Retro-mad film review: Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (US, 2006)
Sheetal Sheth: The apotheosis of Hotness 🙂

I have a confession to make: I watched this film only because it had Sheetal Sheth in it. And the reason I watched it was because I was wilfing on the ‘net and I saw her interviews and I was struck with how articulate and passionate she was about things (which was in contrast to Lisa Ray’s mild, laidback, neutral interviews). She is actually much more fun in interviews than Lisa Ray (although Lisa Ray uses words like “existential” correctly, and any actor who can use that word in a sentence is hot to me!). If you want to check out Sheetal Sheth’s interviews, click here, here and here. By the way, I have discovered that Shamim Sarif has a blog which is hilarious and entertaining, so I guess I can forgive her for her films, haha! Click here for her blog.

Anyway, imagine my surprise when I watch this film and realize how funny it is! And how very underrated it is.

But I think it is because this subject matter of this film is very controversial and people and critics do not really know what to make of it. Is it making fun of Muslims? Is it poking fun at something else? Is it some kind of propaganda? Well, the best way to approach this film is to watch it first and to assume that it is a political satire – which it effectively is.

Albert Brooks plays a much more exaggerated, egoistic, spoiled bratty version of himself who cannot find jobs and is thus recruited by the government to do a research on what makes Muslims laugh, the end result of which is a 500-page report and a medal from the government. Preposterous, yes, but that is the whole point of the film – how some ideas sound brilliant on paper, but just sound preposterous when you start implementing it. Thus he goes to India fully expecting an entourage, a welcome party, everyone pandering to his every want and need but finds that nobody knows him and nobody cares. After being safely ensconced in his hotel, having two American agents with him, and a young, earnest Indian woman as his secretary (Sheetal Sheth) he sets out to find out what makes Muslims laugh, interviewing Indians on the streets, in clubs, in mosques, even stages a hilarious stand-up comedy show and finding out that he has no clue whatsoever about how to find out what makes Muslims laugh, much less how to connect with them. Finally, he goes to Pakistan illegally and finds an audience in a group of fledging stand-up comedians who does find his routine funny and he starts to get it, except he inadvertently starts World War III when India and Pakistan get wind of his research and mistake it for another meddlesome tactic from the American government designed to disturb the already fragile peace between the two countries.
Sheetal Sheth & Albert Brooks looking for comedy in India

I liked this film. It is smart, understated, subtle and what shines through is the filmmaker’s recognition of the audience as intelligent beings capable of gleaning meaning from a seemingly innocuous film about comedy and Islam and then ending up as a hilarious satire and analogy of America’s seemingly well-intentioned but ultimately ridiculous, pretentious idea that it can call itself the world’s protector of Western democracy and freedom.  The fact that the analogy is so specific – Pakistan and India, for example (replace that with Iran and Iraq, or Iraq and Kuwait or Iraq and Afghanistan, or Palestine and Israel), or the looking for comedy in a Muslim world in a spiritually diverse India (replace that with looking for weapons of mass destruction in the wrong places) and this film makes even more sense! In both situations, the protagonist (Brooks/America) look for something which does not exist,since they are looking for it in their own socio-cultural and politically incorrect context.  Hence Brooks could not find the comedy, because he looks at it from a his perspective, not fully realizing that of course, comedy comes in different forms, and different people from different cultures find different things funny. Hence a joke about Gandhi and halloween in the same sentence to a largely Indian audience for whom Ghandi is much revered will not be a hit, but the same joke would be a hit in Pakistan, for example. Brooks’ realization that he is not the almighty god of comedy or the big celebrity that he is, is a humbling experience for him, and it reflects the kind of experience America probably has when, almost a decade after 9/11, there are still no weapons of mass destruction, nor Osama Bin Laden, anywhere near the countries from which they claimed both were. This is, by the way, effectively conveyed in the film with scenes of Pakistani and Indian diplomats and politicians drawing their own hasty conclusions from inadequate intel. Dodgy intelligence, suspicious distrustful leaders, recipe for disaster – oh,wait, that’s why we  had the Iraq war!

Some of the funniest scenes from this consist of Brooks just having quick verbal exchanges with the people around him. The random interviews with people on the streets, in clubs, in mosques and the hilarious exchanges between him and earnest, eager, secretary Maya (Sheetal Sheth) as he teaches her the virtues of sarcasm are comedy gem. Another funny scene is the one where he stages a comedy show in an auditorium. The conversation with the auditorium keepers (when he asks them to kill the house lights, and since the switches are not working – the person in charge kills the power for the whole auditorium, effectively engulfing them in darkness) is fun as well as the other bits in that scene. Since he is a proper diva, he demands a dressing room, and he instead gets a teepee outside the auditorium, he introduces himself as himself as one of the greatest comedians in the world, and of course, hubris being what it is, proceeds to have his ego dashed onstage when nobody laughs at him. In desperation, he turns to improv, which was an even worse idea, because nobody still gets it, which effectively tells us – he has no idea what he is doing. The improv, by the way, ends up being a bit of  a funny treatise on political correctness.

Brooks’ character is properly belligerent and clueless and this works for the film, and makes it even more hilarious. Sheetal Sheth as the secretary is a great addition to the cast, and watching her match Brooks’ performance is a joy and a revelation: she is actually a good actor, in fact an even better one than “The World Unseen” and “I Can’t Think Straight” will lead me to believe. I like her more now – she seems to have more range (yay!). She also speaks in a passable Indian accent which  made me miss my Indian co-workers and classmates more (one thing I will miss about London – the Indians and Africans I made friends with). In interviews, she actually sounds very New York-ish and comes off as more confident and enthusiastic as well. I officially have  a crush on her now. Elaine Cassidy is so last month! 🙂

Anyway, I am encouraging everyone to watch this little gem, if you like comedies that are subtle and more intellectual. Plus it did not make money the first time it came out (a budget of $10M, which is not bad, considering how much money was needed to make crap like “Transformers 2”. “Looking for Comedy” made about half a million only on its opening weekend. For shame!), so I would like to promote it. 🙂

The trailer (the trailer alone should make you watch it. On the strength of the trailer alone I watched it):

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