In the film farce The Infidel, British comic Omid Djalili portrays Mahmud, a devoted family man and a semi-devout Muslim—who discovers he was born a Jew. Djalili is also featured in Just Like Us, a documentary profiling stand-up comedians performing in the Middle East. During the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, Becky Garrison, author of Jesus Died for This?, interviewed Omid to get his take on the role of the comedian in a post-9/11 era.
What attracted you to David Baddiel’s script for The Infidel?
David got the idea to do a script about a Muslim everyman while he was watching me doing stand-up. He’s one of those rare commodities, where he’s an atheist but he’s not anti-religion. I’m a Baha’i and I believe all religions come from the same God. I liked the idea that this film at its center had a very good heart and believed in religious unity.
How did you prepare for this role?
I spent a bit of time with a Muslim family who were semi-devout, but I decided in the end that the character was very much based on my personality. We’ve never had a Muslim everyman before and he had to be a flawed character, kind of like Homer Simpson.
What stereotypes do you hope to debunk with this movie?
The main one is that Muslims have no sense of humor. I used to joke about this in my stand-up and say that every culture had a sense of humor. We just deal with humor in a different way. That joke was that if you don’t like a comic in Britain, you heckle them; in the Middle East, you hang them. A lot of Muslims in Britain, who have been exposed to comedy, got in touch with their comedic roots because we do have a history of comedy in the Muslim world.
What response have you gotten from the Muslim community to your work?
When I was performing as a stand-up comedian and “representing” Iran because I’m Iranian, a lot of Iranians would say “he’s good but what a shame he’s just some fat, bald guy. Why couldn’t he look more like a movie star?” But a lot of Muslims have been so thirsty to show Muslims in a more normal light that they’ve been supportive of the movie. The film doesn’t attack Islam or make fun of the Prophet. We do make fun of Muslims and the foibles of religious followers and I think that’s an important distinction to make. I don’t want to tailor my comedy to what fundamentalists think of it or not, but I do try to be aware of certain sensitivities.