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.

Now Available: the book, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (Harvard University Press, 2013) is now available to order online and through your local bookstores.

13 thoughts on “The Documentary: “In Search of Bengali Harlem”

  1. Hi there – I came across your site, and am so glad this project is being undertaken! I’m from the Lower East Side community of Sylheti Bangladeshis, which also began with migrants from the 1930s and incredible stories of individuals who came through Ellis Island, participated in World War II, and people who continue to visit their other families at Christmas. I’d love to learn more about your project and talk further!

    1. Dinu – Thank you for getting in touch. One of the primary goals of this website is to locate and record the stories of people connected to these early histories of South Asian migration to the U.S. Email me at vbald [at] – it would be great to talk about recording these stories from the Lower East Side. All best, Vivek

  2. Hi Vivek,

    It is SO exciting to hear about the documentary and I cannot wait to read your book. I was in touch with Alauddin back in college (almost 8 years ago!) about this documentary, when I was president of Rutgers Bengali Students Association, I wanted to help him fundraise but was unable to due to being busy with is so wonderful to see this get off the ground! I am friends with Dinu as well through our activist network and we connected on our stories and about ideas of doing something that may reveal the journeys of our forefathers in NYC. My great granduncle was the first Bangladeshi man in NYC, and he and his brothers were part of the group of men you mention in these stories. My other uncle, Mr. Masood Chaudhury passed a way a few years ago, lived in Harlem till his death, and I remember Alauddin telling me all of these stories about him. Like Dinu, I would also like to connect, this is very exciting and I think we have a lot to share!

  3. Very interesting and important work, Vivek. I am supportive of your project and will follow the progress of the film and other archive material on this subject.

  4. What a wonderful project this is! My father was Indian from the Bombay area and came to the US off a ship. He married my mother who was from the West Indies. I just bought your book and can’t wait to read it.

  5. Sharmadip Basu of U. Mich, Ann Arbor, told me of your project. My Sylheti cousins immigrated to London, but more interestingly, my grandfather attended Pittsburgh U. School of Mining 1909-11 after receiving a scholarship from Chittagong. This was part of an effort by successful “native” scholars and businessmen to build up the ranks of professionals who would take over when the British departed. Yes, Bengalis have a lot to look back on. I’m glad you’re doing this.

  6. Vivek, Bravo! Very keen to see the final work.

    You wrote in the book of the Bengali community’s connection with Malcolm X, I would love to see more about it, particularly that Ibrahim Chowdhury knew him personally?!?
    That’s awesome. Would love to have a screening of it for the grassroots community organisations.

    Melbourne, Aus

  7. THANK YOU so much for doing this great ethnographical work on a overlooked part of US history.

    My family heavily reflects the history you have caputed in your work. My Father’s uncle a British Indian Merchant Mariner jumped ship in Boston Harbor and wound up in NYC in the 1930’s. He then settled and marries a African American and raised a family in Williamsburg BK. My own father and grandfather joined in the 1960’s from East Pakistan. My Father mde the move to Paterson NJ as one of the founding Bengali fathers of that city – A city with a Bangladeshi population number around 30,000 now, as well as elected officials in its government. I myself was born in Paterson and identified more with Latino and Black culture and did not have a strong affinity to South Asia until attending univeristy. I would love to capture my family’s part in your documentary if possible.

  8. This relates up to 95% of what my mother used to always tell me about her grandad. She said he lived in Kolkata but was Bengali and went on a ship to all these different countries as a captain. He came to England, Australia and many other countries i would really love to learn the history of my family.

  9. As a student who had minored in Asian American Studies but was extremely disappointed by the lack of information about the history of Bengalis in America, I am just thrilled to have come across this book because now future generations of students who get a degree or minor in Asian American Studies can reference back to this book for historical facts and stories of seamen, ship-jumpers and courageous men who paved the way for us to have a future in this country.

    I also wanted to add that my husband’s uncle was one of the first Bengalis in America. I just can’t believe the stories about him jumping a ship to enter America were all true! His family has many photos from the 1920s and so many stories about his life in America. I know his family would love to share his stories with you.

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