Page last updated at 09:40 GMT, Tuesday, 23 June 2009 10:40 UK

Omid Djalili becomes an Infidel

Omid Djalili (left) and director Josh Appignanesi (right) on the set of The Infidel
Omid Djalili (left) and director Josh Appignanesi (right) on the set of The Infidel

By Catrin Nye
BBC Asian Network

It's the story of a British Asian Muslim who turns out to be Jewish - oh, and he's played by an Iranian.

It may sound confusing… but it's the plot for new British film The Infidel, which stars comedian Omid Djalili as a Muslim cab driver who finds out he's adopted from a very different religious background.

"It's a funny old comedy about Muslims and Jews", says writer David Baddiel, clearly used to summing up his film in a soundbite.

Director Josh Appignanesi (Song of Songs) is a little less succinct.

"It's about a sort of everyman chap, second generation Pakistani, a lovable guy who's a Muslim in an everyday way. But he finds out he's adopted, and his real name is it's Solly Shimshillewitz and he was born a Jew. That throws him into comic situations".

"With hilarious consequences!" adds Baddiel with a laugh.

As we huddle around the screen in a crowded hallway of a suburban semi in Woodford, Baddiel and the crew watch the opening scene of the film coming together.

David Baddiel
The movie marks Baddiel's debut as a screenwriter

Mahmud Nasir, played by British Iranian comic Omid Djalili, is watching a hard-line cleric on television. Behind him, a woman fully clad in a burka walks past - creating the illusion that you're watching a typical scene in a devout Muslim household.

Then, the film makes its first towards breaking down those stereotypes. Mahmud grabs the remote and, with a dismissive expletive, changes channel to Top of the Pops 2.

And the woman in the burka starts giving Mahmud's wife Saamiya (Archie Panjabi - East is East, The Constant Gardener) aerobics instructions in a thick Lancashire accent.

'No comedy accents'

As well as writing The Infidel, Baddiel is also producing the film.

"It's complicated; nothing is quite as you imagine it when you write it.

"I've talked to the director and said I think we need a pause there to make it work, and he takes it on board.

"That's the way it's worked and it's gone pretty smoothly, apart from one or two rows, and one or two actors getting cross, but that's film making."

Often mistaken for a Muslim (he's actually Baha'i), Djalili has throughout his career adopted a kind of everyman image for people from a minority background.

Scene from The Infidel
Djalili's films include Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Mummy

He's playing a very British Pakistani Muslim in the film. "The family's quite Muslim and quite devout, my characters not, but extremely shaken by the fact that he's found out he's a Jew," he says.

"It's representing British Asians now who talk the way I do - so it's not like we're going to put on a comedy accent," he says, putting on a comedy accent.

But Djalili is keen not to offend. "Some people assume I'm also an Asian which I'm not, but I'd like to think that if people are upset that this part has been played by a non-Asian - which technically it has to be because the character is Jewish - I would like to think only people who don't get the film will say, 'oh, they should have had an Asian playing that part.'"

Essentially, the message is that we are all the same. One scene shows Mahmud's shock as he enters a synagogue and realises that everyone looks like him.

The East London suburbia that provides the backdrop is intentionally mundane - anonymous, even.

The makers wanted the setting to be average and everyman, with few of the cliches you would expect from a British Asian movie.

Producer Uzma Hasan is passionate about reflecting British Asian Muslims right now.

"I really hope that this film is going to provide a bridge to the Asian community," she says.

"Not having huge issues of arranged marriages or abusive husbands. Just living a normal life which gets suddenly disrupted."

The Infidel is scheduled for release in early 2010.

You can hear Catrin's report on the set visit at 1230 and 1800 BST today on the BBC Asian Network on DAB digital radio, Digital TV (Sky 0119, Freeview 709, Virgin Media 912) or online via the BBC iPlayer.

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