DOC NYC 2021 Interview: Kavery Kaul on Getting at the Root of “The Bengali”

“A lot of Black people don’t know where they came from,” a relative of Fatima Shaik says at the dinner table in “The Bengali” as the New Orleans-based author is weighing a trip to India to find her ancestral home. As the granddaughter of Shaik Mohamed Musa, who arrived in America from Bengal and married Matilde Ford, an African-American living in Louisiana, Fatima has vague ideas about her family’s origins yet hardly anything solid and after Hurricane Katrina literally washed away much of her family history, having four generations grow up in the hard-hit 2nd Ward, she takes it upon herself to learn more about Musa, joined by the filmmaker Kavery Kaul to both capture her journey and help translate when in Kolkata, she can’t speak a lick of Bengali.

What unfolds is a far more realistic version of “Finding Your Roots” than the sepia-toned PBS show as Fatima hits one dead end after another regarding Musa’s history, holding only a few specious documents that could lead to more information about him or other descendants and largely finding herself unwelcome in another culture that’s distrustful of why she’s there. However, even if Fatima doesn’t have much success in terms of tracking down historical records, “The Bengali” nonetheless brings her – and audiences – closer to the experience that Musa had when he, like so many others, had been displaced and made to adjust to a country that they didn’t have any connection to. With what’s known about Musa’s history brought to life with spry animation and Fatima’s own epiphanies occurring in front of the camera, the film observes the connections across time and borders that rarely can be seen so clearly and makes peace with the past in such a way that the future is more visible.

Recently debuting in Fatima’s native New Orleans, “The Bengali” is moving from the Big Easy to the Big Apple this week to make its regional debut at DOC NYC and Kaul spoke about how she became interested in following the story and how her own personal history played into it.

How did this come about?

My mother always told me there were people who came from India to America long before we did, before the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 closed the door on us. She didn’t know a lot about them. As a history teacher, she knew that I wouldn’t find anything about them in the usual history textbooks, even though without them, there would be no us. I was born in Kolkata, but I grew up in America. We never seemed to have a place here and people would always ask when are you going back? And I would always think, “Why? Were they going back?” And I wanted to know more about who we were here in America.

For years in the 1990s, I traveled to California to meet the first Indians that came there from Punjab during the 19th century. They were already very old then, so I knew we’d lose them. I went around collecting their stories and the stories of the Mexican women they married. We had such great times over the best tamales I ever had. [laughs] I kept hoping someone support my making a film about them. But no luck. I went onto make other documentaries, but I also heard on the east coast, the men from India came from my own region of Bengal. That was close to home. They married African-American women and their families became a part of that community. That was an untold story that needed to be told too. When I met Fatima, all I knew is she’s like me – a woman of color in the arts. Then she told me her grandfather had come from India, and I think she was surprised to find out that he came from Bengal where I’m from, so there you have it — the historical connection between India and America that’s so important to me and really to all of us and a film needs to tell a story and I found it. Mine was the story of Fatima and her family.

Did you know from the start that Fatima’s experience would reflect Mohammad’s as an immigrant?

Listen, what a spirit of adventure drove Shaik Mohammad Musa to come to America. For him, it was a journey into the unknown on so many levels beyond our comprehension, without phones or e-mail to stay connected to family and friends where you came from, no WhatsApp, no information on where you were going. I remember people in the village asking me if the men who left found mangoes as good as what they had at home in America and did those men miss the mangoes? I bet they did. But in many ways, Fatima’s journey does illustrate the challenges that her grandfather faced. She’s faced with a world unlike she’s ever seen. The language, the lifestyle, the way of thinking, you know finding yourself in the middle of it all, not knowing, not understanding, not belonging – it was no different really for her grandfather. He must’ve felt the same unfamiliarity, sometimes discomfort even. He had to build a life from the new surroundings and she has to find family in India.

You end up appearing in the film at a few choice moments. How did you decide what your own role would be in this film?

My role in the film evolved. I was never looking to be on camera, but the truth is I was Fatima’s guide, her translator, the one that was able to take her to a part of India where foreigners don’t go and then I found I had to set the framework too. It’s not like the story of the family, say, in World War II or another time. It should be known about, but it’s not. If it were, the audience wouldn’t even need the lightest reference to the larger context that the story comes from, so as a filmmaker, I touch on why I’m telling the story, but I kept my role to a few moments because this isn’t my personal story. My connection to India is very different from Fatima’s, but this is a collective history.

Was there anything that happened that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Things happened that weren’t unexpected, but when we started production, I began to see them with a filmmaker’s eye. In the village from the moment when we arrived, people were staring at Fatima, eagerly observing her and listening in on what she had to say and how she acted. They had never seen anyone like her. I knew right away we had to film those moments, and when the villagers confided in me what they thought of Fatima’s claims about her grandfather and what they thought she had really come for, I knew we had to get all that on film too. It couldn’t be just the usual story of someone traveling from west to east. It was a story of what people there thought of the stranger there too. There were two sides to these encounters and I had to disrupt the traditional one-sided narrative and as someone comfortable in India where I was born and in India where I grew up, I could capture both sides and make it a more nuanced narrative.

Part of the way you do that is through the animation – how did that decision come about and what attracted you to the work of Maya Edelman?

I decided to use animation because what little archival material we found of the communities in the film was very limited. My editor Lucas Groth really understood the story. And there was a way we wanted to tell it. We talked about how we didn’t want these historical sequences to break the rhythms we worked so hard to establish in the film. The first images that we found didn’t have the liveliness I was looking for in New Orleans or the hustle and bustle of an Indian marketplace. That’s where Maya entered the picture because we wanted a very full story told creatively within each sequence. We were looking for someone willing to let her imagination loose, that’s Maya.

In New Orleans, the African-American scenes had to be rich and vibrant colors and energetic, [reflecting] the life of the a community that relied on its own strength and determination, no matter how much hostility it might face outside that narrative. The Indian men meet their future African-American wives there. It’s about attraction and marriage. Not a sociological phenomenon, but a human experience. History’s personal – it’s about grandparents. In Kolkata, we filmed in the marketplace where Shaikh Mohammad Musa and other men sold fabrics from the village. The stalls are bare today. The emptiness of the location is haunting. There are no British and American sailors looking to buy things anymore. Maya had to interweave the production footage with her animated scenes to build a really critical sequence of Fatima searching for the past that villagers have told us about, but we can only imagine.

What’s it like bringing this out into the world?

It’s all very exciting and it’s amazing to see the film with different audiences. I wanted to make a film that wove many threads together and it’s very moving to see viewers take these different threads that hold resonance for each of them. These have been devastating times. I know I’ve dealt with many losses myself and I made the film for those who have gone and those who are still with us, so to see “The Bengali” now with a group of people who don’t necessarily know each other or even feel comfortable around one another means it’s bringing people together, addressing what I feel is one of the most important social issues of our times, building trust between our different communities, so I hope it’s getting out there, reaching more and more people.

“The Bengali” will screen at DOC NYC on November 13th at 4:45 pm at the IFC Center and available virtually through the DOC NYC online platform from November 14th-28th.