By Jana Monji
After the slap seen around the world, Chris Rock fell into another Asian-related faux pas and I immediately thought of this documentary, In Search of Bengali Harlem.
The documentary is about a man, Alaudin Ullah, learning more about both his parents and his heritage with the help of scholar/filmmaker Vivek Bald. Together, they are credited as directors and writers (with Beyza Boyacioglu) and this personal documentary should open up a dialogue between the African American and South Asian communities.
In 2022, Rock announced the winner of the Best Documentary Feature at the 94th Academy Awards. The Oscar went to Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Rock announced the win for “Ahmir Questlove Thompson and four White guys.” There were, of course, only three other guys, Joseph Patel, David Dinstein and Robert Fyvolent, and none of those three were KKK-approved White. Dinstein and Fyvolent were identified as Jewish by The Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The proudly Asian Indian Patel was notably irate.
The documentary In Search of Bengali Harlem is about a man who remembers East Harlem as being predominately Latino, but whose his best friend was an African American boy. Ullah disassociated himself from his Muslim Bengali background, preferring to identify with the Black African American culture.
“I looked at my father like an Uncle Tom dishwasher,” and Ullah thought, “You don’t know anything about the hood and the projects. You’re just an old man with a cane.” Yet Ullah learns that his father was more than that. We get glimpses of his autobiographical solo show Dishwasher Dreams. Yet because of the age difference between his father and mother, Ullah didn’t know his father well.
Bald was previously featured in the five-hour PBS documentary series Asian Americans, where the audience met fourth and fifth-generation descendants of a Bengali Muslim silk trader, Mossad Ali who were members of the African American community in New Orleans. South Asians sometimes merged into the African American communities and that’s been the focus of his research and filmmaking as an associate professor of comparative studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of the 2013 Harvard University Press book, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.
In 1998, Ullah was performing at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and going by the name “Aladdin.” Ullah told Bald who had been videotaping the set that he wanted to explore his father’s past. Bald was fascinated because the timing meant Ullah’s father had come to the US when immigration from most of Asia was banned. South Asians were characterized as a “Dusky Peril” or “Hindu Hordes Invading the State.”
The documentary follows Bald and Ullah as Bald shows Ullah the resources for researching his father’s past, making the film an instruction manual for others. Ullah learns to embrace his cultural heritage and to respect the immigrant story of both his father and mother.
In Search of Bengali Harlem made its world premiere at the 2022 CAAMFest in May and, this year, won the Groundbreaker Award at the 2023 Cleveland International Film Festival. The film was screened as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival at the Japanese American National Museum on Saturday, 6 May 2023.
Ullah’s show, Dishwasher Dreams, directed by Chay Yew, is coming to The Old Globe in San Diego for its West Coast premiere in the fall of this year. Bald’s website BengaliHarlem.com lists some other South Asian American family stories.
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