It wasn’t planned to be this way, but the coincidence is almost too perfect: the biopic Salam – The First Muslim Nobel Prize Winner played at the DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF) on the day that the newly-elected government of Pakistan asked distinguished economist Atif Mian to step down from the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council because of his Ahmadi faith.
Salam, a 75-minute documentary that stays with you long past its duration, played last week to an audience of largely Pakistanis in Washington DC, from college students and temporary residents to those born and bred in the United States, and those who were young men and women who still lived in Pakistan when a 53-year-old Abdus Salam won his Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979.
The documentary begins with Farsi-language commentary accompanying the now well-known footage of Dr Salam accepting his Nobel Prize in a sherwani, pagg, and Saleem Shahi khussay. Borrowing from one of his colleagues, who is interviewed in the film, he looked like a Mughal prince among other men dressed like “penguins” in their tuxedos.
In the first few scenes, we learn that Salam was his parents’ favoured child. On the special occasions that the family cooked chicken, a piece was kept aside for him. We see that the government school that he attended as a child still displays a framed photograph of him in his former classroom.
And then we see the jarring image of his tombstone, with the rather illogical phrase “The First Nobel Laureate” on it. There’s some white space between First and Nobel; as if something has been erased. What’s missing is the word we can’t utter in relation with Ahmadis for the Constitution of Pakistan decided they can’t be called Muslim in 1974.
In a later part of the film, we see how glorious a funeral he had received in 1996. It is hard to imagine any two shots other than these that can better illustrate Pakistan’s descent into religious extremism.
Biopics can easily veer into propaganda to resurrect their subject’s desired image or to present their side of the story. This one is far from it, even as the film is a labour of love for its makers. The film’s producers – both science students and one even has a PhD! – set out on this project when they were struck by how little they knew about Salam considering they’d studied science their entire lives.
But the most priceless information comes from interviews with people who had one degree of separation from Professor Salam. We are welcomed into his home and his workplace; we meet his family and his colleagues, even his former personal assistant, who have rarely spoken about Salam in public before.
As director Anand Kamalkar explained, this allowed the film to piece together a holistic yet intimate picture of a man who was almost always in two places physically and mentally.
The film also touches on some uncomfortable truths about Salam such as the fact that, as the quintessential stereotype of the genius scientist goes, he could be dismissive and rude if you caught him at the wrong time. He would later apologise but not in as many words, his former assistant narrates. The film acknowledges the fact that Salam stayed married to two women at the same time – one from his community and the other a fellow scientist and foreigner – and that the Nobel committee members were rather puzzled when both appeared at the ceremony. This one, in particular, seemed to ruffle some feathers.
An older couple sitting ahead of me was confused; the wife turned to the husband and asked who the white lady was the second time she appeared. “His second wife,” another audience member replied. The older lady was not amused to learn that.