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America, meet your faker: Sacha Baron Cohen is back

Cohen's new series, 'Who Is America?', is more vital and more twisted than comedy

Sacha Baron Cohen (right) alongside gun rights advocate Philip Van Cleave, who is advocating the use of toys stuffed with guns in order to arm pre-schoolers.
Sacha Baron Cohen (right) alongside gun rights advocate Philip Van Cleave, who is advocating the use of toys stuffed with guns in order to arm pre-schoolers.

Trust Sacha Baron Cohen to answer a rhetorical question. The fearless comedian and provocateur has sneaked up on us with a new, secretly-filmed series, Who Is America? (available in India on Hotstar), and it is immediately clear that the Borat star and creator is still firing guns nobody else dares to load. His target this time may seem like the increasingly unhinged right wing, but the joke is more on the state of the news than it is on the news makers. With this show, Cohen is attacking the very notion of fake news by turning into the most fake news creator of them all.

He is The Onion in human form—make that “forms", given his numerous alter egos—disseminating outrageous untruths in the guise of fact, and yet being taken far more seriously than he deserves. Remember those times we’ve laughed at newscasters or politicians for taking satirical articles at face value? That is what worked for Cohen’s politically abhorrent Borat and nonsensical Ali G characters, but now, in a world where real headlines are more preposterous than parody, Cohen’s sickening caricatures assume a new relevance: Not only are the inmates running the asylum, but there is absolutely no vigilance. The truth is under threat.

If an active politician can be made to look into a camera and endorse the idea of handing guns to little children—“In less than a month," says former congressman Joe Walsh in the explosive first episode, “a first grader can be a first grenader"—then it is clear we must learn to look beyond the obvious headline. We must ask, we must doubt, we must be curious. There is an epidemic of misinformation across news channels and WhatsApp groups, and we must combat this. Walsh and several prominent political figures have anxiously hit the media and tried to smear Cohen’s show by saying they were tricked, but their slips are showing. They cannot discredit Cohen because he isn’t pretending to have credentials. The people he’s speaking to, on the other hand, claim they know what they’re talking about.

Who Is America? is admittedly less funny than Cohen’s usual shtick because it is a damned sight more sobering. Pretending to be a staunchly Democratic extremist—with a son named Harvey Milk and a daughter named Malala—Cohen sits for dinner and tells a married Republican couple how he lets his daughter menstruate over the American flag, which then resembles the Chinese flag. The husband is horrified, but the wife shushes his objections. “Don’t pass judgement," she says, as Cohen tells them about his wife taking a marsupial lover. Bestiality, she possibly believes, is just something else those Democrats do.

The horror only intensifies. Disguised as an Israeli anti-terrorism expert, Cohen talks to a grandfatherly fellow, Larry Pratt, director emeritus of the Gun Owners of America, and tells him how a Muslim gardener accidentally got shot by overzealous children because he said Allahu-Akbar in prayer. “Pray in secret," laughs Pratt, openly amused by this death. Cohen, realizing how awful his subject is, then makes a joke about marital rape and asks Pratt for the equivalent of a high five. Pratt, laughing all the while, takes Cohen’s hand chummily. It is one of the single most sickening things I’ve seen on television.

That’s why it matters. Who Is America? is more vital and more twisted than comedy. We’re the vulgar ones, Cohen is but the mirror. While I do hope the British satirist will attack less-obvious (and less-right-leaning) targets as incisively in forthcoming episodes, he has already served up something to make us queasy—and we must not flinch. In India, laughing at these faraway fools, we should be mindful that this show could not come close to existing in our nation. America, whatever or whoever it is, still permits Cohen to construct his odd alter egos, bizarre characters who bring forth the truth in unpredictable ways. Fake lives matter.

Coming To America

One of the answers to Who Is America? is everyone. Everyone who looks at it, everyone who lives in it, everyone who visits, and everyone who has sipped on Pepsi and used an iPhone. This brings me to a wonderful 10-episode series called Just Another Immigrant (available on Hotstar), which wrapped up last week, and features another British comedian documenting his attempt to make it across the pond.

Romesh Ranganathan, a popular British comedian, has come to Los Angeles with an impossibly uphill ask: He has booked a night at the famed Greek Theatre, which seats close to 6,000 people, and plans to sell it out. The problem is that nobody really knows him in America—the only stage time he gets is at a Mexican restaurant where nobody understands English—and the show lets us watch him flail.

Ranganathan is a diffident, deadpan performer of Sri Lankan origin, and the show is hilarious, kicking off with a taxicab driver stunned that he doesn’t have a 7-11 accent and instead speaks like an Englishman. Ranganathan—who an agent suggests should call himself “Rang"—refers to the joy the cabbie eventually feels as “nice racism". He then brings in not just his sceptical wife and sarcastic sons, but his mother, and an uncle who experiments with facial hair and pretends that he understands showbiz.

My personal highlight is when Ranganathan’s documentary—evidently the one we are watching—is shown to focus groups. He rightfully takes these attacks personally—any criticism of his behaviour or his humour is indeed a criticism of him as a person, in this unusual case—but then actively tries to behave differently in order to win over viewers. We could all do with individual focus groups for ourselves, though the findings would surely hurt. Still, we must keep working on ourselves. As this show demonstrates, it takes time. Romesh wasn’t built in a day.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

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