Star of David Brooks

Sajit shredded Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World as being unfunny and culturally inastute. I come bearing a lukewarm defense: having seen the movie, it is much better than its trailer and is on balance good for the South Asian brand launch.

The main flaw of the movie, a simple-minded farce, is that it’s done by Albert Brooks. Brooks is the Jewish Bill Cosby, his character a throwback, a Mr. Smith Goes to Delhi; his humor is suburban, family-friendly, with all its edges rounded off. The centerpiece of the movie is a comedy show Brooks performs in Delhi, funny to neither the Indians on-screen nor the American audience off-. He does have some choice one-liners, though none stray beyond the safety of stereotype (he gets neither green M&M’s nor a greenroom in Delhi). Even the inevitable outsourcing jokes happen only as background chatter. It isn’t insightful, but for the most part it isn’t brain-dead or offensive either.Sheetal Sheth plays a clueless, shiny-haired chipmunk. I couldn’t decide whether to smack her or take her home

You also get a Brooksian touch like Sheetal Sheth’s character, a wide-eyed naïf. Sheth plays the role like a shiny-haired chipmunk with saucer eyes and a bottomless supply of perk and oblivion. She’s Clueless in Connaught Place; I couldn’t decide whether to smack her or take her home. Sheth gets second billing in the credits. My college buddy Shaheen Sheik also got two brief closeups; it’s always cool seeing someone I went to school with.

The central elision is intact, India is not the center of the Muslim world, and the exculpatory hand wave fails even on screen. But the India-Pakistan subplot is cute in a Sleeper kind of way. And in one witty riff, the sitar on the score switches from desi ishtyle to ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business.’

There are some cultural oddities about the script. Brooks is way overdressed in formal sherwanis for a day at the office. A Native American teepee makes a baffling appearance and leaves you wondering whether exposition was cut from the script; it’s not Brooks’ style to make you think. The Iranian boyfriend’s accent sounds like a cat in a blender, the unhappy coincidence of an inflated resume (‘Dialects: Hindi’) and actually landing the role. Sheth’s own accent is painfully inexact, but you get used to it as the movie wears on. At least they’re attempting Indian accents (Casanova: the Venezians speak in British accents? Really?).

Here’s where the movie delivers: it shows some desis as regular Joginders. It splashes Delhi across American screens without being a City of Joy. That’s progress. And it shows the actual streets of Delhi, which Bollywood rarely does. True, the soundtrack is amped up with sitar, and in real life you don’t hear cows lowing every time you pass. But you rarely see Bollywood showing a city street without packing it full of Eurotrash wanna-bes. For me the movie carried a tinge of homesickness and familiarity: yes, that’s Air India; yes, that’s Indira Gandhi International; yes, that’s the airport taxi stand where my relatives meet me without fail; yes, that’s Connaught Place in all its orotund, rotund glory. Like Where’s the Party Yaar?, it trades on affectionate recognition rather than raw merit.

Biju stepped out of the airport into the Calcutta night, warm, mammalian… Thousands of people were out though it was almost eleven. He saw a pair of elegant bearded goats in a rickshaw, riding to slaughter. A conference of old men with elegant goat faces, smoking bidis. A mosque and minarets lit magic green in the night with a group of women rushing by in burkhas, bangles clinking under the black and a big psychedelic mess of color from a sweet shop. Rotis flew through the air as in a juggling act, polka-dotting the sky… Sweet drabness of home– he felt everything shifting and clicking into place around him, felt himself slowly shrink back to size, the enormous anxiety of being a foreigner ebbing– that unbearable arrogance and shame of the immigrant.

– Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss

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p>Watch the trailer.

Related posts: Looking for Comedy? Look Elsewhere, Bulls don’t need breasts to get work in Hollywood, Looking for permission to film in the Muslim world, ‘Looking for Comedy’ trailer, The ‘big bang’ launch

17 thoughts on “Star of David Brooks

  1. -”it trades on affectionate recognition rather than raw merit”

    Thats really very well said MV.That is why I thought Monsoon Wedding was a great movie worthy of an Oscar because the familiarity of the characters and the situation and the places was woven into a a superb plot with latent yet very strong production values.It was as real a Delhi anyone could ever get and never has anyting made me want to take the next flight out to Delhi and roam around South Extension than the ‘Aaja Sanwariya’ song.

    oh well,I guess I will have to see this one,if for nothing else than apni Dilli’s sake……

  2. For me the movie carried a tinge of homesickness and familiarity: yes, thatÂ’s Air-India; yes, thatÂ’s Indira Gandhi International; yes, thatÂ’s the airport taxi stand where my relative meet me without fail; yes, thatÂ’s Connaught Place in all its orotund, rotund glory.

    nice one manish … i despise delhi really … the smoke … the cow sitting astride the crumbling divider with its pink rear perilously close to passing traffic … the dog with a tumour poking out its side… the child beggars with the spindly limbs gesturing towards the mouth … and yet… that was a good line… :_)

  3. manish,

    i checked out the movie 2-3 weeks ago. it wasn’t that bad.

    i would give it 3 stars out of 5. it had funny moments.

    it also was like a luke-warm chai (tea) – didn’t have the omph but still I sipped it (smiled) here and there.

