Best of Tribeca 2010: ‘The Infidel’

I revisit this film, now that it’s creating some controversy in the Middle East. This is what I thought when I first watched it, two years ago…

Just what makes us who we are? Well, memories certainly play a huge part of our self-awareness, who we think we are, and those memories are typically a collage of what our background has taught us, where our parents and fore-parents have come from and what our culture has instilled in us. But what if the whole equation was turned upside down and we learned – one fine day and in the midst of being quite contently set in our ways – that what we think is a given is really not so?

Well, that is the basic premise of the film ‘The infidel’ which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010. Mahmud, played by the wonderfully hilarious Omid Djalili, is a good Pakistani father and husband and a “relaxed” Muslim living in the UK. Perhaps not the most observant, but certainly proud of his background. Or what he thinks his actual lineage is. After his mother’s death, Mahmud discovers that he was adopted as a baby and that his name at birth was Solly Shimshillewitz. Indeed, the relaxed Muslim is a certified Jew! So ensues a comedy of errors, complete with an education into Jewishness – by Jewish American cabbie Lenny – and a certified identity crisis for the bewildered Mahmud. Oh, and lets not forget the fanatical Muslim cleric with a secret, strategically written into the story to add to the funny confusion!

‘The Infidel’ was distributed in the US by Tribeca Films, which meant it was part of that precious group shown at both the festival and On-Demand simultaneously. It is a wonderful concept particularly for a film like this one, which requires viewing it with family and enjoying the humor with a group of friends. Think about it, you get to stop it, rewind it, grab some snacks, then come back to the backslapping comedy without missing a single beat.

Anyway, I absolutely enjoyed this film. The premise was original, the script – by David Baddiel – intelligently witty, the cast absolutely wonderful – Archie Panjabi plays Mahmud’s wife with candor and charm, while Richard Schiff is the cabbie with an acerbic wit and “a bigger belly than me” according to Schiff himself. Directed by Josh Appignanesi, the story flows and entertains, without ever once giving away its surprise ending. Which of course, you won’t hear from me either!

Back at the premiere, I caught up with the cast and crew on the red carpet. Omid Djalili talked to me about playing a Muslim – he’s a British-Iranian Bahá’í – and pointed to the film’s success in the UK. “I’m excited about the film being part of this Tribeca Film initiative because I think it has the opportunity to change people’s minds. You want a film to influence the discussion, that’s the most you can hope for. We are all the same after all and that is what the film teaches.”

When I asked director Appignanesi how he became involved in the project he disclosed “David [Baddiel, the writer] suggested his idea to me, a Muslim who becomes a Jew. It’s a strong pitch, then I read the script and loved it.” And about how he handled the Pakistani connection in the film, without offending anyone, he added “there was obviously a being careful thing. But there is such a thing as too careful. There was a director in Britain in the last couple of years who shot a film, a liberal PC director, so worried about the film making people upset that she had a co-director by her side from that culture. Unfortunately, she was so careful that she forgot about the other aspect of telling the story. We had the consultancy thing. I think for me, I’ve got the second generation connection, my parents are Canadian, one side Italian Catholic, the other Polish Jew, so I’m already a mixed-up mongrel. The film is also about the second generation experience, third generation experience, which is very now in the UK. There have been Jews living in Britain for at least seven generations, but back in the days the kind of prejudice that was directed at them is what the Muslims are facing today.”

I then caught up with producer Arvind Ethan David, who became involved in the project “when I was having breakfast with the girlfriend of writer David Baddiel and he crashed the breakfast. He said ‘a Muslim who becomes a Jew, what do you think?’ and I said YES! We’ll make THAT movie.”

Archie Panjabi is known and loved for her various film characters as well as her regular role on CBS’ ‘The Good Wife’. She brought along to the film’s premiere her TV co-star and super-cutie Matt Czuchry. Panjabi got involved in ‘The Infidel’ because she “actually worked with Omid before”and is looking forward to continuing to enjoy her work on ‘The Good Wife’. Denis Leary and Timothy Busfield were also in attendance at the premiere, as was super-funny ‘Just Like Us’ director and star Ahmed Ahmed, who has officially earned the reputation of being the NICEST guy at this festival. Ask anyone!

So, if the phrase “In my trying to find myself, I forgot myself” means anything in your own life – it does in the functioning chaos of mine – then ‘The Infidel’ is certainly the film for you.

Image by Matt Nettheim

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