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Here's what makes Gatsby GREAT, and Fundamentalist RELUCTANT

Last updated on: May 27, 2013 18:13 IST

Here's what makes Gatsby GREAT, and Fundamentalist RELUCTANT


Mihir S Sharma in New Delhi

The Great Gatsby and The Reluctant Fundamentalist are two attempts to make moralising novels into spectacular movies. Here's why the first succeeds and the other fails.

The first book that Mohsin Hamid mentions in his 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

About a third of the way in, Hamid's protagonist Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) attends a party at the home of his mentor, Jim (Kiefer Sutherland), in his financial valuation firm. Jim has already told Changez that the two of them are both outsiders, pretending to be something they're not, and determined to "win", where "winning" is defined as having a big house in the Hamptons outside New York City.

As Changez stands on a pier outside Jim's home and looks at his boss' estate, he compares it in his head to Jay Gatsby's mansion. Such is the power of Fitzgerald's novel that any further parallels between the 1920s and the 2000s are left unspoken -- moral decay, fraudulent fortunes, "outsiders" seeking acceptance by making money and losing their souls for it.  

Baz Luhrmann and Mira Nair also have things in common. They both released big movies last month based on well-loved novels, and they both have an incorrigible fondness for the larger-than-life, melodramatic song-and-dance stuff that Bollywood wants to pretend is all Indian viewers will watch.  

In both The Great Gatsby and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, there's a bit of song-and-dance, and some larger-than-life staging -- more in the former than the latter -- but, oddly, when it comes to melodrama, it's Nair's adaptation of Hamid's slender and restrained book that's more over-the-top than Luhrmann's attempt to turn Fitzgerald's Charleston-era moral homily of a novel into a 21st century summer blockbuster.  

The problem is both movies are attempts to adapt self-consciously political books. Fitzgerald's Gatsby, beloved of generations of half-baked populists, is a story of the inevitable corruption and tawdriness of gilded ages, of how even those from saintly rural stock can come to the big city and discover their values shrink as their bank accounts grow, set amidst disapproving descriptions of riotous parties.  

But Luhrmann, fortunately for his movie, revels in spectacle, producing a paean to consumerist excess out of a book that was supposed to condemn it. Movies are like that. They dazzle you in a way that books can't.

When you read Daisy Buchanan's famous line, when asked to explain why she's crying when she meets Jay Gatsby again -- "because I've never seen such - such beautiful shirts before" -- you laugh and nod at how her apparent evasion actually reveals her regret at missing out on what would have been a fairly colourful life with Gatsby.

When you hear that line, in the midst of Luhrmann's literally dizzying 3-D presentation of Gatsby's bedroom, all you can think is wow, yes, those are some pretty good-looking three-dimensional shirts.

Image: Kiefer Sutherland and Riz Ahmed in The Great Gatsby


Gatsby's black-and-white morality becomes dazzling colour

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Gatsby the movie may apparently dishonour the memory of the man who invented the term "the Jazz Age" by having a soundtrack by Jay-Z, but it's actually surprisingly respectful to the narrative and intent of the book.  

To the extent that it's undermined, it's because we see for ourselves rather than through Fitzgerald's narrator's eyes, and we can come to our own conclusions about whether or not Jay Gatsby, fraud and racketeer, was the great and moral man that Fitzgerald wanted us to imagine he was.  

He's still a deeply sympathetic character; playing at being rich at a time when riches were about blood as well as money, knowing he's a fraud but in a way revelling in it, determined that he could become upper-class just by acting it. 

Mira Nair's version of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, on the other hand, is pretty much the mirror image of all that. It has a kind of reckless disrespect for the author's original work that one would not expect from a screenplay adapted by, well, the original author.

In Gatsby, the novel's two dimensions become three in the film, its black-and-white morality becomes dazzling colour.

In Reluctant, the novel's nuances are battered into submission by Nair's heavy hand, its finely-drawn lead character -- talkative, charming, funny, menacing -- turned into a big-eyed bearded puppy, and suddenly despicable for it.  

Hamid's novel is a strange beast, written as a monologue delivered by the mysterious Changez -- who may or may not be a terrorist, may or may not be a religious fundamentalist -- to a spooky Raymond Davis-type American in a dhaba in Lahore.

