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Fatima Shaik in The Bengali directed by Kavery Kaul’s
Fatima Shaik in The Bengali directed by Kavery Kaul’s

Fatima Shaik, an African-American author (Economy Hall) from New Orleans, and whose family has lived in Louisiana for four generations, embarks upon an unlikely quest from The Big Easy to a part of India where no African-American (or American) has ever gone. Her search for the past is fraught with uncertainty as she looks for her late grandfather Shaik Mohamed Musa’s descendants, land he claimed to own and the truth behind the stories she grew up with. Her incredible journey is told in award-winning filmmaker Kavery Kaul’s (Cuban Canvas, Long Way From Home) new feature documentary The Bengali.

Winner of the Special Jury Award at Roxbury Film Festival and the International Humanitarian Award at Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival, The Bengali will make its Louisiana Premiere at New Orleans Film Festival. The Bengali will make its Louisiana Premiere at New Orleans Film Festival. The film will screen in person on Nov. 9 at 5:45pm at the Broadside and Nov. 13 at 12pm at Broad Theater, and will also screen virtually from Nov. 5-21 (virtual screenings are geoblocked for viewing online in Southern U.S. states only).

The Bengali reaches across seemingly insurmountable cultural divides to shed light on timely issues, telling a boldly different story of immigration to reclaim timeless themes of family. Kaul, who is originally from Kolkata herself, travels with Shaik to the big city of Kolkata, the countryside of Bengal and through the streets of New Orleans, with unique access to people and places in both countries. Their trek is tempered with hope, fear and surprising encounters with strangers.

Fatima Shaik in The Bengali directed by Kavery Kaul’s
Fatima Shaik in The Bengali directed by Kavery Kaul’s

Nuance and intimacy mark the filmmaking style. With lively animation, seamless editing and evocative music, The Bengali blends form and content to forge a dynamic work of creative nonfiction about a woman’s journey in search of her past. Through Shaik’s moving and inspiring pursuit, The Bengali tells the untold story of ties between South Asians and African-Americans in the U.S. In the late nineteenth century, the newly arrived men from India married African-American women. The men were Muslim; their wives were Christian. Together, they built families in an America that held them all at arm’s length. Shaik is a granddaughter of this vibrant cultural tangle. Kaul reveals how an essential chapter of history has been ignored—until now. The Bengali adds significant richness to the legacy of migration.

“Filming in the American South and a South Asian village on the opposite side of the world, I want to give viewers a chance to walk in the shoes of someone they may never meet. And to discover family they never expected. That’s the only way to break down the barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’,” said Kaul. “I’m so excited to screen the film in New Orleans where this story began.”

Fatima Shaik in The Bengali directed by Kavery Kaul’s
Fatima Shaik in The Bengali directed by Kavery Kaul’s

Kaul adds, “Black and brown immigrant populations are continually pitted against each other, but in reality, African American and South Asian populations in the U.S. have a long history of meaningful associations. The Bengali makes these connections stronger and even more relevant. And I wanted to make a documentary that challenges the nature of inclusion in our collective past and assumptions about who tells the story. I wanted to shine light on the truth in personal history, memory and myth.”

The acclaimed creative team of The Bengali includes editor/producer Lucas Groth (Cuban Canvas), Executive Producer Deborah Shaffer (Director of the Academy Award Best Documentary Short Winner, Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements), director of photography John Russell Foster (U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award Winner at Sundance Film Festival, Dick Johnson is Dead), composer Nainita Desai (Academy Award Best Documentary Feature nominee, For Sama), animator Maya Edelman (Emmy winner for Broad City) and associate producers Veronique N. Doumbe (Emmy-nominated Black Enuf) and Margot Edman (Credits with BBC, UNICEF and WGBH’s NOVA).

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