  4. But you rarely see Bollywood showing a city street without packing it full of Eurotrash wanna-bes

    Delicately, but beautifully done, Manish :) That’s got to go down as one of the best links ever!

    Yours was the first review of this movie that seems to have been fair – most of the ones I’ve read dismissed it rather quickly. But it seems as though you gave it a chance, and now I’m thinking of watching it too :)

    A small quibble though -

    At least theyÂ’re attempting Indian accents (Casanova: the Venizians speak in British accents? Really?)

    I’m not sure that’s an entirely appropriate comparison, simply because the Venetians of the day probably didnt speak English at all. So the choices in bringing it to hollywood would either be: 1) in Italian (with english subtitles), 2) Heavily-accented English, spoken Italian-style, or 3) the default option, English a la Britannica (or Americana). Mainstream Hollywood wouldnt allow option 1), option 2) would just look really silly so as in many hollywood period pieces, it becomes option 3). British English, it seems as become the default option for hollywood – its more commanding than an American accent, at least in my experience thus far, and has more of an authoritative ring to it. Indian English is at the end of the day stands on its own as English and many in India do speak it just the way Sheth does in the movie (although perhaps not as purposefully gratingly). I don’t see how the filmmakers would have got away with her speaking in any other way though….but I do love your reviews, both literary and cinematic!

  5. It might be a mediocre movie, but it does have jokes that are way stereotypical, and in a negative fashion. This is all fair ground for free speech, but do you really think the average Iranian boyfriend went to explosives school? This is like showing a Brooklyn Hassidic man saying that he was the funniest in his money lending class.

    Taking a larger view though, its an average movie of its time.

  6. All I can add to is I can empathise with indian audience who didnot get Brooks jokes cause it ain’t funny. And I donot understand the subtle idea of USinos to understand the east as if it was another province in their country oops continent oops world. No, we are not and we donot see the obivious mistake of India being the center of the muslim block. Get real or get a life.

  7. So I was on a bit torrent site yesterday looking for uh, movies, and the number one news item of the day was “Indian Actress Coming to Hollywood, Told to Get Implants”. Yes, it was about Sheetal Sheth. There were about a 100 comments, consisting of the usual “sHe’ preTty AlrEaDy, gEt a liFe” countered with “she’s gross”, some going on about the merits of brown women while others were blatantly racist in a more conventional sense. Oh and there were a large number of indignant brown folk claiming she couldn’t possibly be a real Indian actress because they WATCH Indian movies and have never seen her face before.

    My favourite, however, was one that (to paraphrase) which informed the rest of the crew that she was sheetal, that she shit on them on them all and that she’d stick around, but she had to go to worship a cow. It cracked me up and the moderators took the thread down soon after that.

  8. dear sepia folk,

    no offense, but i never realized that being desi was so much about popular culture. i mean i like my celebrity worship, but damn, you guys are about nothing else. can we get some posts about newer topics or is it going to be bollywood hollywood pantheon worship for all of my recurring lives?

  9. Progress simply because it shows “some desis as regular Joginders” and “splashes Delhi across American screens without being a City of Joy”?? That’s setting the bar pretty low.

    I saw this movie and thought it was, by turns, stupid (as you note, the jokes pretty much all fall flat) and offensive, with stereotyped moments that made me wince, especially in a movie that claims to be all about cross-cultural understanding. The anti-Muslim moments among them were particularly troubling — there was the “explosives school” gag, already noted above, but the film also portrayed every third Muslim as anti-Semitic in one way or another, leaving Brooks (for goodness sakes) to portray himself as the enlightened, pluralistic, tolerant one by comparison. All of that was both gratuitous and ridiculous, and ultimately revealed the film to rest on rather demeaning premises.

    It’s too bad because the film did have some potential. But instead of revealing its own premise as ridiciulous and a product of Western ignorance — because obviously people in the Muslim world are capable of laughter as much as anyone else, and what could have been shown as funny is the way in which it’s ridiculous for a bunch of Americans to assume otherwise. Instead, the movie seems to have taken its premise completely seriously, portraying Brooks as on a modern-day civilizing mission to teach a bunch of unfunny buffoons about sarcasm and how to be funny.

