LONDON (Reuters) - Nothing, it seems, is off limits to British comedy, with two films hitting theatres in the next month that poke fun at Muslims, Jews and, perhaps most controversially, suicide bombers.
“Four Lions,” which received mixed reviews when it premiered at the Sundance film festival earlier this year, hits cinemas on May 7 and satirizes a group of hapless Muslims who decide to blow themselves, and others up during the London Marathon.
Given the similarities to the real-life attacks on the city’s transport system in 2005 that killed 52 people, some reviewers found watching the comedy an uncomfortable experience.
And “The Infidel,” which opens on Friday, follows Muslim family man Mahmud Nasir, played by comedian Omid Djalili, who discovers he was in fact born a Jew called Solly Shimsillewitz.
In a light-hearted, low-budget movie, Mahmud strives to learn more about his real roots from an alcoholic Jewish cabbie called Lenny while at the same time trying to impress his son’s prospective father-in-law who is a firebrand Muslim preacher.
Writer David Baddiel, a British television personality, seeks to expose prejudices in both communities by making fun of them, but believes that comparisons between The Infidel and Four Lions are not entirely fair.
“I think there’s a slight weirdness in them being lumped together,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“People are going to lump them together because they are about religion, and particularly Muslims, but one of the key things about my film is that it’s not about suicide bombers.”
Baddiel argues that by focusing on a normal protagonist — a “relaxed” Muslim who swears and enjoys the odd drink — his film is more radical by not setting out to shock or offend.
“I am interested in trying to talk about subjects in a comic way that I feel people are too frightened to talk about, but I’m not interested in what I feel is a slightly more adolescent project which is desperately trying to offend,” he said.
“I think it’s more subversive and more radical to try and do a film about Muslims and Jews, particularly Muslims I guess, that puts them in the mainstream. For me the radicalism in it, the taboo breaking in it, is in trying to make it normal.”
People’s reluctance to talk about prejudices among Muslims or Jews has filtered into the British media, Baddiel said.
The BBC had originally been a co-producer of The Infidel, but, according to Baddiel, backed out.
“The BBC changed character,” he said. “The BBC became much more wary about doing anything that might be considered to be offensive, trouble making or whatever.”
The inspiration for the story came partly from his own experience growing up in a society where his appearance meant many people assumed he was a Muslim. In fact he is from a Jewish background, although he describes himself as an atheist.
Chris Morris, who wrote and directed Four Lions, has generally shied away from interviews, but he said recently that his new film, and much of his previous work, is only considered controversial because the media decides to call it that.
He embarked on Four Lions “as a reaction to the war of words around the whole issue of terrorism and conflicting ideologies,” he told the Times.
“I wanted to make something that would communicate outside that arena. To communicate jokes, some ideas and maybe some insight in a totally different way.”
The same newspaper calls Four Lions a “risky strategy,” noting artists’ ability to provoke and trigger violent reactions from communities who feel offended.
Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh was killed by an Islamic militant over a film that accused Islam of condoning violence against women, and Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad led to rioting in which at least 50 people died.
Most famously in Britain, Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding after Iran’s supreme religious leader called on Muslims to kill the author because “The Satanic Verses” was perceived to be blasphemous against Islam.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato