When comedian and actor Alaudin Ullah and documentarian Vivek Bald debut their new documentary In Search of Bengali Harlem, in San Francisco’s historic Great Star Theater as part of CAAMFest40 on May 14, it will be the closing of a nearly 25 year chapter that the two embarked to uncover a hidden chapter of South Asian American history.
The seeds of what would become In Search of Bengali Harlem were planted in the late 1990s when Ullah began seriously wondering about his family history and his late father’s journey to the United States as a young man. While Ullah knew very little about his father Habib’s early years, he realized early on in his performing career in the 1990s that his late father’s story seemed very different from that of most other South Asians he knew.
My father was here way before all of this
“I was probably the only comedian that had performed in every region in America that had South Asians. it didn’t matter if I was in Colorado or North Dakota or Seattle or Florida. I was in these communities,” Ullah recalled. “But when they would talk about the diaspora, I just felt like, ‘man, my father, was here way before all of this,” he said, referring to the fact that most South Asians in the United States settled here after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. “And I knew his contemporaries who were here before him told stories about coming here on boats. So I felt that there was something there. I just had this hunch.”
That hunch led Ullah to approach Bald in 1999 about possibly collaborating on a documentary project. While both were part of New York’s vibrant South Asian American arts scene in the 1990s, the two had never officially met before Ullah began thinking about his father’s story. A mutual friend, the late director Prashant Bhargava, agreed that Bald would be a good fit for the project, so Ullah decided to set up a meeting and invite him to the show he was working on at the time. Bald, who was then best known for his 1994 documentary Taxi-Vala, was immediately intrigued. “ As Alaudin told me the initial elements of his father’s story, I was just so struck by it because it went against the grain of everything that I thought I knew,” said Bald. “It just stood out so much from what I had learned about South Asian American history.” As Bald and the film note, the story of South Asian Americans tends to begin with the migration of Punjabi Sikh farmers to the United States in the 1800s. “Then there was this assumption that the door closed in 1917, with the Asiatic Barred Zone. And then the next step in the story was always 1965,” with the passage of the landmark immigration legislation, noted Bald. “That is what led to those larger history detective-type questions. I wanted to find out whether Alaudin’s father was — like I say in the film — part of this larger history that hadn’t been recorded.”
But attempting to uncover an unrecorded history came with a myriad of challenges. The first was that Ullah – whose father died when he was 14 – only had faintly recalled stories of his father’s early years to go on. He did know that Habib Ullah arrived in New York City in the 1920s after spending his childhood in what is now known as Bangladesh. Habib would settle in the iconic neighborhood of Harlem and would marry a local Puerto Rican woman and start a family. After his first wife’s tragic passing, Habib would marry again to a fellow Bengali in his 50s and start a second family. His youngest, Alaudin, would be born when he was 60. Alaudin and all of his siblings would grow up in Harlem surrounded by the Black and Puerto Rican neighbors and the thriving hip hop scene of the 1970s and 80s.
“What became clear as we got started was that our narrative started with the fact that Alaudin’s father had died when Alaudin was so young and while he was also in midst of a kind of rebellion,” said Bald. Ullah noted that his parents also rarely talked about their early lives or life in Bangladesh, even as they held on to the traditions they grew up with. “It’s funny, my father always wore a lungi around the house, still ate paan, always cooked curry and his English was very broken,” recalled Ullah. “My dad was Bengali until the day he died. They wanted us to be American but they held on to their culture.”
In order to retrace Habib Ullah’s story, Alaudin Ullah and Bald relied heavily on the memories of Alaudin’s older half-siblings and the recollections of his father’s oldest friends, men Ullah knew as his chachas– Bengali for uncle – in the New York City area. They found that Habib and hundreds of other Bengali New Yorkers were once steamship workers who left port from the Bay of Bengal in the 1920s and worked on steamer ships owned by British shipping magnates. Racist policies at the time meant that Bengali workers were almost always confined to working in the belly of the ship shoveling coal into the engines. “It was very racially stratified,” said Bald. “The worst kinds of labor were given to South Asian and other colonial workers.”
Ullah notes that the fact that so many workers were willing to endure those horrific conditions showed just how much they wanted something more than the futures they saw for themselves in South Asia. “I think what those men were being offered was an opportunity — because those boats went to London, New York, Maryland, and New Orleans. I think those men got there and said, ‘You know what, I’ll take my chances in New York,’” said Ullah. “That was the generation that went from pushcart to dishwashers, to entrepreneur.”
Building new lives in Black and Latino neighborhoods
As they continued to research this newfound community, Bald was particularly struck by the fact that so many Bengali ship workers were able to build new lives for themselves in New York and other major American cities in historically Black and Latino neighborhoods like Spanish Harlem. “They weren’t forming ethnic enclaves. By necessity they disappeared into these other communities,” said Bald. “And the only communities that actually welcomed them were communities of color.” It was his desire to find out more about this community, that led him to pursue a PhD in history so that he could continue tracing the origins of Bengali Harlem. His book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America was published to acclaim in 2013. Ullah would also head to graduate school while working on the documentary, enrolling in Columbia University’s MFA program.
While they both continued their research and work on the film throughout the 2000s, both directors note that funding and support from the Center for Asian American Media was critical to Bengali Harlem’s completion. “The documentary was really saved by CAAM and getting the funding because it’s so difficult to fund these projects,” said Ullah. “Which is why it takes multiple years to put on this kind of project.”
As In Search of Bengali Harlem’s much anticipated premiere approaches, both Bald and Ullah hope the film will spark a wider discussion about what it means to be South Asian American. “I first met and started talking about the film in the late 1990s representations of South Asians in popular media were practically non-existent and limited to really demeaning caricatures like Babu Bhatt on Seinfeld, Apu on the Simpsons, etc,” said Bald. While there has been a notable and impressive rise in South Asian American stars in Hollywood since 2000, he notes that they tend to come from wealthier, upper class and upper caste backgrounds. “Ours is only one film, but we want it to contribute to changing that situation – changing that imbalance in whose South Asian stories get told.”
Lakshmi Gandhi is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City. She often covers children’s literature and arts and culture and is the co-editor of the popular Indian American newsletter The Lakshmi and Asha Show.
“In Search of Bengali Harlem” will make its world premiere at 6:00 p.m. Saturday, May 14 at the Great Star Theater in San Francisco Chinatown. For tickets and more details, visit CAAMFest.com.