Ada Tseng interviews Sheetal for the Asia Pacific Arts.

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Looking at the World Through Comedy: An Interview with actress Sheetal Sheth by Ada Tseng

We’ll be perfectly honest: “Looking for Comedy for the Muslim World” left us a bit baffled at first. But once the dissection and analysis began, the wheels started turning, and things started falling into place. APA speaks to Sheetal Sheth, who plays the title role of Maya, in Albert Brooks’ newest comedy/think-piece.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is one of those films that kind of came and went with mixed reviews, and ultimately seemed to generate less discussion and general noise than one would have expected — especially for a movie that was not released by Sony Pictures due to its “controversial” title. On one hand, it makes sense, because when it comes down to it, once you get that it’s a satire, neither the title nor the movie is very controversial. But on the other hand, you wish people were talking about it. Basically, the story is that Albert Brooks is sent by the U.S. government to write a 500 page report about what makes Muslims laugh. The government wants Brooks because he’s the only comedian they can find who’s not working, and Brooks is enticed by the super cool, but super meaningless “Presidential Medal of Freedom.” He travels to India and Pakistan with two government agents, enlists the help of a bright Indian girl (played by Sheetal Sheth) to be his secretary, and even puts on a big comedy show to see what jokes people react to. Unfortunately, he comes back to the U.S. learning absolutely nothing.

Any offense taken to the film appears to stem from confusion and misinterpretation. The confusion is understandable. Unless you know what you’re getting yourself into, the film tends to give you the opposite of what you’d expect. For one thing, it’s set in India, which, even though India has the third highest Muslim population, is hardly where you’d think of going in order to “improve US-Muslim relations.” Second, it appears to be a documentary (or mockumentary) because Albert Brooks plays himself, but it isn’t really one at all. As Sheetal Sheth says, “It’s a scripted comedy, and it’s just one of those things where it was funnier for him to play himself in.” Third, and probably the most difficult and important aspect to wrap your mind around, the movie isn’t really about finding comedy in the Muslim world at all. In fact, it’s hard to critique Brooks for anything he says about Muslims or Indians, because all he does is make fun of himself and emphasize how ignorant and ridiculous Americans have the tendency to be.

It’s unfortunate when confusion is met with dismissal. When, for example, a review from Entertainment Weekly says, “The movie isn’t racist; it’s just lame” (though, admittedly, it’s amusing to see a respected critic quoted for something a fifth grader could have easily written), one can’t help but feel that it’s problematic. Similar to when Sony Pictures studio chairmen — who, for the record, seemed to have no problem distributing gems like Memoirs of a Geisha and Deuce Bigalo: European Gigalo — flip out because the word Muslim is in the title, this reactions seem only to reenforce exactly what Brooks’ film is criticizing us Americans for doing: oversimplifying. Not putting in the effort to understand. Because when you start breaking it down, you find that it is an interesting film. Perhaps not in the way that we expect, but respectable nonetheless.

Sheetal Sheth plays the role of Maya, the girl Albert Brooks hires to follow him around, write down notes, and help him figure out what makes Muslims laugh. Sheth grew up in New Jersey and studied at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Most notably, she’s known for her performances in ABCD and American Chai, and has had guests spots in the TV shows The Agency and Strong Medicine.

APA: How familiar were you with Albert Brooks and his work before you took on this role?

Sheetal Sheth: I knew who he was. I had seen some of his movies, and I was a fan of his. I knew that his comedy was smart and how creative he was. When I got the part I went and rented all his movies to be more familiar with his style. I was really excited because I think he has amazing ideas.

APA: How much did you guys talk about the project when you were making it — in terms of discussions about what Albert Brooks wanted to say and accomplish through the film?

SS: We talked quite a bit about the movie and his intentions and my character. Because, when I hear there’s a movie being done about that part of the world, I’m already like “oh God…,” and I had my reservations. But the minute I met Albert, any reservations were erased within minutes because I could see how smart he was, how sensitive he was. All the questions he was asking me were the right ones, and he actually wanted the answers. He was really thorough and very interested in hearing our opinions on stuff, our take on things. It was very quite refreshing to see someone so interested in what we could bring to the table. We’d talk about the role or the movie or people in India or people in the world, questions about philosophy. Everything.

