Global storyteller Mira Nair talks to Mini Anthikad-Chhibber on the making of The Reluctant Fundamentalist that releases on May 17

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist took the literary world by storm. Described by The Guardian as the most important book of the decade, the slim book is that unlikely thriller where all the tension is in the reader’s mind. The book is a monologue where a young Pakistani, Changez, tells the story of his life to an American over an elaborate meal in a picturesque market place in Lahore. The beauty of the book is in its sparseness and its ambiguity. As Changez speaks of studying at Princeton, his love for the elegant Erica, his conquering of Wall Street, the horror of 9/11, his reaction to it and his return to Pakistan, the reader listens with equal measures of shock and awe. The book is deliberately open ended and the beauty is Hamid has left it to the reader to work out the ending. So Changez could be a terrorist or innocent, could kill or be killed, the American could be innocent or an assassin, it all depends on your reading, understanding and life experiences.

When news of Mira Nair adapting the book to film came, one wondered whether the ambiguities that made the book what it was would translate well into the film. News of things being added to the film was met with dismay, even if the screenplay was co-written by Hamid. Ahead of the film’s India release on May 17, Mira spoke of the choices she made to bring the book to screen. Excerpts:

The beauty of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is its spare structure. Why did you need to fill it out?

Well, a book is a book and a film is different. The first inspiration came when I visited Lahore in 2004. I was deeply moved by the cultural refinement and largesse there. Eighteen months later I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist and thought this is a modern tale that needs to be told. Mohsin, like me, has lived on two sides of the world. Coming back to your question, we decided to add details because I wanted to amplify and humanise the dialogue. So we created a third act and invented the American — gave him a name and a backstory. The ending had to be less ambiguous. An open ending is a tall order for a movie, my dear, and I don’t think I’ve reached there yet!

Changez’s reaction to 9/11 forms a turning point in the book. How did it translate on screen?

It was difficult and delicate. 9/11 signalled a return to complexities. There were no good guys or bad guys. I didn’t want to be tame. The scene was handled with great care but with an unflinching gaze. We need to remind people that we are defined as much by events as by our reaction to them. It was a careful moment but also one which said ‘this is also the world’.

How would you describe the movie?

It is not a 9/11 movie, even though the fall of the Twin Towers is a powerful catalyst for what happens later. I would say it is a human thriller, a love story, a coming-of-age story. This is my most ambitious and most difficult project but I am proud to say it has turned exactly how I wanted it to.

Can you comment on the sound of the film?

Music forms a huge part of my life and it sustained me. The film collapsed twice. The poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Mori Araj Suno’ (listen to my plea) was my mantra through the shoot. I told Michael Andrews, my composer, to create the modern sound of Pakistan. There is the heartbeat of America and Pakistan. The music crosses borders. Faiz’s poems are put to music and we composed new versions of his poems. Atif Aslam sings two songs in the film, ‘Mori Araj Suno’, and the Urdu vocals of Peter Gabriel’s final song ‘Bol’.

Why is Kate Hudson who plays Erica a brunette?

There are three reasons. First I have done the brown-blond thing. It is too simplistic. Second, Kate Hudson is a great actor but she is known for her blond effervescence. I wanted to lose Kate Hudson in Erica.

And the third reason?

Oh, I forgot! (Laughs heartily).