When Larry Charles’ 2006 comedic gem Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan first came out, it was a cultural phenomenon that received widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. It also pissed a lot of people off, ranging from shocked feminists to outraged rednecks. Along with the accolades, the film also received a ton of lawsuits filed by the unsuspecting targets of the work, which solidified its legacy as the funniest mockumentary of the 21st century.
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen as the iconic character Borat Sagdiyev – a top reporter from Kazakhstan – the film follows Borat’s journey to the United States after being commissioned by his government to learn progressive values from Americans. That becomes the central premise of Borat, a sociocultural comparison between the sensibilities that Borat acquired while living in his supposedly underdeveloped Kazakh village and the political beliefs of the citizens hailing from “the greatest country in the world”.
Borat is a flawed man who hates Jewish people but loves his sister, “the number four prostitute in all of Kazakhstan”. He does not understand female equality and is incredibly progressive about male nudity but is disgusted by homosexuality. Borat is polite enough to try and greet the most hostile group of individuals on the planet, take, for example, the residents of New York and, predictably, that goes about as well as anyone would expect. Its structure resembles the satirical narrative arc of films like Bad Boy Bubby (1993), chronicling Borat’s adventures in what Americans boastfully call “the civilised world”.
The most outstanding achievement of Borat is its unscripted foundation, at least on the part of the people that Borat interviews. Thanks to Charles’ extensive background work and research crew, nobody had any idea that all of it was a set-up. They had a team of lawyers and partnered with a seemingly legitimate PR firm to send out interview requests which were accepted by local news stations as well as politicians like Bob Barr. From throwing gay pride parade afterparties to starting a riot at a rodeo, Cohen fooled every single person and hilariously exposed their overwhelming ignorance.
At one point, there were so many reports about a strange man roaming around in an ice cream truck that the FBI started a file on Borat. “[The FBI] got so many complaints there was a terrorist traveling in an ice cream van,” Cohen explained. “So the FBI got so many complaints that they started compiling a little file on us and eventually they came to visit us at the hotel. I obviously went missing when I heard because they were like ‘FBI’s downstairs. Sacha, disappear.’” That’s the huge risk that Cohen had to take while filming such an ambitious undercover operation. Thankfully, it contributed to the creation of a cultural artefact.
A common criticism that Borat always receives is the ethical problem of lying to the interviewees, in addition to the routine accusations of ethnic abuse and defamation. However, Cohen always maintained that the satire is pointed towards Americans and nobody else. As for the journalistic deception, the comedic genius said that he would accept it if he was shot to death: “What’s the purpose of this scene? Is it just to be funny? Is there some satire? Is that satire worth it? When you’re doing stuff like a gun rally and you could get shot, then morally it’s very clear.”
Borat stumbles through the landscape of modern America in an old ice cream van, armed with a pet bear and the male nude wrestling champion Azamat Bagatov (played by Ken Davitian). He embarks on a mythological journey to find Pamela Anderson but ends up discovering happiness (after being “cured” by demonic evangelists), returning to Kazakhstan with American values. Although Borat has been described as a “21st Century Alexis de Tocqueville,” that’s not nearly enough. He is the enormously stupid and simultaneously brilliant analyst of America’s modern socio-political framework, poking his finger at the malignant tumours embedded there while looking for “sexy time”.
The country of Kazakhstan initially criticised the project because of the major shift in public perception that the film brought about. Due to a major mix-up by the organisers, Borat’s parody national anthem of Kazakhstan (which proudly claimed that the country had the world’s best potassium exports and the second-cleanest sex workers in the area) was played at an International Shooting Grand Prix for a Kazakh gold medalist instead of the actual anthem! Since then, the nation and its people have accepted the fact that they have been immortalised in the mainstream consciousness by Borat. That’s precisely why it openly welcomed the making of the recent sequel, which continued Borat’s legacy.
Yermek Utemissov, the person who pitched the idea to the Kazakh board of tourism, stated: “It’s a newer generation. They’ve got Twitter, they’ve got Instagram, they’ve got Reddit, they know English, they know memes. They get it. They’re inside the media world. We’re looking at the same comedians, the same Kimmel show. Kazakhstan is globalised.”