Curatorial reflections on
Letters of Love (LOL) from the Middle East to South Asia
— a trio of transregional genre comedies

by Samhita Sunya

In Spring, 2018, I was invited to curate a film series while in residence at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University. By coincidence, after at least two years of several wrong numbers, unanswered Facebook/Twitter direct messages, and misdirected e-mails, I found myself in conversation with the respective producers and distributors of three films whose English-subtitled versions I had been seeking, as possible additions to an introductory survey course on Middle East-South Asia film history. A bread-and-butter offering that emerged directly from my research interests, the course was designed to highlight the prolific, decades-long movement and interconnectedness of films, film industry personnel, and film genres across the Middle East and South Asia.

As delighted as I was to have finally found these additional producer/distributor contacts for pedagogical purposes, I was even more delighted by the serendipitously imminent possibility of publicly screening the three films as a package. The films – Road to Kabul (Brahim Chkiri, 2012), Bir Baba Hindu (Sermiyan Midyat, 2016), and Gahim Fel Hend (Moataz Eltony, 2016), from Morocco, Turkey, and Egypt, respectively – are contemporary, popular comedies. Each of the three films is centrally oriented around a journey towards South Asia and replete with references to both Hollywood and Bollywood films.[1] [open endnotes in new window] The package was debuted in a special preview presentation at Yale in April 2018, followed by a November 2018 premiere at the Virginia Film Festival. 

A poster for Road to Kabul emphasizes the film’s action sequences. A poster for Bir Baba Hindu emphasizes the film’s Bollywood-inspired song-dance attractions and mise-en-scène.

Titled Letters of Love (LOL) from the Middle East to South Asia: A Trio of Transregional Genre Comedies, the package showcased three witty films from the Middle East, a region that, especially in U.S. contexts, is all-too-often conflated with footage of war, authoritarianism, crises, and patriarchal/sexual violence.[2] In an attempt to resist a reductive conflation of the Middle East solely with violence and turmoil, on the one hand, and to highlight the varied filmmaking and film-viewing practices in the region, on the other, LOL spotlighted three zany, popular transregional comedies that had not been publicly screened in the U.S. prior to the special preview presentation at Yale. All of the films are comedies whose action takes place across the Middle East and South Asia, as they self-reflexively — and lovingly — pay homage to global genres (stoner comedy, road movie, gangster comedy, musical comedy) as well as the longstanding presence and popularity of commercial Indian films in the Middle East. What follows is a reflection over this three-film package, emerging from the interstices of curatorial, pedagogical, and scholarly inquiries.

Establishing shots

It was while living and teaching at the American University of Beirut from 2014-16 that I had first come across a review of Road to Kabul, a 2012 Moroccan stoner-comedy-cum-road-movie that emerged as that year’s hit film. What piqued my initial interest in the film was its status as popular, commercially successful “terror comedy” from the Global South, alongside a handful of films that included the Indian films Bangistan (Karan Anshuman, 2015), Tere Bin Laden (Abhishek Sharma, 2010) and, eventually, its sequel Tere Bin Laden: Dead or Alive (Abhishek Sharma, 2016). Regarding Road to Kabul’s record-breaking blockbuster status upon its 2012 release in Morocco, a January 2013 piece in L’Observateur noted:

“Eight months in theaters, with more than 300,000 admissions already, [director] Brahim Chkiri's debut breaks all records of Moroccan cinema. His secret? There are several of them...”

“In turning out ‘Road to Kabul,’ Brahim Chkiri did not predict the fabulous destiny of his first feature film. Yet, the lucky director of this film has combined all the ingredients of a blockbuster with local color. Funny, infinitely entertaining with a good dose of action, this comedy for the public offers a comical universe inhabited by characters who are as far-fetched as they are deep (Idrissi 2013; translation my own).”

A production still from Road to Kabul shows a small-time crime boss. He is a minor character early in the film, who bullies the young protagonists for whom hash is a precious respite as employment remains elusive. A production still from Road to Kabul shows a smiling Ali, who is one among the close-knit group of cannabis-loving friends featured as the main characters.

Multiple reviews similarly accounted for the film’s status as a huge hit in the combination of its action-packed plot, actors’ performances, memorable characters, and overall hilarity and relatability. As a result of its tremendous box office success, I did not expect that the film would not be readily available – for viewing and teaching – through an official DVD release. Although I found grainy, pirated versions of the film with French subtitles circulating online, it was not until August 2016, after multiple attempts at cold-calling, social media messaging, and e-mailing, that a response arrived from Mohamed Rezqi of Image Factory Maroc, the producer of Road to Kabul.

