Last Friday, Donald Trump’s personal attorney and Borat’s nemesis, Rudy Giuliani, held a press conference at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia. Not the Four Seasons luxury hotel as was expected, but the Four Seasons Total Landscaping, a store sandwiched between a sex toy shop and a crematorium. Veep creator Armando Iannucci couldn’t make this up if he tried.
Some say the world will end in fire/
Others say at Four Seasons Total Landscaping north of the Tacony-Palmyra bridge, near the porn shop
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) November 8, 2020
Has the US presidency always had its moments of ridiculousness, so rife with mockumentary potential? Comedian Anuvab Pal seemed to think so. In 2009, he adapted his 2006 stage play The President Is Coming into an English-language feature film directed by Kunaal Roy Kapur. Produced by Rohan Sippy, the satire hinges on then US President George W. Bush’s 2006 visit to India and the ensuing nationwide search for a young, bright citizen to shake his hand for a photo-op. While the visit was real, the events of the film are not. Its irreverent tone is evident from the first scene, in which the President’s press secretary announces that he’s looking for a young Indian. “How young?” asks a reporter suggestively.
“At the time, we thought that we were being groundbreaking about Indo-US relations. We thought it was damn far-fetched and crazy,” says Pal. “Now, our film looks serious in comparison to what’s actually happening there. Who holds a press conference next to a dildo shop? That’s beyond satire.”
The film’s premise came from a Times of India article that said Bush would stop by the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad during his visit. In anticipation, the school decided to hold a competition to select one student who would shake hands with him. “It said some of the rounds would be physical, which made me go: What? What physical rounds can you make students do?” asks Pal, who felt compelled to examine the kinds of people who would volunteer for something like that.
In the film, members of the PR firm handling the contest announce that they’ll select a winner the American way. “You mean democratic voting?” asks a reporter. “Reality TV,” comes the reply. Like the five children who unwrap their candy bars and discover a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, six people are eventually chosen as finalists — a ditzy heiress (Ira Dubey), a misogynistic social activist (Satchit Puranik), a closeted software engineer who overcompensates by aggressively hitting on women (Namit Das), a no-nonsense novelist who writes about the Assamese tribal community (Konkona Sen Sharma), a laidback call centre accent trainer (Vivek Gomber) and a slimy number-crunching investor (Anand Tiwari).
With 19 hours to go before Bush arrives, they hole up at the US consulate in Mumbai overnight and go through 15 gruelling, bizarre rounds of cosplaying American figures, (mis)identifying famous Americans, reciting Bush speeches in character as different animals and practising their conversational skills with a statue of the President, until they’re eventually eliminated from contention.
While Bush himself was a widely derided figure during his tenure — ‘Bushisms’ from his speeches like, “Our enemies never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we” dominated gleeful news cycles back then and even find mention in the film now — The President Is Coming relegates him to the background. Instead, his visit becomes an excuse to mine humour from the motley crew of Indians who’d like to meet him. As they grow increasingly desperate to one-up each other, their antics grow more outrageous, ranging from backstabbing to bribery.
“With Trump having made visas so hard to get and the cost of college education being so high, that desire to move to America has gone. But when we shot the film in 2008, a large percentage of the Indian population still wanted to go to the US. Studying in America was a big thing. I wanted to explore that blind faith in America, that ‘I need to go America at all costs’ feeling I grew up around in the late 90s,” says Pal. Each of the characters envisions the coveted handshake changing their lives — one sees it leading to an uptick in his marriage prospects, another thinks it will detract from her dubious past (read: sex tape).
The film’s sharp writing makes up for its limited budget, which necessitated setting it almost entirely in one room. In a meta turn of events, the official US Consulate at BKC in Mumbai granted the crew permission to shoot the mockumentary there. They were supportive, says Pal, but when the film was screened for a few visiting US senators, two walked out, upset.
Eleven years on, The President Is Coming is prescient in ways it couldn’t have predicted — a news report from the film, in which a nun compares Bush to God, is just as funny as online remixes of Trump’s spiritual advisor praying for his victory.
— DanielNewmaη (@DanielNewman) November 6, 2020
Still, Pal says he isn’t looking to write a sequel set in the present. “(President) Obama visited India twice and each time I’d get calls from the press asking how I’d update the film. And it wouldn’t work. Obama isn’t a buffoon. It’s very hard to do satire on the US now too. Things are already at the next level. What can you mock about Trump that isn’t already funny?” he says.
The President Is Coming is streaming on YouTube.