Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Janissary Revolts

Changez Khan (played by Riz Ahmed) on the morning of 9-11
The Reluctant Fundamentalist (USA/UK/Qatar, 2012) directed by Mira Nair

Mohsin Hamid will appear at TIFF tonight at 7p.m. to discuss his book and director Mira Nair's film. 

The premise of this film intrigued me. Mohsin Hamid, on whose novel this film was based, has an intelligent and sensitive comprehension of the view of America by those most keenly affected by its international military and covert government policies, particularly in the wake of 9-11.

I was especially moved by an anecdote that Hamid related after 9-11 of being in a gym and seeing the smiling faces of some when they learned of the 9-11 attacks on television. It was a shocking, if honest, observation. What was this undercurrent of hostility amongst the seemingly content aspirants of the American dream? What did it mean? 

The film begins in 2011 with the kidnapping of an American professor and suspected CIA operative at Lahore University in Pakistan. Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), an American journalist and undercover CIA informant, arranges an interview with Changez Khan (the exceptional Riz Ahmed, a British actor of Pakistani heritage), a suspected radical academic whom it is assumed is involved in the kidnapping.

But the aptly named Changez's personal history is a complicated one (the inference is clearly that he is one who changes) - a tale that he insists Lincoln listen to and one that undermines the usual ugly stereotype of the America-hating radical with no experience or appreciation of American culture. "I am a lover of America ... " Changez begins in his narrative to Lincoln.

It's a fairy tale beginning for Changez Khan ... Changez is handsome, intelligent, athletic, socially ambitious and comes from an educated, cultured, loving but somewhat impoverished family. His father is a famous, well-respected Punjabi poet. Changez attends Princeton University on a scholarship at the age of eighteen. He excels quickly and soon finds employment at Underwood Samson, a top Wall Street valuation firm under the mentorship of Jim Cross (played effectively by a slithery, Gekko-like Keifer Sutherland).

As an investment analyst, Changez shows businesses how to maximize profit with massive layoffs that devastate their workforces. Changez is a tough, unsentimental, often ruthless, economic soldier in the capitalist trenches and fares very well economically and socially.

He falls in love with Erica (a charming Kate Hudson who is oddly dowdy with her dark hair here), a talented photographer, whom he encounters by chance in Central Park and who is recovering from her own emotional wounds - the recent death of a long-time lover. This romantic sub-plot differs from the book in a significant manner - here Erica is somewhat complicit in the events leading to her lover's death we later learn.

Like many lives, Changez' is violently disrupted by the World Trade Center attacks on 9-11. Changez is in Manila, in the Philippines, on business. He is horrified as he watches the events transpire but we, the viewers, are also horrified to watch as his dismay slowly morphs into a small smile (or smirk) of what appears to be satisfaction at the carnage. He experiences a "split second of arrogance brought low" as he describes it to Lincoln.

In the book, the narrator Changez says:

I stared as one - and then the other - of the twin towers of New York's WTC collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased. ... I wasn't thinking of the victims, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all. The fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.
When he returns to the U.S., he endures a humiliating strip search and detention at the airport in New York presumably becasue of his Pakistani background. This is the beginning of a slow but inexorable disenchantment with the West and all it has to offer.

A not-so friendly South Asian stranger notes that as Changez is "suited and booted" he is safe from persecution in America. Not so. Since 9-11, he faces hostility and misunderstanding (and sometimes violence) primarily because his skin is brown and his ethnicity indeterminate to the casual racist observer. Slashed tires, racist verbal abuse, distrust in the workplace, and, more frighteningly, being mistakenly arrested by an officer seeking a "brown", clearly deranged man on the street shouting disturbing things about homegrown bombs. Changez' emotional response is conflicted and disturbing. He grows a beard as if to emphasize his "foreignness". He grows bitter and increasingly dissatisfied with his life.

He reaches a moral turning point while valuating a failing publisher in Istanbul, Turkey at the behest of his employer. The company is deemed "worthless" but when he discovers the publisher had published and translated his father's work into Turkish, he begins to change.

In the course of his discussion with the unhappy publisher, he compares Changez to a Janissary. The Janissaries were the enslaved non-Muslim boys captured by the Ottoman empire from the 14th to the 17th c. These boys, between six and fourteen, were given to Turkish families to learn the Turkish language, customs and the creed of Islam. They became virtual slaves functioning at the discretion of the Sultan and served as his fiercest forces against the Christians in battle. Then, Changez is told: "as fanatical Muslims, they were set loose on the Christian countries from which they were taken."

In a startling moment of recognition, we realize that Changez, and many young South Asian men like him, are experiencing a similar transformation - tempted and seduced by American capitalism they succumb to Western goals and aspirations but, once disappointed and vilified by those elements who fear Islam in the West, they are forced to return to their home countries and then sometimes are enlisted in the attempt to destroy America.

Changez resigns from his position on Wall Street and ends his relationship with Erica (here the character of Erica disappears but in the novel she faces a grislier fate). He returns to Lahore where he is hired as a lecturer at the university. He voices dissatisfaction with U.S. intrusion in Pakistan and comes to the attention of the CIA as a radical; hence, his interrogation by the American journalist cum secret CIA agent at the beginning of the film.

The structure of the book is very different than the film although I hesitate to compare the two as that is often an unfair comparison. In the film, Changez is a well-meaning, conflicted hero rather than a possible instrument of evil who advocates violence and destruction (without giving away too much let us say that in the film Changez is not positioned as the blazing radical who is set on destroying America). It might be seen as a compromise towards a more acceptable narrative outcome for the Western viewer. In the West, we admire moral ambiguity in our heroes but we can't support the perception of an actively evil protagonist/ hero, on screen.

The director Mira Nair and the screenwriters strive to present a balanced humane portrait of Changez's family and origins - educated, cultured, humorous and sympathetic - a much needed remedy to portrayals of raging, anti-Western fanatics that pervade the media.

Changez is portrayed as nuanced and emotionally conflicted - repulsed by American global bullying and destruction but hesitant to embrace an aggressive and violent response to it. The author and the director have taken an unpopular position and attempted to present a balanced perspective of the enslaved former "colonial" who attempts to change his fate and destiny - and the result is unsettling and thought provoking.

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