Comedian and actor Alaudin Ullah and documentarian Vivek Bald’s quarter century collaboration culminates May 14 with the world premiere of their documentary In Search of Bengali Harlem at CAAMFest40.
The film will be screened at San Francisco’s historic Great Star Theater.
When the two first met in 1999, Ullah knew little about his father Habib’s life. Habib came to New York in the 1920s, moved to Spanish Harlem in the 1930s, married a recent immigrant from Puerto Rico and had two kids (Ullah’s older half-siblings). The couple ran an Indian restaurant near Times Square in the 1940s.
Everything about that story differed so much from what Bald had learned about South Asian immigration to the U.S.
“In this period, between 1917 and 1965 Asian laborers were banned from even setting foot in the U.S. yet Habib Ullah had built a whole life for himself here. That fact was significant enough in itself, but I thought it was significant that Alaudin’s father had built a life in Harlem, within and alongside Puerto Rican and African American communities, as opposed to the immigrants who came from India and other parts of the subcontinent after 1965, who were predominantly middle and upper class professionals who sought to settle in and integrate into affluent white communities. I felt this was a story that needed to be told,” said Bald.
Ullah discovered that his father, Habib, was part of an extraordinary history of mid-20th century Harlem, in which Bengali Muslim men, dodging racist Asian Exclusion laws, married into New York’s African American and Puerto Rican communities – and in which the likes of Malcolm X and Miles Davis shared space and broke bread with immigrants from the subcontinent. Then, after crossing the globe to visit the former homes of his parents, Ullah unearthed unsettling truths about his mother: about the hardships and trauma that she overcame to become one of the first women to migrate to the U.S. from rural Bangladesh.
In an interview with India Currents Alaudin Ullah and Vivek Bald talk about how In Search of Bengali Harlem is a transformative journey, not just for Ullah, but for our understanding of the complex histories of South Asian and Muslim Americans. They hope that the film sparks a larger conversation about the many and varied stories of South Asians in the United States, the long history of our presence here, the crucial role that other communities of color have played in South Asian American history, and the need for us to continue and build upon those histories in the present and future.
IC: The film starts with a personal quest that leads to an unfolding of the larger historical set of stories that Alaudin’s parents were part of. What was the most challenging part about making the movie?
Vivek Bald: When we started working on the film in the early 2000s, I tried to find some existing history of South Asian migration to the U.S. that would help us explain Habib Ullah’s trajectory from East Bengal to East Harlem in the 1920s. But there was nothing to draw upon. The historical narrative of early 20th century migration focused almost entirely on Punjabi migration across the Pacific to the West Coast. That is what led me to take a detour from filmmaking into a Ph.D. program to do the historical research that was missing for the film.
That research was challenging because it entailed searching for fragments of evidence early migration to the East Coast in multiple archives: hundreds of records of what turned out to be predominantly Bengali Muslim men, that turned up on ship manifests, in census records, in British surveillance records, obscure magazine articles, and then stitching it all together to figure out the historical story that all those documents told. That was challenging and ended up taking years, but I also found that I loved it – I loved diving deep into the archives for hours, days, and weeks on end to try to pull these hidden histories to the surface.
IC: Attempting to uncover unrecorded history must have come with a myriad of challenges. What were they and how did you tackle them?
Vivek Bald: One of the biggest challenges was the fact that South Asian names were so mangled at multiple levels in the archives. On the original documents from the 1920s-40s – ship manifests, census sheets, etc. – you had British and American clerks and bureaucrats wildly misspelling and mis-transliterating South Asian names, then writing them down in sometimes almost illegible handwriting. Then decades later, you had a new generation of clerical workers scanning those documents, and a few decades later, more workers (for example, employees of Ancestry.com) mis-reading and mis-typing those already mangled, barely legible names into the searchable data bases that I ultimately was using in the early 2000s.
A name like John Smith might survive all of those steps and make it intact into a database 90 years after the fact, but with names like Moksad Ali or Abbas Abdul or Ibrahim Choudhury, it was a different story, so it required a lot more time and work to find and decipher the names of South Asian Muslim migrants.
Anti-Asian Immigration Laws
IC: You say that the Bengali ship workers were able to build new lives for themselves in various American cities. Where were they forming ethnic enclaves?
Vivek Bald: They were not forming ethnic enclaves, because as undocumented immigrants – rendered “illegal” by the racist Anti-Asian immigration laws of the day – they had to quietly integrate into existing communities and not call attention to themselves. But this also meant that their lives became much more entwined with other communities of color. They couldn’t and didn’t build walls around themselves that might have prevented them from mixing and building friendships and discovering affinities with African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and others.
IC: How does your book and consequently this movie provide a more nuanced look at South Asians in the workforce?
Vivek Bald: One thing that I hope that both the book and the film will establish is that the story of South Asians in America is not exclusively a story of the “model-minority” professionals who have for the most part sought to assimilate into whiteness – that there is a long and unbroken chain of working-class migration from South Asia that stretches from the late 1800s to the present, and that this working-class migration includes many stories in which South Asian Americans have built lives and found common cause with Black and Latinx folks here in the U.S. The waves of migration of South Asian professionals post-1965, while large in terms of numbers, are more the exception than the rule and there are many more and different stories to tell about South Asians in the U.S.
