From book to big screen: Mohsin Hamid on The Reluctant Fundamentalist

By Gautaman Bhaskaran

Man Booker Prize nominee Mohsin Hamid does not weave his yarns around heroes, but fallen men. Hamid’s protagonists in his two novels, Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, are guys who slip into the dark side of life. While Moth smoke follows a former banker in post-nuclear Lahore who falls in love with his best friend’s wife and falls from grace, heroin addiction completing his destruction, The Reluctant Fundamentalist tracks the life arc of a rising star, a brilliant Princeton graduate  with a plum job in New York who gets checkmated by 9/11.

Both will soon hit a big screen near you. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, helmed by Mira Nair, closed the international film festival in Goa yesterday, having already been screened  at the Doha Tribeca and Venice festivals. Moth Smoke has already been made into a telefilm in Pakistan but will be turned into a movie by India’s Rahul Bose, and the shoot will begin early next year.

Man Booker Prize nominee Mohsin Hamid does not weave his yarns around heroes, but fallen men. Hamid

When I met Hamid at Doha, I talked to him about the relationship between author and director. Some of the authors I have known have been displeased, even angry with those who have translated their words into celluloid. One of the best examples I can think of is Paul Zacharia whose novella was the basis of Vidheyan (Servile) by Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Zacharia was not happy with what he saw on the screen, although Adoor’s earlier tryst with Basheer’s literary work, Mathilukal (Walls), had been appreciated by the writer.

Hamid’s relationship with Nair appears to be a happy one. The secret to a good relationship with the filmmaker is “either you are heavily involved, as was the case with Nair’s work, or very minimally involved, as it is probably going to be with Bose. If you are somewhat involved then there is a greater chance for frustration and conflict," says Hamid.

At the outset, Hamid had hoped to keep his involvement in Nair’s movie to a minimum, but ended up co-writing the screenplay for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, primarily because it was hard to find a good scriptwriter (ah that great scourge in India). But in Bose’s case, there is already a script written by him, and Hamid’s contribution will be quite minimal. “This is a good thing, for a director has his own vision of what he wants his work to be," Hamid says.

Both kinds of participation come with pluses and minuses. When an author is an integral part of the filmmaking process, he has a greater opportunity to shape the celluloid work to his desire, but, as Hamid points out, “The pitfall here is if the writer-director relationship is not good, then it can be very exasperating. Luckily with Mira, this was not the case, and we had a good time”.

The advantage of being minimally involved is that an author gives the director the right to create his own version of the book. “I do believe that the print and the visual medium are two very different forms, and as long as a movie created out my book does not offed me, and as long as it is politically not very different, I am fine with it," Hamid explains, "To me a director making a film out of my book is like a reader, and like any reader, the helmer has the privilege to interpret my work the way he wants to.”

But did it occur to Hamid that The Reluctant Fundamentalist could be a movie when he was writing it?  “Maybe vaguely yes. But I try to write novels to do what novels can. I do not write novels that are movies in book forms. My novels create ambiguity in a reader’s mind. They invite a reader to be a character. This is inherently a very difficult thing to film. This is also going to be the case with Rahul’s movie”.

One reason why filmmakers are attracted to Hamid's novels is because he believes in story-telling, and is convinced that he has to earn a reader’s time by engaging him or her. And as the late Ismail Merchant once told me, a movie must above everything else tell a good story.

Hamid's third novel is ready to hit the stands. Titled How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, it describes itself as "romantic without being sentimental, political without being didactic, and spiritual without being religious, it brings an unflinching gaze to the violence and hope it depicts. And it creates two unforgettable characters who find moments of transcendent intimacy in the midst of shattering change". Anyone with a megaphone ready to take this on?