Hamid's Changez Khan was born to the snooty upper class that, in Pakistan as here, believes it has a right to club memberships that BMW SUV-driving nouveaux riches don't. He goes to Princeton, joins a financial company, becomes alienated after 9/11 and returns home to become a university lecturer.

In the novel, we suffer through his alienation, but realise that it is partly his fault. He carries with him to New York the prickliness and denial of its own decline that his class exhibits in South Asia, and there finds that he can just blame it all on America.

In fact, Changez is a case study in the febrile machismo of South Asia, of our lands full of insecure men obsessed by their societies' perceived weakness, haunted by an imagined predatory and powerful past, hiding anger about status behind a pompous and oversold veneer of civility. 

There's none of this in the movie, which is far more concerned with painting a fresco of Saint Changez and the American dragon. The torment he faces as a Muslim in an America deranged by 9/11 is worse in the movie. Quite literally, unbelievably worse.

Image: Leonardo DiCaprio and Isla Fisher in The Great Gatsby

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Did Mira Nair adapt My Name Is Khan instead?

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A secondary interrogation for a few minutes, such as many of us faced, becomes a full-cavity search, immeasurably rarer and more humiliating. Tyre-deflating is accompanied in the movie with a threatening call of "Osama", from a man Changez has met before; far scarier than the incident in the book.  

In the movie, he's also arrested and intimidated by federal agents. In the book, his American girlfriend sinks into depression; in the movie, she makes an art exhibit in which he features as an exoticised Pakistani.  

Given this sequence of horrors for Changez Khan, I'm not sure if Nair read Reluctant Fundamentalist and decided to adapt it, or watched My Name is Khan and decided to adapt that.  

And secondly, and most importantly, the ending is changed. The novel's ending is wonderfully ambiguous, and I won't spoil it for you; the movie's is heavy-handed product placement for black SUVs and Javed Akhtar's poetry. 

The lesson from Nair's and Hamid's failure with Reluctant Fundamentalist is that, when adapting novels apparently about political problems, it is never wise to make your characters shallower, or their experiences more harrowing.  

The medium of film permits you to deepen the experience anyway, to endow even glancing stares with danger, to shock with merest glimpse of gun-metal. That may not be a problem in a regular movie -- but when dealing with politics and morality, audiences don't want to be led along by the nose. There is no movie-making sin but assuming stupidity. 

Image: Riz Ahmed and Kate Hudson in The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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So Indian was Gatsby that having Amitabh Bachchan wasn't a surprise at all

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That's why Luhrmann's adaptation of Gatsby works in comparison. Fitzgerald wanted us to look at Jay Gatsby, a gangster and front for match-fixers throwing parties for love, as a moral exemplar, and that's sort of ridiculous. But, in the movie, the written-down moralising becomes harder to put across, and we are allowed to think for ourselves.  

More than one person pointed out that the story of the well-connected fraudster and bootlegger in his vulgar country house outside the city, where all the great and the good would come for fabulous parties, and quiet deals were arranged to fix sport and change policy, sounded like it should really be set in 2013 Delhi.  

Ponty Chadha is our Jay Gatsby. So Indian was the story that having Amitabh Bachchan pop up with his gravelly voice wasn't a surprise at all.  

In the words of the comedian Anuvab Pal, you half expected Bachchan to start selling Gujarat, the home of 3-D holograms, to Americans in the middle of his scenes. Why nobody has yet redone Gatsby as a real Hindi movie is beyond me; though perhaps it already has been done -- in the 1950s perhaps, starring Raj Kapoor -- and I didn't notice because its plot and sensibility is like every Hindi movie ever.

Changez and Gatsby are both written as impostors -- though in fact only the latter is.  

Changez was in fact, as much a New Yorker as everyone else, however alienated he let himself feel. The politics behind, and morality of, their impostures is the point of both stories.

But in one case, the movie's makers showed a boundless sympathy for all the characters, a largeness of heart not visible in the meanness that lies between the lines of Fitzgerald's novel, which meant their movie was a joy to watch.

And in the other case, the movie's makers, including sadly the original novel's writer, showed too much sympathy for one character -- and so had none at all left over for their audience.

Image: Amitabh Bachchan in The Great Gatsby

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