    Soft orientalism updated for the age of globalization — sure, there are regular people working in call centers now, but the portrayals don’t seem all that different from what we’re accustomed to. Manish, I’m particularly surprised at your defense of the film given your reaction to that book cover last week ;)

    Incidentally, I just saw “Rang De Basanti” and was trying to think about whether your description of Bollywood (doesn’t show the streets of Delhi, only shows Eurotrash wannabes) rings true for that film, and I think the answer is maybe a little bit, but by and large no. You want to find comedy in the Muslim world? Go watch that film.

  10. That’s setting the bar pretty low.

    We already know that– it’s an Albert Brooks movie :)

    … especially in a movie that claims to be all about cross-cultural understanding… Instead, the movie seems to have taken its premise completely seriously…

    No, bumbling Brooks was the butt of most of the jokes. It’s a movie mainly about Brooks and secondarily about the Ugly American and his lack of cultural understanding. Look at the India-Pakistan subplot where the officials are in control and Brooks is Inspector Clouseau / Inspector Gadget, it’s very clear.

    … there was the “explosives school” gag, already noted above, but the film also portrayed every third Muslim as anti-Semitic in one way or another…

    Yup, its treatment of Muslims is very hackneyed and slapstick. The bomb joke bugs me more from Shazia Mirza than from an American.

    sure, there are regular people working in call centers now, but the portrayals don’t seem all that different from what we’re accustomed to…

    The call center jokes here are a recurring gag in the background, not one-liners.

    … obviously people in the Muslim world are capable of laughter as much as anyone else…

    Yup, the title is silly and demeaning. It reminds me of Jackie Chan in Rush Hour– his first appearance on screen gets a Chinese gong on the soundtrack. Gag. But then a stoned Brooks chillin’ with Pakistani comedians while puffing the magic dragon…

    Incidentally, I just saw “Rang De Basanti”… Go watch that film.

    I would’ve, but it was sold out all weekend with a line that wrapped around the parking lot.

    … I’m particularly surprised at your defense of the film given your reaction to that book cover…

    Books are a far more subtle, though less visceral, medium than movies. The bar is higher for print, and higher still for a desi author.

  11. rather than nostalgia, it can also be an occassion to assess whether someone is almost irrevocably american (if indian-american)

    dehli is nice, i can relate to it, but as to it being my home, a place i can slip into to? nada, no dice. those real dehli-walay would show me a thing or two about delhi anytime i asked, or even if i didn’t. and they might take my money while they are at it, while i’m busy trying to figure out the exchange rate. while i know a bit about bollywood….an albert brooks movie is actually much, much, much more familiar to me. i know there’s this guy karan johar who does family-friendly movies i can almost like, but al brooks, i actually like.

    ain’t that american, something to see.

    well, it better be, because its the only country i have

  12. wanted to add:

    i’m super glad i am american and my skin color is american. i love me some merica right bout now (get back to me around Nov 06)

  13. Books are a far more subtle, though less visceral, medium than movies. The bar is higher for print, and higher still for a desi author.

    Mainstream movies reach more people and therefore any positive or negative consequences potentially that much greater, by orders of magnitude in many cases, although mercifully I suspect that very few people will see this one. (Hopefully they’ll buy Shaheen’s album instead.) And while Brooks does make himself the butt of many jokes, I don’t recall his Ugly Americanness to have been the object of any of them, really, at least not in any significant way. And I don’t know that I agree re: the Indian-Pakistani officials “being in charge” in that subplot — Brooks may have been Inspector Clouseau in that subplot, but the officials also come across looking pretty lame, like people who will accidentally go to war over a situation that was so obviously ridiculous. The subtext there is that Indians and Pakistanis hate each other so much that they barely need an excuse to go to war with each other, and won’t be bothered to investigate that excuse to make sure that it’s war-worthy. Ha ha ha, so funny.

    Too bad you missed RDB — you’re right, though, that certainly was the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen at ImaginAsian. (When I saw Veer-Zaara there the audience had like 10 people.) Hopefully you can catch it somewhere else.

  14. ITS SAD TO READ SOME OF THE COMMENTARY ON THIS SITE,ALBERT BROOKS WHO IS A BRILLIANT COMEDIAN,MUST READ SOME OF THE ANTISEMITIC COMMENTARY ON THIS SITE,MY FAMILY HAS BEEN IN INDIA FOR 6 GENERATIONS,I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN PROUD IN BEING INDIAN AND JEWISH,I AM PROUD IN BEING A ZIONIST ,GOD BLESS INDIA , GOD BLESS ISRAEL