‘The Infidel’ skewers ethnic identity

The Malibu Film Society will screen the film Sunday at the Malibu Screening Room.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

The Malibu Film Society’s next screening, “The Infidel,” has been billed as “a comedy of ethnic proportions.”

Far from being a typo, “ethnic” turns “epic” on its head by taking the threat of ideological terrorism and turning it into a small, sweet story about a man suddenly facing a conflicted cultural identity.

The film’s star, Omid Djalili, a British stand-up comedian and actor who will do a stand-up routine before and after the screening, as well as take part in a question and answer session on Sunday, spoke of his research for the character of Mahmud, a somewhat “relaxed” Muslim living in East London.

“I happen to be Baha’i,” Djalili said. “But in all the research you do, you realize that all religions are just different chapters from the same book.”

In “The Infidel,” Mahmud Nasir easily accommodates his Muslim faith with Western standards of living. He takes the occasional beer and sometimes skips one of his five-times-a-day calls to prayer, but feels observant in his heart, while relishing life with a successful business, a devoted wife and two loving children.

His son, Rashid, wants to marry, but to the stepdaughter of a fanatical Muslim cleric who must confirm that the Nasirs are “Muslim enough.”

The problem is that while going through papers of his recently deceased mother, Mahmud discovers that he was adopted at birth and born to Jewish parents.

In a bid to find out more about his heritage, Mahmud enlists the help of a Jewish neighbor, Lenny, played by American actor, Richard Schiff, an Emmy Award-winner for his turn in NBC’s “The West Wing.” Mahmud’s ensuing indoctrination into full Jewishness runs the gamut of Borscht-belt humor.

Lenny tries to set Mahmud straight on the different “types” of world Jewry.

“What about the Israelis?” Mahmud asks.

“I told you,” Lenny says, “They’re not really Jews.”

One of the funniest lines in the film is when Lenny learns of Mahmud’s birth name: Solly Shimsillewitz.

“Why didn’t they just call you Jewy Jewjewowitz and be done with it?” Lenny asks.

When asked about the various themes of the movie, Djalili said it is not just about personal identity.

“The big message is don’t lie to your wife,” he said, laughing. “There’s no point in withholding anything because she’ll find out.”

The film opened in England last spring and eventually screened in 62 countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Lebanon, Oman, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

At a socially fraught time, when a young Muslim woman is being tried in London for attempting to murder a Labor Minister for his Parliamentary vote to invade Iraq in 2003, Djalili said that no protests greeted the film and it has been generally well reviewed.

“This was a little film and pretty inoffensive, so we didn’t see any outrage,” Djalili said. “The humor is gentle. David Baddiel, our writer, happens to be an atheist. So it took an atheist to unite these supposedly warring factions into a religious comedy.”

Djalili was born to Iranian parents and studied theater arts at the University of Ulster. He launched his successful stand-up comedy career at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the mid-90s, eventually touring worldwide. He landed in the United States, where he snagged his own HBO special and starred opposite Whoopi Goldberg in her early 2000s television series “Whoopi.”

Djalili said after the events of Sept. 11, he began to get all the “generic Middle Eastern roles” coming out in films and took them all because “you don’t turn down any kind of offer from [director] Ridley Scott.”

But the great cultural divide developing between Muslims and westerners prompted him to think more about Islam, faith and tolerance.

“I became the standard-bearer in movies for all things Muslim, so even though I’m not a Muslim, I thought I’d work it into my act,” Djalili said. “If you can explore it through the medium of comedy, it’s less threatening.”

In 2007, Djalili was voted as one of Britain’s “100 Greatest Stand-ups” and got his own show on BBC1. In 2009, he played the role of Fagin in a West End revival of the musical “Oliver!” Now he is working on an upcoming NBC sitcom, “The Paul Reiser Show.”

Although a comedian, Djalili didn’t tap into his background for “The Infidel.”

“Actually, Richard [Schiff] had never worked in a comedic film before,” Djalili said. “So we agreed that for this film, I would play the straight man and he would play it for laughs. It was sort of role reversal after his serious stint on ‘The West Wing’ and we had a lot of fun.”

Scott Tallal, executive director of MFS, said of Djalili, “I first became aware of Omid several years ago when he literally stole the show… on Whoopi Goldberg’s series. Needless to say, stealing the show from the likes of Whoopi is pretty phenomenal!”

The Malibu Film Society will screen “The Infidel” Sunday, Nov. 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Malibu Screening Room, 24855 Pacific Coast Hwy. Tickets and more information can be obtained online at www.malibufilmsociety.org.

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