As a teenager in 1980s Harlem, Alaudin Ullah was swept up in the revolutionary energy of early hip-hop. He rejected his working-class Bangladeshi parents and turned his back on everything South Asian and Muslim. Now, as an actor and playwright in post-9/11 America, Ullah wants to tell his parents’ stories, but has no idea of the lives they led as Muslim immigrants of an earlier era.
This is the premise of In Search of Bengali Harlem, a visually striking and emotionally affecting new feature documentary borne of a more than 20-year collaboration between Ullah and MIT historian and filmmaker, Vivek Bald. The film follows Ullah from the streets of New York City to the villages of Bangladesh to uncover the pasts of his father, Habib, and mother, Mohima. Through a series of rich encounters with long-lost friends and family, old photographs and century-old archival documents, Alaudin discovers that Habib was part of an extraordinary history of mid-20th century Harlem, in which undocumented Bengali Muslim immigrants dodged the era’s Asian Exclusion laws by marrying into New York’s African American and Puerto Rican communities – and in which the likes of Miles Davis and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar shared space and broke bread with men from the Indian subcontinent. After crossing the globe to visit the extended families his parents left behind, Alaudin also unearths 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 Search of Bengali Harlem is a transformative journey, not just for Alaudin Ullah, but for our understanding of the long and complex histories of South Asians and Muslims in America.
In Search of Bengali Harlem will have its New England premiere on Saturday October 22 at the Emerson Paramount Center Theater, 559 Washington Street in Boston as part of this year’s Boston Asian American Film Festival. Directors Vivek Bald and Alaudin Ullah will be in attendance for a post-screening discussion.
The filmmakers’ goals for the film are two-fold: to foreground the stories of working class, Muslim, and undocumented South Asians that are largely obscured by the dominant image of South Asians as doctors, engineers, and tech CEOs; and to highlight the ways South Asian Muslims, African Americans, and Latinx Americans have built lives together on the margins of full citizenship.
The film features the music of jazz artists Vijay Iyer and Yosvany Terry, vocalists Ganavya and Imani Uzuri, tabla master Zakir Hussain, and the Bangladeshi American rapper Anik Kahn. It was produced with the support of the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms initiative, the Center for Asian American Media, and the Whiting Foundation.
A trailer, short excerpts, and EPK are available at the following links:
- Trailer: https://vimeo.com/553964655
- Preview 1: https://vimeo.com/700149096
- Preview 2: https://vimeo.com/700149134
- Preview 3: https://vimeo.com/553964655
- Electronic Press Kit
The Boston Asian American Film Festival presents the New England Premiere of:
In Search of Bengali Harlem
Directed by Vivek Bald and Alaudin Ullah
Produced by Susannah Ludwig | Edited by Beyza Boyacioglu
Documentary | 84 Minutes | USA | English/Bengali
Q&A with filmmakers after the screening
Saturday, Oct 22 @ 5:30 PM
Emerson Paramount Center
Bright Family Screening Room
559 Washington Street, Boston
Co-presented by SubDrift Boston