Stories That Cross Borders 

Fulbright-Nehru Fellow Kavery Kaul talks about her documentary, “The Bengali,” and the ties between South Asians and African Americans in the United States. 

By Charvi Arora 

September 2023

Stories That Cross Borders 

Filmmaker Kavery Kaul (right) at an event at the American Center New Delhi. Her documentary “The Bengali” follows African American author Fatima Shaik from her hometown New Orleans to India, where her Bengali grandfather was born. (Photograph courtesy Usha Kaul)

Award-winning Indian American filmmaker and Fulbright-Nehru Fellow Kavery Kaul tells stories that explore who “we” are. Her documentary, “The Bengali,” follows African American author Fatima Shaik from her hometown, New Orleans, to India, the country of her Bengali grandfather Shaik Mohamed Musa. Through Fatima’s search for her family, Kaul—born in India and brought up in the United States—tells the story of the first South Asians in the United States who married African American women. 

Kaul’s work has been shown on television and in theaters worldwide and featured at multiple festivals. She has taught at Columbia University and City College in New York and was a visiting filmmaker at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata.  

SPAN spoke to Kaul on the sidelines of the screening of “The Bengali” at the American Center New Delhi. Excerpts from the interview.

Your documentaries explore themes of culture, race, class and belonging. What is “The Bengali” exploring?
I think “The Bengali” explores all those themes. It is certainly about belonging—who belongs where and with whom. It’s about culture—what happens when people are of different cultures, but of one family. It’s about race and class. There’s a huge difference between urbanites and village people, between Americans per se, African Americans, Indians. All those things come into play. I consciously aimed to make a film of many layers, because I think that is the human experience. 

What appealed to you about Fatima to make “The Bengali”? How did your personal history play into it?
What appealed to me was the story of Fatima’s family. I had found a family, one of the families my mother had spoken about. She had told me there were Indians who went to America long before we did. She was a history teacher and told me you are not going to find this in the books. So out of that came my excitement about the story and meeting many people in New Orleans of this background. 

What challenges did you face while filming?
Finding the village, not knowing if we would find that family; not knowing if we would find the papers—all these were the challenges. In making a documentary, I usually start out with a vague plan of where I’m headed. And then at every moment I have to adjust that plan. For example, I knew I wanted to include the villager’s point of view, but it was hard to predict how I would include that. But as soon as we arrived, I saw the villagers staring at Fatima—we needed to get this. I kept my eyes and ears wide open to see who was staring at whom, who was reacting. 

You’ve toyed with animation in the film. How was it connecting the animated sequences with the overall documentary?
This was my first experience using animation and I loved it. I saw its potential. Maya Edelman was the animator. Her family had migrated to America from what was then Kyiv in the USSR, when she was 10. And when I talked to her about the story, her first response was, “I understand this.” And she did a great job. 

What do you think the historic ties between African Americans and Indians can bring to the discussion on diversity and inclusion?
Well, I think the ties have to be brought out. We don’t talk about the links; we talk about the breakages, or conflict. That hampers our ability to move forward together. Many people don’t know that Martin Luther King came here [to India] in 1959. That he learned about Gandhi. Or that Gandhi was in touch with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People back in the 1920’s. Even on a cultural level, for example, American saxophonist John Coltrane loved Indian music and incorporated those sounds into jazz. And these things need to be known. The arts are a great way of building those ties because artists are often open to diving into different cultures and to different ways of thinking.  

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  • Gopinath Das

    An interesting view on Indian diaspora exploring the cultural inclusiveness.


    One response to “Stories That Cross Borders ”

    1. Gopinath Das says:

      An interesting view on Indian diaspora exploring the cultural inclusiveness.

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