Idol Chatter

Idol Chatter

An American at Home in India: Sheetal Sheth in “Looking for Comedy”

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Albert Brooks may be getting all the press for “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” but his costar, Sheetal Sheth, deserves a moment in the spotlight, too. In the film, Sheth plays the young assistant hired to help Brooks in his mission to discover what makes Muslims laugh. It’s her highest-profile role to date, and she handles it gracefully–just as she does the press junket in which a bunch of reporters, including me, screamed questions at her for half an hour.

“Looking for Comedy” opened to lukewarm-at-best reviews–including that of my colleague Dilshad Ali–but Brooks and Sheth are obviously proud of the film and discuss it passionately. You can read what they had to say about “Looking for Comedy” here, but since much of what Sheth talked about in the interview was interesting but off-topic, here are some interview “outtakes,” Idol Chatter’s version of DVD extras.

As a young actress trying to establish herself, Sheth has had to battle Hollywood’s pigeonholing of people of color. An NYU film-school graduate born in New Jersey, she’s often forced to audition for “ethnic roles”–only to be told that she’s not actually “ethnic,” despite her dark skin and Indian heritage.

“A lot of times what I find is that when they want to cast ‘diverse’ or ‘ethnic’ they think it means black. I’ll literally go in for something, and they’ll say, ‘You’re not ethnic,’” she says. “It’s funny they even think like that. I go through interesting things every day in terms of that whole thing.”

And then there are the times when directors are looking for someone who looks just like her–but putting on an exaggerated Indian accent is the only punch line in the script.

“There’s a difference between something being funny because of the character vs. the ethnicity,” she says. “And then I’m like, ‘Here’s the deal. I’m not funny right now because of what you’ve written or because of the character. You’re laughing at my accent and this persona you have, the idea of this stereotype, and I’m not interested in it.’”

“Looking for Comedy” offers her a role with a funny character and an Indian accent, Sheth says. As someone who’s spent extended periods in India visiting family, the question, she adds, was what that accent should be.

“I didn’t want to do this very general accent that you hear a lot, that’s this kind of stereotypical thing that you hear a lot, like Apu from ‘The Simpsons,’” Sheth says. “And so it felt like, from her education and the way she was brought up, it’s very British influenced in India, and so we needed to be that.”

With roles in indie-flicks like “ABCD” and “American Chai“–together with her appearance in “Looking for Comedy”–Sheth says she’s been happy with the work she’s found and is working full-time as an actress, despite the hurdles she’s faced. So whatever the accent she uses, you may be hearing Sheetal Sheth’s name more and more in the coming years–though, if she’d listened to the veteran show-biz people who advised her in years past, it would actually be some other name you’d hear.

“When I graduated from NYU, and I was meeting people, and I met with my very first manager… we had this great meeting, and at the end of the meeting, she’s like, ‘Great, can’t wait, so excited, which one of your names are you going to change?’” Sheth says. “It may sound naive and silly, but it really never occurred to me it would be a conversation I would have to have as often as I do… All of a sudden, I’m a professional actor, and it’s something I deal with every day.”

You can watch a clip of Sheth in “Looking for Comedy” by clicking here.

The Real Questions of ’24′

posted by doug howe

Watching this season of ’24′ continue to unfold, I’m moved to continue the debate I’ve been having with fellow Idol Chatterer Donna Freitas on the show and its hero, Jack Bauer. (Read my original posting here, and her response here.)

This year’s storyline is based on Jack’s having begun a new life as a humble day worker, complete with a girlfriend and her adolescent son. In last year’s finale, we saw a hero who was willing to risk his life and career—and sacrifice his identity—to save the President, and eventually, millions of people in the path of a nuclear bomb. Now, he seems more than content to have left the daily do-or-die decisions of CTU (the Counter-Terrorism Unit he worked for) behind him and engage in a more normative lifestyle. It took the deaths of several of his friends and the assassination of the former President to bring him out of hiding, and it took a false accusation of multiple murders to to re-engage him in the kind of antics that make the show what it is.

While the plot twists and internet guessing games about what will happen to his character continue, I hope the conversations among spiritual journeyers will move to the more compelling questions the show asks:

1. What, really, do we believe is worth fighting for?
2. What, really, do we believe is worth dying for?
3. What, really, am I personally responsible for?

