African-American Author Fatima Shaik Makes Unlikely Quest From New Orleans To India In Kavery Kaul’s “The Bengali”

‘The Bengali’ – Fatima Shaik in a field in Khori Village. Image by River Films.

Fatima Shaik, an African-American author (Economy Hall) from New Orleans, and whose family has lived in Louisiana for four generations, embarks upon an unlikely quest from The Big Easy to a part of India where no African-American (or American) has ever gone. Her search for the past is fraught with uncertainty as she looks for her late grandfather Shaik Mohamed Musa’s descendants, land he claimed to own and the truth behind the stories she grew up with.

Her incredible journey is told in award-winning filmmaker Kavery Kaul’s (‘Cuban Canvas’, ‘Long Way From Home’) new feature documentary ‘THE BENGALI’. Winner of the Special Jury Award at Roxbury Film Festival and the International Humanitarian Award at Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival, ‘The Bengali’ will make its Louisiana Premiere at New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF) on Nov. 9 and will also make its New York Premiere at DOC NYC, Nov. 13th.

‘The Bengali’ reaches across seemingly insurmountable cultural divides to shed light on timely issues, telling a boldly different story of immigration to reclaim timeless themes of family. Kavery who is originally from Kolkata herself, travels with Fatima to the big city of Kolkata, the countryside of Bengal and through the streets of New Orleans, with unique access to people and places in both countries. Their trek is tempered with hope, fear and surprising encounters with strangers.

With lively animation, seamless editing and evocative music, ‘The Bengaliblends form and content to forge a dynamic work of creative nonfiction about a woman’s journey in search of her past. Through Fatima’s moving and inspiring pursuit, ‘The Bengali’ tells the untold story of ties between South Asians and African-Americans in the U.S. In the late nineteenth century, the newly arrived men from India married African-American women. The men were Muslim; their wives were Christian. Together, they built families in an America that held them all at arm’s length. Fatima is a granddaughter of this vibrant cultural tangle. Kavery reveals how an essential chapter of history has been ignored—until now. ‘The Bengali’ adds significant richness to the legacy of migration.

Ahead of the film’s festival premiere, we had the chance to speak with Kavery Kaul about the power of storytelling, and more underrepresented voices having a seat at the table to change cultural conversations.

‘The Bengali’ director Kavery Kaul with DP John Foster & Sound Recordist Abdul Rajjak in Kolkata. Image by Usha Kaul, courtesy of River Films.

How did you first come across Fatima Shaik’s story and decide to make “The Bengali”? 

When I first met Fatima, we discovered we were both in the arts. I’m an Indian-American filmmaker, she’s an African-American writer. It was several cups of tea later that I learned that her grandfather had come from India. I couldn’t believe it. He was one of the early immigrants from India that my mother had told me she had heard a little about. No one knew much about them. They came to America before the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act stopped us from entering the US. We came after the 1960s Immigration Act opened the door again. Both my parents were very active in organizing the Indian-American community. My late mother was a history teacher. She knew I wouldn’t find anything about our history in America in the books. I knew I needed to find out more.

We South Asians are missing from the canvas of the American landscape. I’ve always wanted to tell our story. That’s the story of Fatima and her family, and many others like her. All the families along the East Coast descended from the marriages of Indian men and African-American women.

Being from Kolkata yourself originally, what was it like to document Fatima’s journey and seeing her discover her heritage?

I was born in Kolkata, and came to the US when I was six. I go to India frequently, or I did before the pandemic; and will again, soon I hope.

The first men who came from India to the East Coast of the US came from my own region of Bengal. It was exciting to delve into my history as an American and as an Indian. I was tracing the lines that connect so many dots of time and place. 

Taking Fatima to India to discover a heritage she knew about only through family stories added another dimension to the experience. I was on familiar ground. I knew the language, the customs, the way of life. I could lead Fatima on her search for her past. As a filmmaker, I was also able to capture what she came across that was true and what wasn’t completely so. More than anything, for me, it was about the importance of history, memory, and myth in all our lives.