IC: What was it like growing up Bengali and living in Spanish Harlem?
Alaudin Ullah: It was bittersweet. I loved the first 5 years of my life. It was joy and my mom was very affectionate. But in kindergarten, that all changed. I was bullied, my mom was made fun of her accent, her sari, her “otherness.” I felt like a freak, an outsider. That went on for a long time. Being alone was my world. Yet I was able to endure all of that and persevere.
I took a liking to sports and arts because it was there where I could be myself and channel all that adversity into something constructive. I could find my voice onstage or on a sports field. So, when I became a comedian it was a great tool to deal with the harshness of all that rejection, and the adversity in this racist comedy/ show biz world. I had a few friends that were loyal but for the most part, I felt like an outsider most of the time and was emancipated when I left the neighborhood to pursue my dream of traveling the world as an artist.
IC: As a South Asian pursuing stand-up comedy as a career, how did your family react to your career choice?
Alaudin Ullah: My mom was outraged. She gave me the usual desi speech, “I came to this country so my children could be a doctor or an engineer and now my son is a bum.” My mom was disappointed but as I tell most of my students that want to go to college for the arts, you have to love what you do so much that nothing will stop you. I didn’t have time to listen to my mom’s objections. I was on a mission and I didn’t care who didn’t believe in me because I was the only one who believed in my dream.
Family is family but they can also be toxic in discouraging your dreams. You have to create a force field of love and support and keep the haters and that toxicity from entering your realm. Not just as a creative person, but as a person who is focused on a growth mindset. You have to declutter all that negative energy and move forward with a tsunami of positive support.
IC: What is your key goal in making “In Search of Bengali Harlem?”
Alaudin Ullah: I wanted to be a prototype not a stereotype. Even South Asians in the business years ago were telling me to just compromise to the Hollywood shuffle. Embrace the new minstrel show of being cab drivers and terrorists. I didn’t want to dance that Hollywood shuffle. I knew there were stories to tell about our people We were here, we paved the way, we are American history and we need to honor those who were before us. I want to tell those stories and now be a part of the minstrel show. I wanted to acquire a sense of self-worth for South Asians and everyone out there that we can acknowledge our past instead of denying it. The Bengali folks who were here decades ago needed their stories to be told.
IC: What made you approach Bald for a possible collaboration?
Alaudin Ullah: I wanted to work with someone who wanted to tell a human story along with a music score that would be part of that aspect. I wanted this film to be something different not the usual academic talking heads interview, something that moved you.
Bald is a filmmaker with integrity, something rare in this business. He made a film called Taxi-Wallah about cab drivers in New York and asked tough questions about race. It was nuanced, honest and heartfelt. Then I saw his documentary called Mutiny about South Asian musicians and was blown away. It was amazing! He’s also a genuine person with a heart of gold. That’s the kind of people I’d want to be in a foxhole with.
Pirate’s Map of Treasure
IC: How did you retrace your dad Habib Ullah’s story?
Alaudin Ullah: What I remembered were stories told to me, as well as finding the whereabouts of people who knew my dad or searching for children of my dad’s friends. We went and interviewed them and got first-hand accounts that gave me insight to who he and those other men were like. Vivek’s masterful research also gives us some interesting discoveries about how those immigrants from what is now Bangladesh navigated their way to New York. It was like doing detective work and finding discovery by finding out facts about where they left, how they arrived, where they lived, who they got married to, their employment, etc. When you find information about someone it’s almost like you are time traveling trying to connect the dots. It’s like a pirate map to find this treasure of our parents. We may not get exact answers but it seems we end up asking more questions.
IC: Did your parents assimilate in their new country or did they hold onto their traditions?
Alaudin Ullah: I think it’s a little bit of both. I looked at my parents as both FOB’s. They were wearing the clothes of their home, their language was always Bengali, and the food in our house was always curry so we were culturally Bengali. My parents held it close to their heart. They both loved America. They wanted us, the children to be American. So, they held on to Bangladesh but wanted the American dream for their children- of better education, better jobs, that upward social mobility to move up a class and be a hard-working capitalist.
IC: What was it like to visit Bangladesh during the filming?
Alaudin Ullah: Bittersweet. It was moving to see this beautiful, landscape, the foliage the heart of the motherland. On the other hand, when I first went there in 2015, Bangladesh was going through a very turbulent time. There was a disconnect between the haves and have-nots. Bangladesh with all its beauty, has problems with its corrupt governments and patriarchy. I don’t want to say religion because even if you took away religion its problems exist. Religion is a component not the sole reason.
I don’t want to sound like the American who has all answers because America is complicit in eroding third world countries. This is just a conversation that can go on forever because how do we solve the problem of corruption and poverty? Revolution? Uprising? I have no idea. I just see the fact that we need a better world.
IC: What is your best advice to the next generation of Muslim and South Asian entertainers in America?
Alaudin Ullah: Don’t rely on others to produce you. Don’t ask permission to create. Just create. Find your voice. Find your people. Find your partners. Be kick-ass be good and don’t be afraid to ask questions and surround yourself with people that believe in you. Love exists even when you are drowning in BS, be brave, give to the universe, and the universe will give back to you.