At a time when American soldiers are risking their lives every day and what passes for Intelligence is at the center of several national debates, this is a show that brings to light the complicated questions about what it takes to protect a nation, more so than any show I can remember since the end of “Three Days of the Condor.”

With all respect to Donna, I don’t believe that the character of Jack Bauer is a “martyr in the making” so much as he’s a fanatic about the responsibility he’s taken on, a trait that more of us could and should incorporate into our spiritual journeys and lives. The “human side of heroism” has included, for Jack, the loss of family and friends and a reluctant re-entrance into the hidden world of terrorists and spys. Each of us who aims to be spiritual should take inventory of the responsibilities placed in our path and consider our own levels of commitment and willingness to sacrifice, and examine how our courage can make the world a better place.

Mormon Movie Massacre

posted by burb

The culture has been furiously digesting religious fundamentalism of late, and that process hasn’t been kind to Mormons. The history of the Church of Latter Day Saints, after all, has plenty of violence and controversy, and besides, they live way out in Utah. The media, at any rate, seems to regard them as fair game. As this New York Times article makes clear, the Church of Latter Day Saints’ anni horribili continue with a movie due out this Spring about the Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857, when a group of Mormons joined forces with Indians to kill 128 non-Mormon emigrants passing through on their way to California.

Mormon faithful might be made hopeful by the fact that Jon Voight, fresh from his role as Pope John Paul II, plays a fictional LDS elder in the film, called “September Dawn.” Hopes may be crushed by the fact that the film’s director previously worked on such thoughtful screen gems as “The Next Karate Kid” and “Gone Fishin.”

Looking for God in “The New World”

posted by ellen leventry

Just past the two-hour mark in Terrence Malick’s “The New World,” a character named Opechancanough–one of the “naturals,” as the film calls Native Americans–tells Rebecca, known as Pocahontas before her baptism, that he is being sent to England to “meet this God they talk about so much.”

The irony of this statement is twofold: (1) There is very little actual dialogue in the first two hours of the movie, and (2) a small fraction of that dialogue is given over to talking about God. Which left me scratching my head over Opechancanough’s rather humorous comment.

At this point, I must disclose that I am not a real fan of Malick’s style. A philosophy student at both Harvard and Oxford, who later taught philosophy and translated Martin Heidegger’s works, Malick’s films are slower than expected, more sensitive to the voices within and without, and tend to dote on questions about nature and the place that humans make for themselves in it. Some find this liberating, others find it laborious. In this case, I felt like I was watching a Nature Channel special on the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay, blended with a continuous loop of Calvin Klein “Obsession” commercials–lots of shots of people strolling through tall grass, asking esoteric questions.

Using the star-crossed relationship of John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) to illuminate the conflicts between the “civilized” white settlers of Jamestown and the “natural” people whom they believed they found in a new Eden, the movie is typical Terrence Malick–deliberate pacing, some might say plodding, with an intense focus on the natural world.

Apart from that reference to Eden, which was made by Governer Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer), along with a scene where Smith wonders aloud if he has gone against God’s wishes in loving Pochantas, the most obvious reference in “The New World” to the Christian God is the giant cross looming above the English fort, the same cross the “naturals” seemed to be trying to knock down earlier in the film. However, only a few times in the film do we get a glimpse at the role religion might have actually played in the Jamestown colony, such as when Captain Edward Wingfield (David Thewlis) strips Smith of his command based on a chapter from Leviticus and when Pocahontas is baptized and given the name Rebecca.

We see a bit more of the Native Americans’ spiritual lives–dances, sun salutations, prayer, and other rituals–but they are never explained in any detail. I understand that Malick intends for the audience to experience things just as Smith did, confused, scared, awed, and not clued in to what is happening, but it would have added to my experience and enjoyment of the movie if Malick had offered a few more clues to orient us.

And yet, a few days removed from seeing the film, I realize “The New World” is imbued with spiritul and religious notes that never quite took form for me while actually watching it. I can appreciate, if not completely agree with, Malick’s somewhat over-simplified sentiments about the purity and superiority of the Algonquin’s spiritual lives as compared to that of the English settlers; perhaps I was just expecting more spirituality and faith from a movie set in the 17th century, an era in which settlements came to be known “as plantations of religion.” Perhaps, though, it just takes a few days back in the real world to really appreciate “The New World.”

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