If the original Borat only hinted at dark, unexplored territories of the American psyche, its sequel portrays a society that unabashedly revels in its deformities
Fourteen years ago, Sacha Baron Cohen breathed life into a singularly revolting, outrageously hilarious character ‘Borat Sagdiyev’ - Kazakhstan's fourth-best journalist, who left a trail of dumbfounded politicians and disgruntled civilians in his wake and spurred a national conversation on the casual bigotry embedded in American society.
In those early, care-free days, YouTube was newly launched to the public as a video-dating website; and pranksters were yet to run amok on the platform - which contributed to the novelty of Cohen’s mockumentary. In contrast, Borat sequel is seeing the light of the day at a time when the reality TV star-turned US President refuses to leave office to his successor in a ridiculous temper tantrum. It is not unreasonable to contend under the current circumstances that the reality of American political landscape has put Cohen’s satire to shame.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm begins with a bearded Borat rotting away in gulag for making the glorious nation of Kazakhstan a laughingstock of the rest of the world - apparently evident in the decreased export of the country’s ‘superior potassium and pubic hair.’ While on the other end of the world America gears up for a critical and predictably divisive general election, Kazakh Premier takes offense at not being invited into the global ‘strongman club.’
In a last-ditch attempt to make a lasting impression on the US leadership and chummy up with President Trump, Kazakhstan pardons Borat for his 2006 film on condition that he would hand over a fitting gift to someone from Trump’s inner circle - the gift being Borat’s 15-year-old daughter or as he would like to say 'my non-male son,' meant for Vice President Mike Pence.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s larger-than-life, mustachioed, curly-haired Borat in his iconic loose-fitting grey suit is a familiar face on the streets now. In 2006, the pedestrians who were alarmed by Borat’s mannerisms to the point of calling the authorities on him, are now chasing the Kazakh journalist for a selfie, which makes pulling pranks on unsuspecting civilians a tougher feat to achieve.
For the mockumentary to work and continue its tradition of duping non-actors into compromising scenes, a new character of Borat’s daughter, ‘Tutar’, played by 24-year-old Bulgarian actor Maria Bakalova, has thus been conveniently introduced. Bakalova, who reportedly bagged the role after beating 600 actors from around the world, emerges as a force to be reckoned with, occasionally even managing to outwit Cohen with her playful onscreen presence and improvisational prowess.
The father-daughter team lands on American shores and runs into a motley of intriguing characters, including a priest in an anti-abortion clinic implicitly condoning incest, a plastic surgeon who makes advances towards an underage Tutar, fathers at a debutante ball keenly negotiating the price of young female attendees, and of course the former New York mayor and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Several civilians, working at the service industries were also caught sheepishly going along with Borat’s hateful, tactless remarks - their civility seemingly bordering on compliance. While it is easier to take them to task, one should be curious as to whether their silence is not deliberate, but rather the very foundation of the system within which workers are forced into impersonality.
Whereas the original Borat was barely hanging by the thread in terms of its plot - repeatedly rescued by the sheer brilliance of Cohen’s hysterical pranks, the sequel doesn’t solely rely on the shock value of Borat’s antics and faux pas, rather it solidifies itself as a more ‘complete,’ narrative-driven film, albeit less influential that the original - but that was inevitable.
In 2020, Cohen makes the unlikely choice of humanizing his victims, depicting them as misguided and ignorant, rather than inherently evil. From the QAnon supporters who selflessly provide shelter to Borat during the coronavirus pandemic to the babysitter who showers Tutar with motherly love, the British comedian appeals to the collective humanity of a grossly divided society in his follow-up project and nails it.
Also Read - The Queen’s Gambit: Based on a true story?
As for the infamous Giuliani segment involving Tutar who poses as a reporter of legal age, the cringe-inducing and, manifestly, sexually tense interaction, despite being consensual, is a total repudiation of any and all professional code of conduct. But who’s surprised? Were we already not aware of the moral bankruptcy of Trump’s cronies? Once fondly hailed as 'America's Mayor' in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, didn't Giuliani lose all credibility when he embraced the position of a Trump enabler?
Cohen, who made it a point to release the sequel shortly before the general election, wanted women to know ‘who they’re voting for — or who they’re not voting for.’ Trump, who bragged about grabbing women by the genitals, made a mockery of the ‘family values’ party and has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 25 women, won against the first female Democratic nominee in 2016 by securing 42% of the female vote. To think that the Guiliani scene would have an impact on the election outcome is arrogant, or worse, naïve.
The British comedian is not the only one who has to reconcile with the inconvenient fact that political satire has been rendered ineffectual in the Trump era. The late-night talk show hosts, who have spent the last four years lampooning the President, have soon learned to regret their initial ecstasy at Trump, supposedly a godsend to liberal comedy, being elected in 2016. Dave Chappelle, during his post-election SNL monologue, joked how Trump calling coronavirus the ‘Kung-flu’ is admittedly racist, but hilarious too. How do you possibly troll a man who is quite a bit of a troll himself, feeding off on your attention? What Jon Stewart effectively accomplished with The Daily Show has now fallen to pieces with Trump’s rise, a political showman who is impervious to shame and, thereby, to satire as well.
When the groundbreaking Borat was released in 2006, it exposed American society’s indifference towards bigotry and intolerance, which Christopher Hitchens described as the rather innocent ‘pedantic hospitality and politesse’ of the American people. It was an era when civilians were more concerned about George Bush’s intelligence level than his foreign policy blunders. Cohen, who made Kazakhstan clownishly vile, thereby making it more comfortable for Americans to look at their own, less egregious sins in the original film, this time around has unexpectedly humanized his character to a great extent, in contrast to Americans, who seem to be dangerously slipping away from any chance of redemption fourteen years later - caught in a duel with their own image, brutally pitted against one another.
If the original Borat only hinted at dark, unexplored territories of the American psyche, its sequel explores a society that has come to terms with its deformities and decided to unabashedly revel in them.