APA: Can you tell me about his directing style?

SS: What’s nice about him is that because he’s an actor, he knows how to talk to actors. And I think sometimes you find directors that are very talented, but what they lack is the ability to communicate in the language that actors speak. And it’s important, so he knew what we needed. He was really interested in the moment-to-moment, and what’s necessary with those moments. A lot of people think he improvs a lot, but he really has a solid script. He knows exactly what he wants. He just wants you to be able to play enough to get to it so that it’s real for you.

APA: Did you have to do particular character work, being from the U.S. and playing a woman from India?

SS: When I heard of the project and talked to Albert, I certainly felt like I could do it, because I’m so connected to my culture. I’ve been to India so much for long periods of time, and I knew that I could do it, but I certainly had to crack down and focus in on it. The accent was something that I wanted to be specific to Delhi, and not make it the generic thing that you hear a lot. So I really put some work and time and thought into it. And obviously there’s mannerisms and behaviors that girls that are born and brought up in India have that I don’t have. So you really have to be specific.

It was great because the first half of the movie we shot in India so I really just immersed myself. I kept myself watching TV and being surrounded by that. It’s only when we came here and I had Usher on my radio [laughs] that it became harder to focus, because I’m distracted by so many American-isms.

APA: What was it like shooting in India? Were most of the crew American, or did you guys use a lot of local crew?

SS: All of the keys were from America. There’s a good, large number of people who came from America, but tons of local crew. A lot of major roles were also filled in by Indian people so it was quite a mix. For me, I had been to India before, but it was nice to be there working, bringing something, my work that I love so much, to a place I love so much. So that was fun for me, cause I had never had that experience. It was nice to take everyone around. Of course we’re being treated very nicely, staying in very nice hotels, so it was like “Do you really want to see India now?” [laughs] But everyone was great and would come to me to ask, “where can we see some scenery, where can we see a movie?” They really wanted to feel India, and it was so nice to hear.

APA: So about the film — on the surface it seems to be about Muslims, but it’s really more of a satire on Americans...

SS: Exactly. A lot of people don’t get that. The point of the movie is that it’s a satire, in the sense of reflecting on how the government and Americans can be. And Albert was very brave to be the butt of the joke and symbolize the ignorance of American people sometimes. And the thing was that… he really didn’t want to find out what made Muslims laugh. They said they did, but that’s another example of a government mission that they set up that they couldn’t follow through on because that would never work. They sent him to India of all places, they have no backup, he has a team of government people who know nothing, and he’s not doing the work that’s necessary to actually find out. And everything that happens is because of the ignorance of Albert’s character and American people, thinking everyone’s the same and not asking the right questions and making a mess of things. And, that’s the point.

APA: Right, and the entire time, all he does is go on the streets and ask people: “What makes you laugh?”

SS: So not the way to do things…

APA: And the entire time, all he is worried about is the report, he’s entranced by the “Medal of Freedom,” and he doesn’t necessarily even ask or care whether the Indian people that he’s interviewing are Muslim or not…

SS: I think he cared, but I think the system was set up in a way that wouldn’t allow any answers to come through. I think the word Muslim is what carries all the fire. And the idea is that: because Americans don’t understand the differentiation between the religion and the people, there’s all these things that are associated with it. Which is why “Muslim” represents certain things for people that aren’t accurate.

APA: What did you make of the character of Maya?

