The Documentary: “In Search of Bengali Harlem”

Preview of In Search of Bengali Harlem, a documentary feature film currently in production, with support from the CAAM Documentary Fund and the Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media, and fiscal sponsorship from IFP-NY.

PLEASE DONATE: In Search of Bengali Harlem is a 2019 recipient of the Center for Asian American Media’s (CAAM) Documentary Fund. This award will license the film for a national broadcast on PBS, in addition to providing roughly one-third of the funding necessary to bring the film to completion. Over the course of 2019, we seek to raise another one-third of our completion funding from tax-deductible individual donations, through a partnership with The Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP), and the final one-third from further grant-writing.

You can help us reach our goal! Donate today! Donated funds will be used to shoot a final series of interviews in the New York City area, to create an original soundtrack in collaboration with the musician and composer Vijay Iyer, and to complete the editing process.

In Search of Bengali Harlem will unearth a unique, little-known story of twentieth-century Harlem and of Muslim immigration to the United States. Between WWI and the 1940s, hundreds of Indian Muslim merchant sailors from the region that is now Bangladesh were either left in port or abandoned their ships in New York City. Here they found work as factory laborers, cooks, dishwashers, and street vendors. By the 1930s, a group of these Bengali men had settled in Harlem, married Puerto Rican and African American women and become a small and quietly integrated part of the larger neighborhood. Following the lead of Alaudin Ullah – a Bangladeshi American actor and playwright in search of answers about his father’s life in Spanish Harlem in the years before Alaudin’s birth – this feature documentary will set out to find and interview some of the remaining members of the “Bengali Harlem” community. Now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, these men and women will narrate the stories of their families: the fathers’ experiences as coal trimmers and stokers on merchant ships, as kitchen and factory workers in New York, and as proprietors of the first Indian restaurants in the city; the mothers’ migrations to New York from Puerto Rico and the U.S. South, their choices to marry Indian Muslim men, and the roles they played in helping their husbands fit in to the multiethnic mix of uptown Manhattan. The sons and daughters will speak of their childhoods navigating Bengali, Latino, and African American families and neighborhoods, going to mosques with their fathers and Catholic, Baptist, or AME churches with their mothers, “becoming American” as they spoke English, Spanish, and Bangla on the streets of post-war Harlem. The film will weave together a range of visual elements – interviews, archival footage, family photographs, and historical documents – with an original soundtrack by celebrated jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, combining the sounds of Bengali folk music, Blues, Jazz, and Bomba.

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