My favorite of the minor Seinfeld characters is Babu Bhatt. His lines were good enough (“You bad man. You very very bad man.”) his actions replicable enough (that finger wag though- challenging Mutumbo for the finger wag heavyweight title), the episode funny enough, and my exposure to it early enough that I haven’t shaken it from my list of favorite episodes and, by extension, Babu Bhatt as my favorite minor character.
But as time has gone by and my awareness has grown, I am surprised, at how prescient, relevant, and cutting was the commentary of that episode. It was couched in the hilarity and good humor Seinfeld of course, another testament to Seinfeld’s glory, but the subtext is obvious, and it makes me love Babu Bhatt and “The Café” even more (and is probably the reason I loved it in the first place- even if I couldn’t explain it).
If you have forgotten (even though no Seinfeld fan ever forgets) and to establish a basis for the reason why I love Babu and this episode, let me recap what happens. Jerry convinces a local Café owner, Babu Bhatt, a Pakistani selling American food, to turn his café into an authentic Pakistani restaurant.
Subtext: After all… America is the land of the melting pot. The country where all cultures and kinds and color blend into one indistinguishable stew. And of all places on the planet where those cultures and people are most melted, New York, New York is capital. There should be no Pakistanis staying open by selling very American hot dogs and hamburgers. We are accepting of all kinds. Bring us your tired and weary and biryani.
So Babu Bhatt listens, hoping that the meager success his café is making can be turned into an American Dream of restaurant aplomb. He closes down the café to be reopened as an authentic Pakistani restaurant.
Subtext: After all, which migrant wouldn’t hope that their homeland and culture could be so seamlessly integrated into the American identity that their cuisine would be accepted and eaten by all.
Jerry is on a comedy tour for the opening of the new Pakistani restaurant. But he returns as the benevolent American, wanting to taste every dish, and congratulating Babu on the success of his new endeavor.
Subtext: Jerry feels good about the narrative he has pushed. The support he has provided to the idea of a migrants’ success, and the collective acceptance of his Pakistani cuisine and thus his identity.
However, as Babu is quick to point out, there are no customers! No one, other than Jerry, is interested in his Pakistani food (and even Jerry thinks the shrimp is a bit…stringy), and his meager success as a café owner has diminished into a dismal failure as a Pakistani restauranteur.
Subtext: Every American loves the idea that America is where those from other countries can find their success and be their authentic selves, culture to culture, cheek to cheek. However, there is a disconnect when it comes to the patronage and support of those ideals, as seen by the New Yorker’s lack of interest in the new restaurant.
The subtext of the show seems obvious now, however it was lost on me at the time. I just thought it was funny. But all humor that we can’t shake (like Babu Bhatt for me) sticks in our brains for a reason. And I think this was the reason (the truth behind the fiction) that made it a member of my mind for so long.
Jerry walking into Babu’s restaurant and being so oblivious to the restaurant’s clear emptiness and Babu’s obvious anger is hilarious, and his nitpicking of the food that only he is eating is outstanding. But Babu’s outburst never left me. His frantic questioning about the location of all the people that Jerry promised and his assertions that Jerry is a “very bad man,” and Jerry’s shocked innocence as a response, his immediate indignation as the American who showed Babu this ‘kindness’ and did not receive thanks in return are truly spectacular moments of comedy rooted in painful self-awareness.
And all of it is encompassed in that finger wag. That metronomic rhythm of rejection, correction, and shaming that they brought back for the finale. “Bad man?” Jerry thinks to himself “Could my mother have been wrong?” Of course not, Jerry. Don’t fret, my benevolent American.
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