‘The Bengali’ – Fatima Shaik on her porch in New Orleans. Image by River Films

Part of this film unearths the untold story of the ties between South Asians and African-Americans in the US through Fatima’s story. Why is this story still so unknown in America today? 

Traditionally, our past wasn’t considered important enough to be recorded and preserved for the future. Unfortunately, that’s still the case. I’m baffled that so many people think that if the story of ties between South Asians and African-Americans in the US hasn’t been told before, it doesn’t need to be unearthed and told now. 

After all, these long-overlooked links defy the conventional notion that black and brown peoples have no relationship with each other. They challenge the misconception that we South Asians are perpetual foreigners in America. By leaving these stories untold, we ignore the possibility that they can bring different communities together. Even those who aren’t South Asian or African-American can find resonance in the experience of journeys that start a new life.

You are a proponent of the idea that storytelling can change the world, and allow people to see themselves represented on screen, on a page etc. Can you tell us why storytelling on screen can change the world and unite people? 

Storytelling is powerful. It crosses all borders. I like to make documentaries about people who introduce viewers to others they may never meet. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes.

I’ve always found that a film can open a window onto a world we’ve never seen before. A film can also hold up a mirror in which we see ourselves. Like any artform, a film can take us deep inside ourselves to a place we might not venture otherwise. And if we dare to risk the discomfort of the unfamiliar, we may even discover a different way of looking at things. We may even find common ground.

‘The Bengali’ – Animation by Maya Edelman. Image by River Films

The narrative about race and racism is America as it is universal. Through Fatima’s journey, what do you hope audiences will learn from this story, grappling with what is happening politically today? 

What audiences take away from THE BENGALI will depend on who that audience is. That’s the way it should be. Once a film is made, we filmmakers have to leave our work open to interpretation by those who experience it in their own way.

Race and racism, culture and bias – these are both specifically American and universal global issues that have reached a boiling point right now. We start to repeat ourselves. I’d like to think the story of Fatima’s journey offers an alternative to the same story being told again and again. So often, people stay apart from each other when they’re faced with differences of language, faith, even food and clothing, any number of factors in which they don’t see their own reflection. But differences are just differences, unless we turn them into barriers. Unless we’re willing to build trust between peoples who may be very different from each other. 

“The Bengali”, along with all your documentary work, aims to challenge the way we see people who are different from us. Can you tell us more about this mission through your filmmaking? 

My films veer towards the intimate, closeup story of those who are “different” from others around them. A deeper, not necessarily louder, way of tackling timely issues. 

In THE BENGALI, Fatima journeys into a world unlike anything she’s ever known. The people there have never met anyone like her either. It’s not about pulling a curtain over their fears and concerns, or her frustrations and discomfort. As an Indian-born American filmmaker, I straddle both worlds. And I’m so glad I’m able to draw out those parallel experiences at the heart of the tension between the Western visitor and her Eastern hosts.

‘The Bengali’- Fatima Shaik shows her grandfather’s photo to a young man in Khori Village. Image by River Films.

We are seeing a wave of films and stories about especially women and girls of color, stories and lives that previously haven’t been seen or heard. Do you expect this wave to continue in the filmmaking world? 

Films by and about women, especially women of color, need a place at the table. Actually, we need to build a new table that includes those voices. We’re half the population of the world. And our stories are of value not only to us, but to the other half as well — our sons, fathers, brothers. Grandfathers too!

At that new table, places have to be set for women of color not as quiet, well-behaved guests, but as active, outspoken participants.

I hope the current wave of interest in us isn’t a momentary nod to the times. It could be. That would be easy. But I’d like to see many women and girls — the older, experienced generation and the younger, enthusiastic one — move forward to tell stories that excite and inspire us all.

What do you hope audiences will remember most after watching “The Bengali”?   

I hope they remember the laughter of Fatima and the village women chatting about their lives. I hope they grab hold of their own stories that have been passed through the years, especially those of us from communities deprived of our history. I hope they know they may discover family in a place they never expected.

‘The Bengali’ will make its Louisiana Premiere at New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF) on Nov. 9, and will also make its New York Premiere at DOC NYC, Nov. 13th, 2021.

‘The Bengali’ – Fatima Shaik with women in Khori Village. Image by River Films

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