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I hope my film’s Netflix release makes Pakistanis see Abdus Salam beyond his Ahmadi faith

Nobel laureate Abdus Salam remains a controversial figure in Pakistan because of his Ahmadi faith. But now, my documentary will finally be seen where it matters most.

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As Netflix releases my documentary Thursday on Pakistani physicist and Nobel laureate Abdus Salam, I recall how after the fifth screening of Salam – The First ****** (Muslim) Nobel Laureate at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival last September, a young woman approached me in the lobby. She was of Pakistani origin. She thanked me for making this film. I could see that the film had visibly moved her.

She had travelled a long distance to attend the screening. Her voice shaking with emotion, the woman confided in me that her father was killed in Pakistan when two Ahmadi mosques were attacked in Lahore in 2010. That’s when it dawned on me how important and iconic the story of Abdus Salam is to so many people in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Now, its Netflix release on 3 October will fulfill our singular goal of having this film seen widely in Pakistan and across the world — for people to know the journey of a man of science and religion who achieved great feats and was ostracized by his own countrymen.


Also read: Pakistan’s first Nobel winner was shunned for being Ahmadi. A documentary brings him back


The trigger

The making of this film has been a long an arduous journey, mostly championed by the steadfastness of its Pakistani-origin producers Omar Vandal and Zakir Thaver.

Omar Vandal is a senior scientist at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Zakir Thaver is a science enthusiast and television producer. Both were colleagues on a US university campus when they decided to embark on a journey to make this film. Filmmaker Mira Nair recommended them to find a director to helm the project, and they found me through a mutual acquaintance.

When they approached me to direct it in 2016, they had already spent twelve years collecting archival material and raising funds by all means necessary.

Documentary director Anand Kamalakar with one of the producers-Zakir Thaver | kailoola.com/salam

Until then I had known very little about Abdus Salam. Having studied physics in my undergraduate years in college and directed another film about a physicist, I had known the name as he was from the sub-continent. But beyond that my knowledge about him was limited.

What instantly triggered my interest in the project was the complex and layered character of the “man” Abdus Salam. He was a child prodigy who came from a remote village and rose to great prominence purely on the basis of his intelligence and his ability to navigate the echelons of power and politics with charisma and tact.

Despite innumerable obstacles and Pakistan rejecting him for his faith, he seemed adept at navigating two worlds at every stage in his life. He reconciled the East and the West, the traditional and the modern, the religious and the scientific, the exiled and the citizen, without much conflict.

This drew me in as a filmmaker and storyteller and ignited my interest in exploring the contradictions and revealing the layers that make Abdus Salam a towering figure even today.


Also read: In the 1970s two imams struck down instant triple talaq, but were ostracised


The distribution challenge

After a challenging year in the editing room, the documentary was completed in 2018. It had its first public screening at a science film festival in Santa Barbara, California, where it won the best film award. Since then, it has won several international awards, and has been screened at more than 30 cities across the world.

From Sri Lanka to the Czech Republic to Holland to India, wherever we have screened the film, it has moved people to tears and inspired many. The response has been overwhelming.

Despite its success at many international film festivals, it was a challenge to get the film distributed, either via a broadcast medium, theatrical release or a streaming platform. Many attempts were made to get an American distributor, but there were no takers. Even many A-list film festivals rejected the film, probably because the story was not “western”, “American” or “edgy” enough.

I sometimes used to make a snide comment when addressing an audience after a screening, saying that Salam was discriminated when alive and is still being discriminated against in death.

After almost a year of trying relentlessly, we approached Vista India, a Mumbai-based digital partner, which showed great interest in representing the film and eventually took it to Netflix.


Also read: Behind the scientific brilliance of Ramanujan & Salam lay religious inspiration


Why Pakistan should watch the film

Unfortunately, due to the volatile political and religious climate in Pakistan, the one place the film would have the greatest significance did not get to see it widely.

But now with the Netflix release, this goal will be achieved, circumventing any censorship or blockade.

And we hope people in Pakistan will embrace this film and restore Abdus Salam’s stature and respect, which is long overdue. Abdus Salam remains a controversial figure in Pakistan for his Ahmadiyya faith. We hope our film will open eyes to see him beyond this aspect.

