Baddiel courts controversy with film about 'Muslim Jew'

Comedian says his cinema debut will tackle material until now regarded as off-limits
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The Independent Culture

It is a film about a British Muslim who, in a matter of minutes, discovers he was adopted and also that he was born Jewish. But far from being a straight-faced character study, The Infidel is being billed as an irreverent comedy which seems guaranteed to offend members of both religions.

David Baddiel – the comedian best known for his blokey collaborations with Frank Skinner – has written the script, which is littered with jokes deliberately poking fun at both the Islamic and Jewish faiths.

As someone with Jewish roots, Baddiel, 45, says he was compelled to tackle the potentially thorny area in his first feature-length film because he wanted to provide an antidote to today's hypersensitive society. He says he has taken a "gloves-off" approach to the subject matter, and is hoping that his audiences will "get the joke".

"I wasn't interested in writing about Muslims and Jews per se, but I am always interested in tackling subjects that aren't being tackled, just for the sake of newness," he told The Independent. "Because people have become terrified of giving offence, religion and race are now rather left out of comedy.

"For me, it becomes fertile ground. It's very much about race and culture and ethnicity, in a very gloves-off way. But it's not trying to cause offence: I'm very uninterested in that as a writer."

The film, which stars Omid Djalili, the actor and comedian of Iranian descent, is due to be released in April. Djalili plays Mahmud, a relaxed, modern-day British Muslim. He discovers he was in fact born to Jewish parents, who named him Solly Shimshillewitz, whereupon he tumbles into a full-scale identity crisis.

He turns to his friend, Lenny, a drunken Jewish cab-driver, for lessons in Jewishness. These start with tips on how to dance like Topol, the Israeli performer of Fiddler on the Roof fame, as some of the film's jokes play on racial stereotypes – a feature that Baddiel insisted was not intended to cause offence. In another scene, Mahmud asks Lenny: "A Buddhist Jew? How does that work?" To which Lenny replies: "Believes you should renounce all your possessions, but still keep the receipts." Later a Muslim character, Rashid, says of his fiancée: "Well, obviously she's really happy about being forced to go to Waziristan, where women of her age have to wear a muzzle if they've still got a clitoris."

Baddiel said he drew on his own experiences of mistaken identity, when, starting out in comedy, he was often mistaken for a British Pakistani.

"The idea comes from a very simple premise, which is that Jews and Muslims often look alike. Omid Djalili could be either," he said. "I thought it might be funny and interesting if I could come up with a 'body-swap' idea, where one person lives, as it were, both lives.

"We now live in a time where those two cultures are seen – somewhat erroneously – as polarised, so it fits well with a body-swap theme. If it was a kids' movie, it would be about a cat that finds out it was born a dog, and after much comic trouble, ends up realising that dogs and cats aren't that different after all," Baddiel added.