Directed by: Anand Kamalakar
Produced by: Zakir Thaver
Streaming on: Netflix
At one point in this documentary about the Nobel laureate and Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, there is a video footage of Hilary Clinton. She is testifying in front of a committee with the forthright arrogance of someone whose knowledge comes from briefings, waxing eloquent on the role of the United States in the late 70s in creating the terrorist outfits they are now trying to fight. It is here that you realize the intention of the makers of this documentary- it is the political, and not the personal that they are enamoured by.
Abdus Salam is an Ahmadi Muslim. In 1974 the Pakistani parliament amended its constitution to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. Chants of them being heretics were pulsating through the fragmenting country. Abdus Salam departed for the West, in disgust.
“Either I must leave my country, or I must leave physics.”
He chose Physics, while refusing to swap his Pakistani passport for a British one. Home is home, even if its regressive gaze averts you. A coup, a military dictatorship, a Nobel Prize, the neurotic pursuit of nuclear violence, the increased sectarian subjugations of the Ahmadis and the Christians ensue in the meanwhile. All of this is shown. His having a son, another son, a wife, and then… a second wife are dropped in as labels on screen as they speak. The disregard for the personal is pretty clear- the makers are satisfied in speaking of Salam in broad strokes: the eccentric, the intelligent, the faithful, the pensive.
There is a moment in the documentary right after he has been awarded the Nobel Prize, (He quotes the Quran in his acceptance speech) when he speaks to one of the reporters present in English. This is followed by a conversation he has in Urdu. The English was about pride and pioneering. The Urdu was about nostalgia and home. It felt like a soft punch in an ageing homesick gut.
The documentary is bookended by footage of his tombstone, lying erect in a graveyard. The sombre tone leaves little to celebrate. For a film that begins in the graveyard, it is quite understandable that it neither tries to nor reaches the soaring euphoria in the life of Salam. I kept thinking of Nandita Das’ Manto, that had far too much reverence in its tone to even hint at the contradictions in the man’s life and imagination. I even thought about An Insignificant Man, that used the careless access and nihilistic tone to craft one of the most stunningly tense documentaries of our time. I wanted this film to scale up to the latter. Instead, this film borrows its tone from Das, ending where it begins, at the graveyard.
The film is dense, there are a lot of images, footage, interviews intercutting the past and the present into a warped tapestry- flip flopping across time to a point where it is no longer relevant what is the past and what is the present. I liked this editing choice, because even today, the circumstances haven’t changed much.
Just last year Atif Mian, a renowned Economist at Princeton was selected as one of the 18-member Economic Advisory Council to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. Coming under pressure from right-wing groups, Mian was asked to step down. The reason: his Ahmadi faith.