March 23, 2001
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Funniest South Asian in the Nation
Funniest South Asian in the Nation

The dimly lit room of New York City's hot spot, The Merc Bar, buzzed with a potent mixture of exhaustion, satisfaction and alcohol, as the cast of the independent movie American Desi relaxed following the success of the film's sold-out premiere.

Making his way through the bar was a young Bangladeshi entertainer, with a quick and lethal wit, greeting friends and associates with smiles and congratulations.

The entertainer was Aladdin Ullah, one of the stars of American Desi, and a comedian with an in-your-face style, reminiscent of his idols Richard Pryor and George Carlin. As Aladdin worked the crowd, he was effusive, but a little startled at the positive reception the movie had with audiences, after the lukewarm reviews it received from some film critics.

"I can't believe the audience seemed to like the movie," he said. "They really got into it, laughing at all the jokes. I can't believe it. My mother even liked it, which is just scary because she doesn't like anything I do."

The success of American Desi's opening night was another notch in the belt of the man who unabashedly calls himself the "funniest South Asian in the nation."

Aladdin has already broken barriers with his cutting blend of South Asian humor and East Harlem spunk, using jocularity to bring together his eastern and western upbringing and paving the way for South Asian comics to break into mainstream.

During a performance of his one-man show Curry Power, Aladdin discussed his conservative mother and being Muslim: "My mother is obsessed with me becoming Muslim," he said, changing his voice into a high-pitched thick Indian accent. "Aladdin, why you no become Muslim? It's part of your culture, your tradition... and put down that pork chop while I'm talking to you!"

Hindi films were another thorn in Aladdin's side as he grew up: "They messed me up! Most people were losing their virginity through puberty but every time I got close to a girl, I burst out into song."

The audience roared as the pudgy comedian coupled his punchline with a little jig around the stage. But while audiences seemed to adore Aladdin's open comic style, comedy clubs were not as appreciative.

"I've been banned from the Comic Strip and I think I'm not allowed in at Gotham either," Aladdin said proudly. "The comedy clubs only encourage and nurture white comics. When I performed at the Comic Strip they said my material was too ethnic. They wanted me to kow tow to what they thought the mainstream wants."

Even when he was allowed to perform, Aladdin found himself, along with other minority comedians, following the acts of bland white comics after midnight, when audiences had waned.

This apparent double standard spurred Aladdin, along with his friend Santos, to form his own comic troupe, Color Blind, to allow ethnically diverse comedians a venue to perform outside the traditional comic circuit.

As the members of the troupe became outspoken towards the racism they had observed at comic Meccas like Comic Strip and the New York Comedy Club, it sparked a war with the club owners who refused to allow the comedians stage time.

"I'm in defiance of the establishment," Aladdin said. "If you have something thought-provoking to say these clubs don't want to hear it. All the decision-makers seem to want is comedy that is ignorant and misogynistic without social commentary. It's comedy masturbation."

Despite becoming persona non grata at various clubs throughout New York, Aladdin has been far from idle. The resourceful comedian continued to perform at more open venues and turned his attention to his other loves -- writing and movies -- as well as his one-man comedy shows like Curry Power and his newest creation The Mason-Dixon Line.

But it hasn't been an easy road. Racism in New York comedy clubs was just a warm-up exercise for the racism in Hollywood.

"Hollywood is worse then the Ku Klux Klan," Aladdin said. "It keeps trying to cast South Asians in roles with no dignity. I'm constantly getting (casting) calls for parts in sitcoms and movies that are so stereotypical. I say yes just so I can go and scold them."

Aladdin said he turned down offers for roles in movies such as The Siege because the portrayals of South Asian or Muslim characters were so negative and racist. He's currently in talks for a possible role in Men In Black 2 and has been called for a movie titled The Guru of Sex, starring Heather Graham and Marisa Tomei. But the roles are still not as appealing to the comic, as he would like.

"I'm kind of discriminating when it comes to the roles I do," he explained. "I know people say 'Aladdin, this role would be really good for your visibility.' Even my manager says that sometimes. But sometimes it's not a matter of being funny. It's a matter of being unethical."

Despite his open criticism of the Hollywood industry, the film and sitcom offers still continue to pour in. But it's the independent films that peak Aladdin's interest. Aladdin just finished up a role in director Ashraf Meer's Indie film Upstate, in which he plays an Indian entrepreneur, addicted to drugs who is losing money as the market plummets.

The movie, a Generation X-version of the '80s movie The Big Chill, deals with the relationships of a group of college friends who gather upstate for a get-together.

"What I really love about this film is that the dialogue is completely improvised," Aladdin said enthusiastically. "The director believes that scripts make actors monotonous so we improvised it. While my character's name is Aladdin and I do provide some comic relief, I was recruited for a dramatic character and I like doing roles that are three-dimensional."

Not that you should expect Aladdin to hang up his comedic hat just yet. He said he enjoys doing diverse characters and independent films allow him to be more than just a stereotypical cab driver or terrorist.

Enter American Desi where Aladdin plays a professor, a role he enjoyed but, in typical Aladdin style, he'd be the first to admit the movie had its shortcomings.

"There were things in there that I would have done differently," Aladdin admitted. "The director and the cast didn't always see eye to eye on his vision and I thought there some aspects of the movie that were kind of weak and campy. But the Indians in the audience seemed to like it and that's one thing I can say about Indians is that they are loyal."

And loyal they are, both to the movie and to the movie's comic star. As Aladdin left the Merc Bar around 1 am, a group of Indians called out from the street "Hey Aladdin, you were great! You were really funny, man!"

Aladdin turned around to smile before climbing into a cab -- a great ending to a successful night!

Design: Dominic Xavier

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