The violation of human rights of minority communities has continued unabated in the subcontinent. From our political leaders to common citizens, tribalism dominates people’s minds. Religion is used to divide and disenfranchise people on a regular basis. Right-wing nationalism and religious extremism creep into the minds of even the most educated and powerful — thus, sowing the seeds of hate and animosity among different communities.

As filmmakers, we know we cannot change the world with one film. We would be delusional and egotistical if we thought we could.

But what we can certainly do is provoke a discussion, shine light in darkness and force people to consider an alternative that is just and humane.

The producers of Salam are of Pakistani origin and I was born in India. Abdus Salam was born in British India, but eventually migrated and was laid to rest in Pakistan. People in both India and Pakistan carry the painful legacy of Partition.

Although India and Pakistan speak of war more than peace, we hope our small joint contribution to the world speaks of peace, science and humanity more than anything.

Abdus Salam once famously said, “Scientific thought and its creation are the common and shared heritage of mankind”. He said this at a time when the world was bogged down by the Cold War, and parochialism was at its most extreme. It showed that Salam was always thinking global.

This is the message I took away from his life. Science tells us we are much bigger than our differences and ourselves.

The author is a Brooklyn-based film director, producer and editor. Views are personal. 

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18 COMMENTS

  1. This movie is focus more on anti Pakistan bashing And less on his life, especially his work. Your bias against Pakistan is obvious on every third scene. I agree with minorities are not treated well in Pakistan but is there any third world countries where they are treated well? India itself is at bottom of the list. Why don’t you spend some time making a movie about What is happening in Kashmir!
    Govt of India has imposed curfew on the name of development on their own people

  2. Thank you for highlighting professor Abdu’s Salam’s struggle in Pakistan
    We are very proud of him, his scientific achievements and his Nobel Prize
    His legacy will live forever

  3. I think the first thing the writer ‘Anand Kamalakar’ should do a film on people of Occupied Kashmir and highlight 70 years of miseries, and especially on Modi’s fascist government brutalities in Occupied Kashir and in other parts of India

  4. Abdul Salam was and is pride of Pskidtan and the scientific world, we must do everything to keep his name, his achievement and legacy alive on every forum including this documentary, an effort which must be recognized and applauded. Hope that this documentary would inspire many budding scientists particularly in the developing countries such as Abdul Salam’s home country Pakistan to pursue his example.

  5. Dr. Abdus Salam’s achievement in Science is no doubt commendable. However, with regard to the Nobel Prize, I have many doubts about it’s credibility; as I see it as a tool to give projection to some people for specific interests. These interests could by related to international politics or some vested interests to develop divergence in views of a specific country or nation.
    With regard to Dr. Abdus Salam, he is a scientist with acknowledged achievements. The controversy about him arose when he was used by the leaders of Qadiyani religion to convince the then President of Pakistan . . Zia ul Haq that Qadiyanis should be treated as Muslims.
    Dr. Abdus Salam in his meeting with the country’s president, explained that Qadiyanis were declared non-Muslims by Zia’s predecessor Z.A۔ Bhutto due to some misunderstanding and misinterpretation. President Zia listened to Dr. Abdus Salam’s argument with respect. Zia then took out a copy of the Quran in his office bookshelf, and opened the relevant pages that had been amended by the Qadiyani leaders. When Zia asked Dr. Salam about the amendments in the Quran made by his religious leaders, Dr. Salam had no answer, so he left Zia’s office without giving a satisfactory answer. Dr. Salam left Pakistan on his own.
    Nobel prize cannot be made a criteria in matters of religion.

    • thanks sir, I am really fasinated the way you ‘ve described, definitely you ‘ve been there when Zia ul Haq and Dr. Abdus salam were talking . please tell us more about this incident.

  6. Adorable. I am a Pakistani science student , and I have been thinking about his personality and scientific contributions. I had a great feeling that someday Pakistan should admire her genius by making a film on Dr. Abdus Salam. It’s unfortunate that this film is not supported by the Govt. of Pakistan. But I would like to say something that your title is controversial and this is again injustice to Dr. Abdus Salam because he was not a Muslim and we have great respect for him. So in order to make the people understand the work of their genius beyond the religion, you have not deliberately chosen this title. Anyway, great work and Thankyou Dr. Abdus Salam for making us proud. I am sorry sir, I can’t give you that respect in my society that you deserve but the time is changing, we are a new generation that is understanding the differences and admires the minorities

  7. He is an imposter. As he believes in a prophet even after the finality of Prophethood of Hazrat Muhammad Mustafa Peace be Upon Him, he must not be called or portrayed as Muslim.
    As far as the Nobel Prize is concerned we the Muslims don’t give it so much merit. For us love of our Profit Hazrat Muhammad Mustafa Peace be Upon Him is foremost important than any worldly reward.
    We denounce Ahmadiat, Qadianiat and any other imposter belief. We denounce Dr. Abdus Salam.
    To hell with them.

