A fake bin Laden provides some laughs along with a sharp comment on the “war on terror”, the media, and US policy on Afghanistan.
By Laxmi Murthy
A spoof about the US ‘war on terror’, the Pakistani desperation to emigrate and a satirical take on the media’s obsession with ‘Breaking News’ could go badly wrong in hands that excel in slapstick or melodrama. But right from the disclaimer about resemblance to any person living or dead being purely ‘coincidental’, director Abhishek Sharma pulls it off, tongue firmly in cheek. The pun in the title which could be read as ‘Without you, Laden’, or ‘Your bin Laden’. Onward, smart acting and witty dialogues effortlessly steer the film through potential minefields, quite literally.
In his Bollywood debut, Ali Zafar, Pakistani pop star-turned actor, plays the charming Ali Hassan, a reporter with a seedy channel appropriately named Dunka TV with a blundering dictatorial boss brilliantly played by Piyush Mishra. Hassan, desperate to climb out of his rut, devises a scheme involving a fake Osama bin Laden to earn enough money to buy his way into America on a fake passport. He’s already been deported once from the US, after a paranoid flight attendant gets him into the clutches of Homeland Security, where, please note, his mugshot is taken as ‘Southasian’ rather than any specific country.
It is the little asides, providing a telescopic view of life and dreams in Southasia, that are insightful and poignant. At the fake-passport and visa agency, Lashkar-e-Amrika (Invading America since 2002 as the board proudly proclaims), the sleazy owner calls theatrically for the ‘Late file’, stuffed with the photos and personal details of the deceased who will now be resurrected in fake passports. ‘Better late than never,’ he smirks. His perky assistant Zoya, yearning to own her own beauty parlour, marks time with dexterous use of Photoshop to touch up photos of potential immigrants to match those in the ‘Late File’. The eagerness of the safari-suited Intelligence guys whipping out their little digital cameras as soon as they come upon bin Laden, is likewise another perceptive comment on the Southasian penchant to be photographed with celebrities.
The real star of course is the bespectacled Noora, the Osama bin Laden look-alike brilliantly played by Pradhuman Singh. A poultry farmer with a passion for chickens and their crowing (his prize rooster Sikandar is the winner of the local ‘Muqabla-e-Baang’), the Punjabi-spouting bin Laden is a riot through and through. Although he is too busy peering down Zoya’s blouse while she’s applying make-up to impersonate the most-wanted man on earth, at times of stress, Noora’s earthy Punjabi surfaces. Hassan’s prank, in which he is assisted by a set of loyal but bumbling friends, soon spins out of control, which even the America-hating Communist radio jockey Qureshi does not predict. It is only Hassan’s lovable character that allows you to ignore the unscrupulous methods employed to create a scoop when he cannot get one.
What could have been the weakest link in the plot – the alacrity and blind faith with which Live India, an Indian Channel, buys the fake tape, and News America broadcasts it after ‘experts’ declare it to be authentic, turns out to be a stark comment on the irresponsible news media in the Subcontinent. Far from questioning the authenticity of the tape or the subsequent attacks on Afghanistan (’Operation Kickass’), TV anchors solemnly report on the number of donkeys ‘martyred’ during the Operation, and talk-show hosts remark on bin Laden’s ‘healthy’ visage, speculating that he must have good access to medical care. Unfortunately, sloppy and unethical journalism is no Bollywood hyperbole.
It was not long ago, after serial blasts in Ahmedabad, Surat and Bangalore in mid-2008 that one ‘Tauqeer’ or Abdus Subhan Qureishi was identified as the ‘mastermind’ of the blasts. Reputed dailies across the country soon carried profiles of ‘India’s Osama Bin Laden’, detailing his alleged involvement in high-profile attacks in various cities. When, a few months later Rakesh Maria, Mumbai’s joint police commissioner (crime) called Tauqeer a ‘media creation’, the media was uncharacteristically silent, sheepish about having lapped up police handouts, and fabricating a ‘terrorist’ to suit their convenience. (See Jyoti Punwani’s excellent expose ‘Creating Tauqeer‘.
The corny platitudinous climax can be forgiven… every filmmaker gets to have a cop out, if it is reasonably comic, and this one certainly fits the bill. ‘Mood bana dey, yaar,’ pleads Hassan, and Noora obliges, turning out a Bin Laden performance par excellence, complete with Arabic intonation. Catchy music, many of the numbers sung by Ali Zafar himself, complement the light-hearted breezy pace.
That the film grossed around INR 50 million in the first week of its release in India, and USD 150,000 from Britain, Australia and the UAE, goes to show that well-made comedy need not bomb at the box office even it does not have the staple item numbers, song and dance sequences or token romance. The US release has been deferred in order to monitor audience reaction in other countries, according to the producers, even though the name of the film has already been shortened to ‘Tere Bin’ to pass it off as an innocuous love story. Of course, the cardboard cut out, moronic American caricatures shouldn’t be a reason to ban the film in the US. The name-change ploy hasn’t worked in Pakistan, where the film is banned, but pirated DVDs are doubtless flying off the shelves, providing a laugh a minute in drawing rooms across the country.
Tere Bin Laden
Dir: Abhishek Sharma
Producer: Aarti Shetty and Pooja Shetty Deora
Walkwater Media, July 2010