Mahmud Nasir (Omid Djalili), the comedic hero of The Infidel, is experiencing the average immigrant identity crisis, times two: He's a British Muslim who soon discovers that he was born a Jew. As his life becomes bookended by the Koran and Torah, he sulks outside kebab houses pondering who he really is. But director Josh Appignanesi and writer David Baddiel are less interested in skewering religion, politics, stereotypes or even the classic immigrant struggle between assimilation and self-segregation, and more focused on showing a typical religious person in a secular world, who just wants to indulge in the few vices he has without, inshallah, getting into trouble.
Mahmud, a Pakistani owner of a minicab company in East London, is at best a moderate Muslim. He falls asleep in mosque, misquotes the Good Book and, occasionally, lets a "sip of the old pale ale" pass through his lips. His son pleads with him to be more observant, in the hopes of marrying a girl whose stepfather just happens to be Arshad El Masri (Yigal Naor), a notorious fundamental Egyptian Muslim cleric. But it's not easy for a bloke like Mahmud, who, with his Tottenham Hotspur football jersey and brief flirtation with new-romantic fashion, is culturally more committed to being British than to being Muslim.
"We've never had a Muslim Everyman," says Djalili during a phone conversation from London. "He's like a Muslim Homer Simpson. And he's as British as anybody else. He likes his soccer, he drinks beer and swears a lot. He's representative of so many British Asians."
With feet already planted in two different worlds, Mahmud encounters another case of culture shock. After coming across adoption papers in his deceased mother's home, he learns he was born Solly Shimshillewitz, to which his cranky new Jewish neighbor, Lenny Goldberg (The West Wing's Richard Schiff), responds: "Why didn't they just call you Jewey Jewjewjewjew?"
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In the self-hating, borderline-alcoholic Lenny, Mahmud finds a reluctant teacher, who tries to indoctrinate him in all things Jewish: The Joys of Yiddish, Fiddler on the Roof, a bar mitzvah. It's an obviously simplistic view of religious and cultural sharing, but watching the cuddly Djalili lose his breath dancing like a prerevolutionary Russian dairy farmer is worth the admission.The Infidel's interest in the mutability of ethnic identity is a theme repeated behind the scenes: In reality, Djalili is a British-Iranian Baha'i, while Naor (who played Saddam Hussein in HBO's House of Saddam) is an Israeli Jew. It's not Djalili's first time dealing with these issues. He began his career in the early '90s as a stand-up, doing his part for religious tolerance, with broad routines about ethnic difference, with titles like "Short, Fat Kabob Owner's Son" and "The Arab and the Jew." He landed small movie roles, playing mostly stock Arab characters in The Mummy and Gladiator. In 2001, he won Time Out London's award for best stand-up comedy. But after 9/11, Djalili's career stalled. With anti-Muslim sentiment on the rise, the comedian's brand of good-natured Muslim-versus-whitey humor would be treated as no laughing matter.
"I wasn't allowed to perform," Djalili says of his post–9/11 experience. "I was taken out of a lot of corporate gigs. I had just won a highly prestigious award in Britain, which means you get to perform two nights at a major theater on the West End of London, at the end of September. Then 9/11 happened. I did those shows in the end, but any other show I was booked in directly after was pulled. So I had no career. I was persona non grata."
Djalili continued to plug away at stand-up and small movie roles, which eventually paid off. He has since become something of a British institution, hosting his own BBC1 variety show in 2007, The Omid Djalili Show, which included skits like "Pride and Racial Prejudice" and "Sheiks in the City." Though his exposure in America has been limited — namely a few stand-up dates in New York, an HBO special and a supporting role in Whoopi Goldberg's short-lived 2002 NBC series, Whoopi — Djalili is about to get a major opportunity to cross over. Fellow comic Paul Reiser of Mad About You fame expressly wrote the role of his Iranian-American friend in the upcoming NBC sitcom loosely based on his life, The Paul Reiser Show, with Djalili in mind."I think [that character] is a Jew as well," Djalili says. "It's not been established. I've played Fagin in the musical Oliver. Then there was Solly Shimshillewitz. And now here's another Jewish character. It's a hat trick of Jews that even Sir Ben Kingsley would be proud of."
The Infidel screens as part of Tribeca Film at the Sunset 5, June 25-July 1.