Rezqi was incredibly kind, offering to share a high-resolution digital copy of the film with English subtitles, free of any charge for classroom purposes. But he was also intrigued, wondering what I would think of the film and expressing doubt over U.S. students’ ability to “understand that [the film is] just a series of nonsense jokes,” even suggesting that I might instead consider – as far as contemporary Arab films go – something like Nadine Labaki’s 2007 “excellent film” Caramel for the classroom. After watching the film myself, I wrote to Rezqi:

“I think it is very important for students to be exposed to all genres and all kinds of films — from serious documentaries, to art films, to 'silly,' popular comedies. I think that this helps them understand how rich film is, all over the world. It will also help American students realize that there is so much enjoyment in the Middle East — it is a place of youth and fun and playfulness, and hardly, in many places, [reducible only to] what you see on the news here…”

As emphasized by Road to Kabul’s titular references to the 1942 Hollywood classic Road to Morocco, Michael Winterbottom’s grave 2006 docudrama The Road to Guantánamo, and, most prominently, the 2008 stoner comedy Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, the film contains a cocktail of references to Hollywood and the War on Terror, as two sides of the same coin in terms of the ubiquity of the U.S.’s presence in the Middle East. The protagonists are a group of five young men, all whom have turned to marijuana in the absence of gainful employment. They dream of emigrating to Amsterdam – for both work and, of course, cannabis – and they decide to all contribute to a fund for at least one of them to go. When they happen to later find out that the lucky one – Hmida – was sent off with a visa to Afghanistan instead of the Netherlands, the remaining four, plus Hmida’s frantic mother, take the wily visa broker Ouchen to task and drag him along on a roadtrip, as they set off to find their friend and retrieve him from Afghanistan.

Its lightness and slapstick notwithstanding, the film takes on a number of poignant issues, including: the difficulties of finding employment, repeatedly noted as an issue that was central to the contemporaneous Arab Spring uprisings; the red tape and money involved in applying for and procuring visas for immigration; the recruitment and radicalization of young, disaffected Muslims – in many cases a result of Islamophobia and racism faced in European and North American contexts – by groups such as ISIS and the Taliban; the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; the destruction of ancient archaeological and heritage objects in the throes of the War on Terror; and drug trafficking. Rezqi’s own worry that the U.S. students would not understand that Road to Kabul is “just a series of nonsense jokes” may seem, on the one hand, to undercut the film’s own critical import; but on the other, his comment points to the specificity of layered in-jokes and intertextual references that comprise the highly localized address – glossed as “local color” in the aforementioned L’Observateur report – of popular comedies, and the ensuing challenges of translation posed by this specificity.

Locations of humor

In a recent, prescient analysis of realism and comedy in screenings of Sangre (Amat Escalante, 2004) and Albüm (Mehmet Can Mertoğlu, 2016) at the 2016 Sarajevo Film Festival, Emre Caglayan notes,

“The distinction between laughing at and laughing with, when combined with the conundrum of hesitation, brings about an interesting set of tensions on how different audiences react to the same film” (Caglayan 2018).

Caglayan frames his discussion of laughter, ethics, and political correctness through a distinction between laughing with, versus laughing at, characters and films, particularly when they are beheld by audiences as fundamentally inferior. He notes the critical potential of instances of comedic realism that allow audiences to examine and question both the most banal of daily routines that become objects of the films’ ambivalent humor, as well as the very ethics of their laughter. As both Sangre and Albüm share slow pacing, deadpan humor, and realist aesthetics that mark out their address towards transnational festival and arthouse circuits, Caglayan emphasizes the self-awareness with which the films’ invitation to laugh at certain moments remains fraught, as an ethical question for audiences to weigh.

In the case of the LOL package, a very different set of dynamics plays out in terms of the politics of the films’ address and humor, as the films are oriented neither towards a transnational festival circuit nor towards realist modes of humor. In his recent monograph on Latin American cinema between the 1930s and 1960s Nilo Couret notes the insights to be gained through scholarly attention to comedy and genre in non-Euro-American contexts:

“Comedy not only designates a genre where a differentiated hermeneutic can yield varied social forms disarticulated from pregiven territorial formations, but it also compels us to reflect on the conditions of possibility of signification within the semiotic and social field. The untranslatability of comedy points to a hermeneutic circle that can never be foreclosed, where forces intrinsic and extrinsic to this circle are continually shaping the horizon of reception.” (Couret 12).