  8. Who gave it this title. It’s a terrible title and of course a blanket statement. Doesn’t help our current state of affairs.

  9. Sir,
    It is really a great work that you are doing to spread HARMONY AND PEACE IN THE WORLD.
    On my part to Establish A HUMBLE BUT A ” SURE REMEDY ” TO THE LONG SUFFERINGS OF CANCEROUS SOCIAL HATE IN OUR NEIGHBOURHOOD FOR NO FAULT OF US TO THE THINGS HAPPENED OR TRANSPIRED DURING AUGUST 1947 I am PERSUING THE GOD FEARING SRI .IMRAN KHAN PAKISTAN PRIME MINISTER TO VISIT INDIA AS A GUEST TO INVITE OUR PRIME MINISTER SRI NÀRENDRA MODI TO CELEBRATE WORLD HOSPICE DAY ON 12th OCTOBER 2019 At A CANCER HOSPITAL IN PAKISTAN IN PRESENCE OF ALL THE GOVERNMENT HEADS OF INDIAN SUB-CONTINENT . To PRIVENT AND PROTECT OUR FUTURE GENERATIONS BY THIS CANCEROUS SOCIAL HATE FOR THE FAULT OF TAKING BIRTH TO OUR PRESENT ENJOYMENTS AND HATEFUL ACTIONS .
    Myself being a 3rd Stage Male Breast Cancer Survivor since 2004 I have Volunteered to Perform 312 SURYA NAMASKARAMS AT THE ABOVE VENUE AS AN HOLISTIC ( AYURVEDA) THERAPY TO GET THE PALLIATIVE MORFEN PEACE TREATMENT TO THIS CANCEROUS SOCIAL HATE AT THE HOSPICE CALLED GOD’S GRACE with RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE AND HARMONY Amongst Ourselves.

    Let us Pray God to Bestow Enough Strength to Sri. Imran Khan to SAVE THE PEACEFUL NEIGHBOURHOOD IN THE INDIAN SUB-CONTINENT FOR EVER .
    With best wishes for betterment,
    Yours sincerely,
    SHIVA KUMAR.T.N. B.Sc.L.L.B.A.M.I.B.M.
    DIRECTOR , YOGAVASISTHA SAMSODHANA KENDRA ,
    No., 13 , 5th CROSS , NR COLONY , BANGALORE – 560019 . Mobile/ WhatsApp : +919483271683

  10. Read about Abdus Salam for the first time while reading ‘Science Reporter’ magazine in late 1970s as a secondary school kid. Didn’t understand at the time that his contribution to the ‘Standard Model’ was so immense.

  11. “Violation of human rights has continued unabated in the Subcontinent”.
    Really. It certainly is true for Pakistan where not just Ahmediyas but Hindus, Christians and others are being prosecuted.
    The epitah on Abdus Salam’s grave in Pakistan has the word Muslim struck out. His sin was he was born an Ahmediya in Pakistan. Had he been in India, he would have been hailed a great Scientist and roads and Institutions named after him. Just look at the adulation APJ Kalam received from Indians and compare that with what Pakistan did to this great Scientist Abdus Salam

    • Had he been in india, he would not have had the chance to have basic education or even if he did he would not have had the chance to get the job that his education demanded. Hint: the state of muslims, dalits and other minorities in India

  12. Would you be interested to raise your concerns as Human being how Kashmir’s are seiged by Indian moodi for last 60 days
    Please
    I wonder how world has gone deaf n dumb on this Hitler legacy
    N when any one will feel the hurt and let them breath freely please

    • Uyghur muslims in China’s detention camps; parents separated from children; young kids’ indoctrination in Chinese way of life in full swing in state schools. Please check out Western media sources.

    • All lies. All is well in India and Kashmir.
      Your terrorists are getting killed and that’s what is making your government fret. Enjoy the show….this is just the trailer.

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