“Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World”
By Ras H. Siddiqui
was great to be invited to the San Francisco Premiere of
Warner Independent Pictures and Shangri-La Entertainment’s
“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” a
film by actor, director and writer Albert Brooks.
That was late in November last year, but unfortunately I
just could not make it and instead had to wait to see it
last week at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento. And it turned
out to be quite an eyeful but the teary laughter just did
not erupt. Instead this “comedy” actually makes
one turn inwards and to think seriously about what is being
The story gets off to an interesting start. A struggling
American comedian, Albert Brooks, is looking for work. He
goes to an interview and encounters Penny Marshall (remember
her from the 1970’s "Laverne & Shirley"?)
and is abruptly dropped from consideration from the possible
role. Brooks points out that this interview took less time
than it took him to park downstairs.
Albert goes home to his daughter and lovely (eBay Shopping
addict) wife who informs him that he has a letter waiting
from the US Government (The State Department). A concerned
Brooks confides in his wife that he did once visit an Al
Qaeda website for just five minutes and that maybe the letter
had something to do with that.
He opens the letter to find an invitation to visit Washington
for a possible job. Encouraged by his wife and a sense of
hidden patriotism he proceeds to the State Department in
DC where he meets politician/actor Fred Dalton Thompson
who explains to him that old fashioned spying and fighting
have already been used and that new tactics are needed to
develop an understanding with the Muslim world. He is also
informed that our President has a great sense of humor.
Albert Brooks is asked to assist in a project which is studying
what makes Muslims around the world laugh. And to do just
that an on-site evaluation in India and Pakistan was required,
along with the delivery of a 500-page report of the findings.
“You would be doing your country a great service,”
he is told and that a Medal of Freedom would do wonders
for his (sagging) career.
Till this point in the movie the viewer is still anticipating
that laughter is just around the corner and these expectations
remain high till that Air India flight lands in New Delhi.
And from then on Brooks tries to make people laugh but does
a thoroughly unconvincing job according to the response
The high point in this movie is Maya (Sheetal Sheth), the
overachieving assistant and loyal believer in Albert’s
talents. Maya is leading an interesting life as is her jealous
Iranian friend Majeed (Homie Doroodian) who appears to know
a great deal more about comedy in America than Albert Brooks
knows about comedy in India. Actually Maya and Majeed are
the only two Indian characters that this movie has attempted
The funniest part of this movie is the one liners one hears
from the Call Center located next door to the office set
up in Delhi by the State Department and Brooks for this
project. The center even hosts calls for the White House.
This segment alone, if elaborated upon, could have rescued
“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” from
the serious realm.
above: Scenes from Looking for Comedy in the Muslim
The other parts of this film
touch upon India-Pakistan relations and what the US could
possibly do in this area. The intrigue starts with a secret
four-hour trip (reminds one of the President Clinton visit
to Pakistan Asia a few years ago) when Albert “unofficially”
goes across the border to meet and humor a group of hookah-smoking
Pakistani comedians. This does not humor the mutually suspicious
authorities in both countries. Needless to say, an American
comedian’s innocent attempt on cross-border humor
mission, leads to the possibility of war between these two
countries. One wonders what President Bush will be stepping
into during his upcoming scheduled visit to the two countries
in March, 2006.
Albert Brook’s attempts at communicating with Indians
in a humorous fashion are certainly made clear in this movie.
But the problem is that although awkward, these will generate
few chuckles from American, Indian, Pakistani or Muslim
viewers. There are many subtle messages here on the ignorance
that rules the roost in Washington about the Muslim world
or even India. The literally passing tour of the Taj Mahal
conducted by Brooks is a case in point. The Taj is the crowning
architectural achievement of Muslim rule and culture in
India and is admired by people worldwide. Here it gets less
attention than a driving trip through Kansas.
“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” gets
just one out of four stars in my book for generating laughter.
And for seriousness it gets two stars, a remarkable achievement
for a comedy! But in each case one of these stars certainly
belongs to the attractive and talented Sheetal Sheth.
In any case the message that this movie sends is one that
is healthy, especially during these times of trouble between
America and the Muslim world. This film is a reminder of
the ignorance gap that exists between cultures. There is
still a lot that that each could learn from the other and
a great deal of humor could be produced along the way. But
in conclusion here, if there is a funny bridge between Islam
and America, “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World”
only vaguely located it, started to cross, but just did
not find the other side.