SS: Well the thing about Maya, at least for me, when I was talking about her and developing her — the people that I’ve always come in contact with in India, more so than any, have more heart than anyone I’ve ever seen, and have more desire for knowledge than anywhere in the world. And they have an amazing work ethic. So, with Maya, I really wanted to embody how important this learning process was for her. She was inherently the most positive, and such a good person. And it comes from such a pure place for her. She’s experiencing it and making her life better because she gets to do this work and this job, and it’s so important for her. There’s tons of Indian women that are proactive, smart, and independent. You just might not see them represented onscreen. So, for me it was really important to make sure that it was, because that’s such a huge part of the community and that’s who Maya is. She’s not going to take any sh*t from her boyfriend, and she’s gonna stand up for herself, she’s extremely independent. So let’s put this out there.

APA: What about the relationship between Maya and Albert Brooks’ character — the ambiguousness of her feelings towards Albert Brooks, and having her character seem so in awe of a character that was so hapless — what was the purpose of that?

SS: I think it’s exactly what you see on the screen. I can’t answer that question; that’s something for you guys as the audience to figure out for yourselves. I think Maya has respect for the work and for someone who can teach her something that she’s never experienced before. I think Maya was genuinely fond of Albert and didn’t see his mishaps as mishaps. I think he was genuinely interested in this mission, but it was just poorly administrated and executed.

APA: Can you talk about the reactions you’ve gotten to the film?

SS: It depends. Some people completely get it and love it and get the satire and are smart and interesting and have great discussions. I think it’s such a refreshing thing to see a comedy specifically that doesn’t dumb down audiences and talk down to people. And people don’t get it, so it’s upsetting. And I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s because we’re so used to being talked down to and dumbed down, and that’s all we understand, and we don’t want to think when we see comedies. Or if it was the execution of it. Or both, I don’t know. But it’s sad, because I feel like a lot of people who didn’t like the movie didn’t get it. And then you talk to them about it, and they say “Oh, I didn’t realize it was that.”

It’s an interesting thing. I’m so proud of the movie, very much so, and I think any topic after 9/11, dealing with 9/11, is hard for people. If you look at this year specifically, the big movies of the year, except for Crash, they’re all about the past, and I think it’s really interesting to think about that. Because, especially with the 9/11 topic, it is very hard for people to deal with, and we would certainly never see a comedy about it since then. And you know, we’re really walking on special ground. We’re treading on water here. People are sensitive. And I think it’s one of those things that you have to get people at the right time, when they can deal with it.

APA: It seems like it’s riskier to make a comedy.

SS: Of course it is. I think Albert doing this is amazing. And I think it’s going to be a step. I don’t think it’s going to be the be-all-end-all, of course not. But hopefully it’ll be a step for people to make more movies that are further along on these ideas. And that, I think, would make things better for all of us.

APA: What did you think when you heard that Sony Pictures wouldn’t release it unless Albert Brooks changed the title? 

SS: We were all set, they were making trailers and posters, and at the 11th hour, they were like, “Hey, you need to change the title.” And Albert was like, “Hey, no I’m not.” And it was a very awful time for him, because… Be upfront about it. You knew from the beginning what the title was, and it happened after the whole Koran thing that happened in the Middle East — [A Newsweek report, since retracted, reported widespread Muslim anger because American interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a Koran down a toilet] — and they got nervous. And then they found out that that story was all made up too. So, how far gone are we in the world that you can’t even say the word “Muslim” anymore? When Albert told me the story, I said “I don’t understand.What are we doing here?”

And the sad thing for me, because I know Albert so well and care about him deeply and the work he’s doing, was that he sat there and said: “I know that every Muslim in the world doesn’t hate me. I know that it’s only a small percentage.” And “What can I do to make that more apparent to people over here? What word can I put with the word ‘Muslim’ that’s the most peaceful and most docile word I could ever use?” And for him, that’s “comedy.” That, for him, takes away all that stuff as much as possible, and that’s waht he wanted to do, and it’s a shame that people don’t get that, and aren’t seeing how genuinely sincere he is about putting some sort of heart to that side of the world and to make fun of our stupidity. For people who say “I don’t understand why he said this, or I don’t understand why he did that..,.” that was the point. Everything in this movie is very thought out, everything in the movie he did for a reason, to comment on something. So just dig a little deeper. It’s all there.

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