The Infidel and Four Lions put UK muslim life on screen
As the Muslim world takes centre stage in a couple of upcoming comedy films, practising Muslim Kaleem Aftab asks: What’s so funny?
The treatment of Muslims on our screens can sometimes seem to have come full circle in the 30 years since Michael Grade cancelled ITV’s cultural stereotype-derived comedy show Mind Your Language. Now. British directors have once again decided that comedy stereotypes are the best way to deal with their non-Christian friends.
David Baddiel’s The Infidel deals with the Arab-Israeli conflict while Chris Morris’ forthcoming Four Lions casts an eye over the hysterically popular currency of suicide bombers. The Infidel seem to follow a similar tack to several films in the past 30 years by trying to promote a harmonious one-world view, while Four Lions, directed by Chris Morris of Brass Eye fame, is designed to offend. It’s a measure of how far the treatment of Muslims on screen has come in three decades that it’s Chris Morris’ approach is the more insightful and less ingratiating of the two.
Muslim characters now populate TV soaps, films and radio like never before, although the bracketing of all Asians, whether they be Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Indian, Afghani, Pakistani or Sri Lankan into on category has ensured that all characters with a camel complexion are still mistakenly viewed as part of a homogonous state.
It seems that the depiction of Asian characters in British film has evolved in stages. After initially being the butt of ill-informed jokes in a plethora of Carry On-type comedies in the 1960s and 70s, in the 80s Hanif Kureshi, through his script for My Beautiful Launderette and his novel The Buddha of Surburbia, provided the template for a series or works featuring characters desperate to be accepted into mainstream society. The dilemma they faced was in resolving the generational conflict between the traditional and modern identity. But this view seemed outdated even as it was being espoused, as Asians everywhere took pride in failing Norman Tebbit’s notorious ‘cricket test’, proudly supporting their homeland cricket team.
By the 1990s, seemingly every UK film and TV show had an Asian character fall in love with an English opposite, only for the cultural differences to subside in the face of mutual love. Then, in 2001 the 9/11 attacks took place, and film financiers and TV commissioners searched desperately for a scripts dealing with young Muslim men and explaining why on earth they would want to blow themselves up. After a steady diet of films over the proceeding three years aimed at appeasing the liberal middle ground, it was no surprise that these serious dramas had the dual failings of being tedious and completely missing the point.
So in 2010, we’ve seemingly reached a point where it’s time for comedy to have another crack at it. In this case, just as Chris Morris’ film reaches a comedy cul-de-sac, the director delivers a remarkable dramatic ending that echoes Hany Abu-Assad’s brilliant 2005 Palestinian drama Paradise Now. Four Lions may just signal a sea change in the media’s depiction of Muslims – but then again maybe not.
The Infidel is on selected release from Fri 9 Apr, see review. Four Lions is on general release from Fri 7 May.