In Road to Kabul, Bir Baba Hindu, and Gahim Fel Hend, humor is far more slapstick than ambivalent, and in several moments, highly politically incorrect on the surface. As overtly commercial productions that were not aimed primarily at festival circuits, the films’ promotional materials, including trailers and posters, emphasize the entertainment value of their comedic genre proclivities (e.g., known comedic actors, body humor, and fast-paced dialogues heavy with wordplay). A discussion of the three films remains nonetheless pertinent within a broader discussion of the stakes raised by Couret’s work, in addition to Caglayan’s analysis: of humor, ethics, and political correctness in cinema; of laughing at versus laughing with; and of jokes that become not just lost, but also fraught in new ways, in their translation across audiences and locations.

While any critical engagement with the films cannot elide the ridiculously stereotypical depictions of either the Afghanistan of Road to Kabul, or of the India of Bir Baba Hindu and Gahim Fel Hend, I want to also suggest that the extent of this ridiculousness becomes so extreme as to potentially implode – that is, increasingly pried away from possibilities of being read as realistic through the extent of the films’ bizarre narratives, characters, and humor. As a curatorial endeavor, the package invited audiences to contemplate and participate in conversations over the critical potential of the humor in all three films, while simultaneously acknowledging the slipperiness and limits of any comedy that takes recourse to ethnic stereotypes. A key frame for these conversations was an emphasis, in short-form curatorial notes and introductory remarks, upon the films’ address towards a primary audience familiar with – and likely to pick up on a slew of references to – Hollywood and, particularly in the case of Bir Baba Hindu and Gahim Fel Hend, Bollywood cinema as well.

Popular cinemas, between genre and mise-en-scène:
Bir Baba Hindu
and Gahim Fel Hend

Produced by major production companies in Turkey and Egypt, respectively, and released in 2016, both Bir Baba Hindu and Gahim Fel Hend feature exuberant song-dance numbers, scenes shot on location in India in collaboration with Indian cast and crew, and action-romance plots interwoven with comedy. These similarities are noteworthy, in drawing attention to the longstanding transregional circulation of popular Indian films, frequently beloved for, and dismissed as, being little more than vacuous, nonsensical entertainment (Armbrust 2008). Emerging in pitched political contexts of surveillance, the films’ recourse not only to Hollywood citations but also Bollywood cliches equated with the nonsensical, becomes potentially strategic. The primary national-political contexts and targets of the both films’ comedy, as well as their respective homages to the song-dance pleasures of Hindi cinema, inject their mobilizations of ethnic humor and racial stereotypes with a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of their very incorrectness, to a significant degree.

Bir Baba Hindu unfolds as a gangster comedy, starring director Sermiyan Midyat in the lead role as Fadil, the son of a Turkish mafioso who is poised to become the next don. He realizes, however, that the gangster lifestyle – with regular shootings and rowdy fights and whatnot – brings on quite a bit of stress. So, Fadil and his fellow gangsters decide to practice yoga and meditation to de-stress after their shootouts. Fadil soon falls in love with his Indian yoga instructor Gundhi, and when she is suddenly captured in Istanbul and taken back to Bombay, he goes to Bombay to find her. Self-consciously deploying globalized clichés of India as a land of cows, yoga, and Bollywood, the film takes an eccentric premise and not merely runs with it, but breaks out in full song and dance to absurd ends.

By the time of Bir Baba Hindu’s release, Sermiyan Midyat was known as a writer, director, comic actor, and activist hailing from the minority Kurdish community in Turkey. In June 2013, as the state escalated its crackdown on protestors in Gezi Park, media outlets shied away from covering any of the violence, fearing the consequences of appearing sympathetic to the protestors (Öztürkmen 2014). When CNN Turk instead aired a documentary about penguins as the crackdowns came to a head, the figure of the penguin subsequently became central to several jokes and memes that critiqued the state crackdown and media’s de facto censorship of the violence (Öztürkmen 2014).

It was in this context that Sermiyan Midyat famously appeared in a CNN Turk interview, openly spoke about the protests, went on to remove his outer shirt to display a t-shirt with penguins, and declared,

“I know that you are a democratic channel, so I wore this special t-shirt for you! Thank you for refreshing us on those hot days with penguins” (Özdemir 2013).

As Arzu Özturkmen has argued, contexts of censorship in Turkey have engendered such strategies of creative subversion through performance and storytelling by protestors and activists. It is difficult to characterize Bir Baba Hindu’s recourse to Bollywood idioms of song and dance, and its appearance as a nonsensical, superficial slapstick comedy, as primarily a strategy of subverting political censorship. Yet, this “silly” veneer nonetheless belies the film’s incisive critiques of corruption, through its running satire on the cozy relationships and between mafias and states, and on the commodification of yoga and “Eastern” wisdom (Hurtado 2016).