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Mohsin Hamid: "I think the personal is political and the political is personal"

The Books Interview.

Your new book addresses the reader in the second person. Is it partly an attempt to break the isolation of the author and reach out?
The process is private but the desire is to share. Writing is one of the few times that people get to take somebody else’s thoughts into the space where they contain their own thoughts. That permeability and access is an unusual state of affairs. But it’s as if we feel that because it’s such a personal thing, it’s best not to make ourselves self-conscious about it. The question becomes, without compromising that intimacy, can you talk about it?

How did you go about channelling the politics of a continent into the mind of an individual?
I think the personal is political and the political is personal. In Sufi terms, there are two very interesting notions of transcendence. One is to gaze out at the universe and to comprehend that what you see out there reflects what you are. The other one is to look inside yourself and recognise that the universe is present there.

The book plays with the self-help genre, which is typically more about “I” than it is about “you”, isn’t it?
It’s all I! For both writer and reader. It’s an incredibly narcissistic genre. Though I’m interested in self-help, it’s more about self-mitigation and self-transcendence. The fundamental problem is mortality – the stronger your sense of self, the more frightening the ending becomes. It’s only various approaches – whether asceticism or mysticism or love – that we have evolved as human beings for millennia and that render the self less central, which make the end of the self less horrifying.

Do you think the communication of self is more prevalent than ever before?
The market works by reinforcing the self, so the most effective market actor is the most self-centred, to understand precisely what your needs and wants are. So as the market gets stronger it reinforces the self, but that troubles us, it makes us anxious. What’s interesting is what can the novel do, because in the novel there is a natural blurring of the self. Where else do you sit in solitude for six hours with your thoughts and somebody else’s thoughts?

Do you dispute the arguments of David Shields and Sheila Heti, then, that the novel no longer adequately reflects life?
When people talk about the death of the novel, they are speaking of the need for the birth of something different. Sheila Heti said that the advent of long-form, character-driven narrative television can liberate the novel in the same way photography liberated painting – it allowed abstract expressionism and surrealism to come into existence. But I go back to where literature comes from. In Pakistan, the dominant literary form of the past 1,000 years has been the Sufi poem. That poetry is often addressed to a beloved who is referred to as “you”, and is preoccupied with the notion that the way to apprehend the divine is to love – not an acquisitive love but a kind of love that says, I desire you to be less lonely.

You’ve written that “you” opened up a wider narrative space – in what way?
Yes, it liberates. The purpose of form is to enable. Any formal decision that I make has to have a reason and it can’t be, oh look how cool this is going to look. There are no sort of gold stars available for form.

Though sometimes it feels as though writers think there might be.
Yes, and I’m sure I do that, too. But I usually throw those drafts away or hope I do. The Reluctant Fundamentalist was at one point not a dramatic monologue and was told entirely straight in an Americanaccented first person. Before that, it was a gentle fable. It failed completely.

How do you know it’s not working?
I show people I trust who tell me this is terrible. For about a day or two I consider ending my relationship with them for ever and then I reflect and say, you know, they might be right.

Interview by Sophie Elmhirst Mohsin Hamid’s “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99)

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.