Diplomatic Mission

Indian Express/Arts Etc By Sanjukta Sharma

Albert Brooks samples Muslim laughter from Delhi streets in his new film.

YOU’VE seen him in Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. In The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and in The Muse, where Sharon Stone played the title role. Twenty-six years after comedian Albert Brooks played himself in Real Life, another idea for a self-portrayal unfolded in his head. The plot: Politician-actor Fred Dalton Thompson summons Brooks to Washington DC. He must be a diplomatic emissary for the US government. His brief: ‘‘Go to India and Pakistan and file a 500-page report on what makes the over 300 million Muslims in the two countries laugh.’’ Unable to resist the prospect of a ‘Medal of Freedom’ that the effort would fetch him, Brooks arrives with a big crew in Delhi in early 2005.

After a frenetic two-month shooting schedule outside the Taj Mahal, at the Jama Masjid, in the din of traffic at Conn-aught Place and at a decrepit Delhi auditorium, the film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, is ready and premieres at the Dubai Interna-tional Film Festival 2005 next week. ‘‘I’m trying to find out something about you that’s not top secret. It can’t hurt to know what makes people laugh. If you really sat in a room with different kinds of people who normally don’t speak to each other and you laughed at something, even if it was me falling on my a**, there’s some sort of commonality there,’’ says Brooks over the telephone from his Los Angeles home. The film will release in theatres across the US in January 2006.

After Michael Moore’s documentaries Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, the anti-Bush rhetoric on screen has become almost as simplistic as Bush’s speeches: The Pentagon is evil, the Muslim world is sinned against. Albert Brooks felt that the truth in this anti-America stand had got lost because it was garbed in hostility. ‘‘I took a couple of years to understand how in my art form I could process the changes that had taken place after 9/11. It was bothering me. I just thought that there was this 700 lb gorilla sitting in my comedy office saying, ‘deal with this, find a way’.’’

India was the easiest to shoot in. The permissions were quick, the Muslim clergy was friendly and the people on the roads were amused, rather than shocked when Brooks went around with a mike on Delhi streets accompanied by by an Indian assistant, Maya, (played by Sheetal Sheth of ABCD fame) and two US government agents, Stuart and Mark, played by John Carrol Lynch and Jon Tenney.

Says Tabrez Noorani, whose Los Angeles-based company India Take One Productions, handled the production in Delhi, ‘‘It was everything that we hadn’t expected in India. Right in the afternoon, at the inner circle of Connaught Place, the big crew wrapped up a day’s shoot in a few hours. We never really went to Pakistan although the film is supposed to be set in India and Pakistan.’’

When 15 Jewish men (Brooks included) entered the Jama Masjid with shooting paraphernalia and spelt out their agenda, the Imam of the mosque responded with a crackle of laughter. ‘‘He instantly okayed the idea of shooting there and honestly, I did feel like a real life diplomat on a mission for two minutes,’’ recalls Brooks.

Through the film, some people he interviews become more forthcoming and others close their doors on Brooks. Undaunted, he puts up The Big Show, ‘‘the first stand-up act in Delhi’’, arranges a clandestine meeting with Pakistani comedians and a business meeting with Al Jazeera. The ‘Medal of Freedom’ was enticing enough.

The character’s journey—hilarious and ironic at the same time—ends with Brooks realising ‘‘the best person to find out what makes people laugh is a person with no visible sense of humour’’.

Apart from that cryptic one-liner, Brooks doesn’t want to disclose the end until the film premieres in Dubai. ‘‘I wanted it to be seen by a primarily Muslim audience first and I’m excited, yet nervous about the screening. We’re just going, we’ll see how people react,’’ he says.

Being of Indian descent, Sheth was pleasantly surprised by Brooks’ responsiveness to her culture. ‘‘Although I’m an ABCD, I visit my family every two years and I admire Brooks for portraying India as it is and not with the typical Western eye for the exotic.’’

An India release of Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, distributed by Warner Independent Pictures, is slated for mid-2006.

(Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World premieres at the Dubai International Film Festival on December 15)