as jack-of-all-trades “Lahore consultants.” Music was recorded by Jamal Rahman at True Brew records in Lahore. Lahore sound technicians and voice actors were used to create the noises of the crowd scenes.
Dawn.com: During the shoot in Pakistan, was there any sort of difficulty the crew had to face?
Mohsin Hamid: Again, that’s a question the crew would be better at answering. But it’s almost impossible to get international insurance to film in Pakistan, so doing anything with foreign talent here is hard.
Dawn.com: Will there be a premiere of the film in Pakistan, when do we expect to see it?
Mohsin Hamid: Let’s hope so. And as for when, I don’t know. The dates should be clearer in a month or so. They’re tentatively planning on releasing it this winter.
Dawn.com: Since the movie is now complete are there any specific parts from the book that you are most excited to see on screen?
Mohsin Hamid: The funny thing is, I haven’t seen the final version yet! Filming ended last December, and I’ve seen three rough cuts since, the most recent in May. The final version has just been completed. So hopefully I’ll get to see it for the first time at the world premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
Dawn.com: In these changing days and times, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is more relevant than ever, where would Changez be today?
Mohsin Hamid: Ah, that’s for you to decide. The novel leaves his fate to the reader. With any luck, he’d have fallen for a sexy literature professor and be enjoying life in Lahore, except for the power cuts.
Dawn.com: Are there any other books by Pakistani authors English or Urdu that you would like to see as a film?
Mohsin Hamid: Many. But I’m just keen for there to be more and more high-quality Pakistani films, both international collaborations and ones made entirely at home. Adapting English and Urdu novels and stories seems a natural fit.
Dawn.com: What do you think is the best book turned into movie?
Mohsin Hamid: Tough question. I hate picking a single “best of” anything. Most of my favorite movies weren’t adapted from books that I’ve read. Hopefully that’s not a bad sign.
Dawn.com: Do you think you are now interested in writing screenplays
Mohsin Hamid: I probably am. Whether I’m any good at it, though, I don’t yet know.
Eefa Khalid is an Interactive producer at Dawn.com