Five months in India! The possibility of a long-term experience abroad inspired me to apply for a Fulbright. This motivation was also predicated on the discovery that a Fulbright Scholar could be a filmmaker, like me, and is not limited to just researchers and professors. Creative expression, documentary exploration, non-academic field research – these fields are welcome in the Fulbright program. And Fulbright even allows families to accompany the grantee, which was important in my case.
With a Fulbright grant in hand, I flew to Kolkata to make a documentary about the American writer Fatima Shaik, whose grandfather sailed from Kolkata to the United States in 1893. Mohamed Musa was one of the first Indians in the U.S. He was also the only Bengali Muslim in Fatima’s African-American Christian New Orleans family.
I took Fatima on her first trip to India in a reverse journey that tells a story of the Indian diaspora and the making of America. It’s also a look at present-day Kolkata and New Orleans, as well as an insight into intercultural/interfaith differences that merit recognition, but need not keep us apart.
For me, it was a return to the city where I was born. I was able to have many cups of tea with the filmmakers, writers, historians, artists, and philosophers of this city. I spent time roaming the streets of Kolkata and the villages of Hooghly to prepare for the principal cinematography I completed with an international Indian and American production team.
In Kolkata, I was affiliated with the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute (SRFTI) where I spoke to students about my work and theirs. In fact, the production team of my documentary included SRFTI faculty in major roles, with students as assistants.
For my children who were in Kolkata with me, there was a warm reception at the neighborhood stores whenever they went by themselves. They were inspired by the places they visited. For all of us, it was an opportunity to develop close professional and personal relationships---the ties at the heart of a deeper, lasting friendship between peoples.