I have to admit the title of this film put me off for a while. I mean, Bin Laden and comedy? And I frequently find comedy in Indian films to be not very funny at all. But I’m glad I ignored the DVD shop guy’s bad review (‘too shouty’) and my initial reservations as this is one of the smartest and funniest films I’ve seen in ages. I was so pleased to see it in the line up of this year’s Indian Film Festival and with the added attraction of a Q&A with the star, Ali Zafar.
Ali Zafar is a Pakistani pop star, and this is such an interesting choice of role for someone associated with romance and melody. What possessed a successful singer to tackle a comedy that might have fallen horribly flat? Sadly I didn’t get the chance to ask as the promised Q&A was dominated by a boy who wanted Ali to sign his guitar, sing for his girlfriend and probably pop around to his house after the film and wash the dishes. I admired Ali’s polite and respectful manner, his humour and his shimmery silver jacket – and he did indeed sing for the lady in question.
Ali Hassan (Ali Zafar) desperately wants to go to America. His plans are thwarted by the heightened sense of fear post the World Trade Centre attacks and he resorts to working for a dodgy news channel in Karachi. Apart from making fun of the whole search for Bin Laden, the film also has some interesting things to say about the post September 11 world and, in Ali Zafar’s words, the explosion of Islamophobia. This could have been a tasteless exercise in other, less skillful, hands but I think this is some of the best comedy writing to make it onto a screen.
The premise is simple enough – ambitious Ali sets up hapless chicken farmer Noora (Pradhuman Singh) as a fake Bin Laden and then things spiral out of control as the world media and the CIA try to find the elusive character, stock markets plunge and the US bombs the crap out of Afghanistan in Operation Kickass. Ali and his friends then decide that as their video caused the war, another video can set things right. Meanwhile the US government is closing in, and the stakes become much more real and personal.
The cast of wannabes who use the Bin Laden hoax to parlay their way into successful lives are all great fun. Sugandha Garg is Zoya, a talented make up artist who transforms Noora to Bin Laden. She wants to set up her own business, and the money from this sting is all she needs. Rahul Singh is the charismatic communist Qureshi, a talented radio voice artist. He wants to shove it up the establishment and liberate the oppressed masses and the proceeds will keep his Freedom radio running. Nikhil Ratnaparkhi plays the sidekick, cameraman Gul, a simple man, who follows Ali’s lead in everything. Lateef (Chirag Vorha) is the news station scapegoat, whose talent for speechwriting in Arabic helps create the authentic flavour of the faked news tape. He is a quiet, frequently overlooked, man who meekly accepts his lot in life until given the chance to escape his routine. The pivotal role of Noora/Bin Laden is played to the hilt by Pradhuman Singh. He has a great line in slapstick and naïveté, and manages to give the ridiculous character a touch of sweetness that made me care about his plight (and that of his chickens). Ali Zafar is the star and he is a delight to watch which is good as he is on screen for almost all of the film. His facial expressions are brilliant and he has excellent eyebrow skills for those more cynical moments in the script. His rapport with the character of Gul seems really natural, and the actors bounce lines off each other with great timing and tongue in cheek style. This ensemble is so entertaining to watch – this is a film where lots of little interactions and gags are happening in the background or periphery of shots so it pays to keep your eyes peeled.
They play for laughs but not to the point that they become heartless caricatures. This group of characters learn from their mistakes and are aware of the price their fraud is exacting so the comedy isn’t without conscience. And the humour is very even handed – Abhishek Sharma (writer/director) takes potshots at absolutely everyone and yet allows even the craziest characters a modicum of humanity and respect. Piyush Mishra and his wig play Majeed bhai, the horrible boss of the news channel, but even he gets some sympathetic moments (especially once his wife appears!). Barry John is great fun as Ted ji, the stereotypical American secret service guy with his entourage of men in black. I particularly enjoyed the physical comedy of local agent Usmaan, played heroically by Chinmay Mandlekar. There was a distinct ‘Get Smart’ kind of bumbling fool style to Usmaan and I just loved him.
What really made Tere Bin Laden for me was the fantastic ensemble cast, the snappy writing and the taut editing and direction. The dialogue is full of sly puns and is often juxtaposed with really funny sight gags, and I loved Abhishek Sharma’s attention to those details and great timing. It’s a fairly short film, but doesn’t skimp on the entertainment factor and manages to contain some nice satirical writing in a couple of the songs. Who says song and dance has to be meaningless fluff? Shankar Ehsan Loy have provided some fun songs and Jaideep Sahni’s lyrics are pointed and very clever. Here’s what the Melbourne audience missed thanks to the projectionist deciding to stop a bit early:
It’s thought provoking and it made me laugh out loud, even after repeated viewings. I give Tere Bin Laden 4 and ½ stars!