In the Mira Nair film, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, the idea of the two nations- The United States of America and Pakistan- are constantly conflicting with each other. On the one hand America comes across as a saviour to the people of the terror stricken country Pakistan, and on the other, it is a foreign invader that undermines the sovereignty of Pakistan by intruding in the state’s business for profits of their own.
Chengiz, a progeny of Pakistan, found comfort living the American dream The story begins with Chengiz defending the actions of the United States of America. After all, he studied and got a job with the top notch firm in the country. Chengiz saw the good life fueled with money and power, while in America, a life he missed in Lahore.
Although Chengiz came from the family of kings, his family had been reduced to the states of paupers. The scene where he is seen pushing the old car of his father is symbolic of the economic and ideological divide within Pakistan. His neighbors mock him saying that it’s high time they buy a new car, to which his father responds saying that the old car is a part of their heritage and heritage should be preserved and not thrown in the bin as garbage. Chengiz’s father scorns at the ‘new money’- the nouveau rich people who have entered Lahore with their unique set of ideologies and differences.
This is the state of Pakistan- that of a state that is constantly fighting with itself on the perfect approach, on the set of ideologies it ought to follow, etc. Chengiz says that Pakistan is a nation born of violence. It has seen endless wars with India as a nation and with terror. So whenever it faces a tense situation, it celebrates life’s joys more rapturously. When the tension increases, so does the intensity of celebrations. The biryani becomes tastier and the bootleggers more frequent. For a nation born into violence, it is quite familiar with civil strife and war.
The old Pakistan is the Pakistan belonging to the generation of Chengiz’s father. Either they are peaceful people looking at avoiding war at all costs or they are a prototype of the Mujahedeen militant who is willing to give their life up for the sovereignty of the country.
The new Pakistan is still in the stage of infancy. It is the Pakistan envisioned by people like Chengiz. It protests and voices injustice, but it does so peacefully. There are frequent transgressions where a hot blooded youth picks up arms on the say so of militant leaders. But the majority of the protesters go against the regime with the help of pens rather than swords.
Their weapons are poetry, prose and music. They are full of anger against the invasion of Pakistan by American military. So they take revenge by imagining a Pakistani dream, one that does not involve immigration.
America, too is a nation of conflicting ideologies. It wants to help Pakistan with the state’s war against terrorism but it believes that the only way to do so is by invading its personal space. The state as a whole has an idea of the prototype Pakistani- he is a gun bearing hater of America who looks a lot like Osama. One of the reasons Chengiz got detained a lot of times by the police is because of his appearance. When Chengiz was asked why he sported a beard (referred to as the ‘mullah action’ by his boss), he said it was because it reminded him where he came from.
To reason with Chengiz, his colleague said that Kentucky chicken reminded him where he came from, but he was not seen smearing it all over his face. As a reply, Chengiz said that maybe he should smear it across his face and wear it with pride. In the beginning of the film, we see Chengiz trying to become an ‘authentic’ American. The way he talks, the way he walks, everything mirrors his boss. He tries to become the man Jessica always wanted. Hence, he tells her ‘imagine I’m him (Chris)’ when she feels guilty about being intimate with him. He is trying to become Chris, the quintessential American male.
But things change after 9/11. Every American, either consciously or unconsciously, starts stereotyping Muslims as terrorists. They believe that Muslims are capable of violence and that they will always attack America. When Chengiz reprimands Jessica for creating art out of Chengiz the Pakistani, she begs him to stop ‘attacking’ her. That word symbolizes what Americans in general think of Muslims.
Yet, they try to help the best way they know. Chengiz’s boss tries to protect him as long as Chengiz does exactly what he is told. In some sense, the dynamic between Chengiz and his boss remind me of that between a servant and a benevolent master.
The janissary reference seems to hold true. Chengiz starts feeling out of place in America. He is fed up of people thinking he is an Islam fundamentalist, while the truth is quite opposite. So, he moves back to his country.
In Pakistan, while teaching in the university, he encounters the injustice done to his country by America (a country he loved) and by members of Pakistan themselves. The militants, he believes, are misguided since they follow the ‘fundamental’ truths given to them in the Qu’ran. For Chengiz, fundamentalism is not the answer. After all, the words in the Qu’ran are open to interpretations.
The question of what is right and what is wrong, boggles him and he responds to the challenge by taking a stance. This new Chengiz, who morphed from the American servant to the Pakistani free thinker, holds his own.
He symbolizes the new Pakistan. He is the guy who responds to a gun shot with poetry. This new free thinking Pakistan, which is devoid of fundamentalism, is symbolized by Chengiz. The answer to violence is not violence, rather it is a peaceful demonstration.
On a personal level, I understand Chengiz’s frustration with labels and fundamentalism. Today, India is facing the same crisis. The Hindu fundamentalists are at our doorsteps demanding sacrifices in the name of nationalism. In their heads, they have already decided the fate of every Hindu and every Muslim in our country.
Whenever I look at a man sporting a skull cap and a beard, I am on guard instinctively. But after watching this movie, I realize that I cannot decide what a person is capable of on the basis of looks. The answer to fundamentalism is not creating stereotypes, it is giving people a chance to break them.