Monday, March 15, 2010

An update on the Abdus Salam Documentary


A while back I had posted about an ambitious effort to make a documentary about Abdus Salam - Pakistan's only Nobel Laureate (he shared the 1979 physics prize with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow for their work on the unification of electromagnetic and weak forces). It seems that things are moving along. I recently got an e-mail from one of its Executive Producers, Zakir Thaver, who informed me that they have finished filming in Pakistan and are planning on doing the European bit (London, Oxford, Cambridge, Trieste, and Geneva) in August 2010. The Friday Times also has this excellent piece about Abdus Salam and the efforts behind this documentary.
However, most importantly, the film makers are trying to raise funds for the project. The whole project is expected to cost in the range of $500,000 - a modest budget for an ambitious project. Why would raising funds be difficult in Pakistan? Well, sadly it is in large part because of Salam's faith. He belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect - a sect whose members are openly discriminated against in Pakistan. As I have pointed this out before, in order to get a Pakistani passport, one has to declare that
Ahmadi's are non-Muslims (yes - this open discrimination in the 21st century). Salam's own gravestone was defaced: the epitaph read "First Muslim Nobel Laureate", but the word "Muslim" was later erased on the orders of the local magistrate (see picture on the right - click to enlarge it and then see the erased part in english). So it is not surprising that it has been difficult raising funds for the project:
With Salam’s picture hanging in their classrooms, these students and teachers at Government High School, Jhang, are the epitome of dedication to Salam’s dream. As Zakir and Omar describe to me just how much these children who have never even seen Salam are in awe of the man, I begin to wonder why everyday Pakistanis find it difficult to put their money where their mouth is. People completely willing to donate back off the minute they discover Salam’s faith. Despite the option of donating anonymously at the documentary’s website, few have used that option to donate even a few dollars to this cause.

Still, Zakir and Omar do not lose hope. They continue to ‘work by day and hustle by night’, as filmmaker Mira Nair advised them to. Just when they are about to lose hope, a small $50 donation coupled with a friendly, supportive email sends the two onto cloud nine, and they are back, working with the same fervour as before
. Former students of the ICTP regularly email them telling them how Dr Salam has ‘changed their life’. “Just a $20 donation with a nice email makes us so happy, we spend the next hour online talking about how good it feels,” chuckles Omar.

“Ramanujan inspired a generation of Indian scientists. Madam Curie, a woman from Poland continues to be an inspiration to this day. Salam’s story has the potential to do the same,” Omar points out. Zakir and Omar plan to do just that: one of their dearest plans is to show the documentary to the children at Salam’s old school in Jhang.

With the likes of Sabiha Sumar (director of Khamosh Pani), Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, Dr Ahmed Zewail (the only other Muslim Nobel Prize winner besides Salam), Dr Moeen Qureshi and Charles Townes (another Nobel Laureate) on board for their project, one can expect a lot from Omar and Zakir, provided they have the finances in the future to continue with their project uninterrupted.
This project is more than just about documenting a personality. It is also about tolerance, pluralism, and seeing beyond one's beliefs. I wish the film makers all the success! Please check out the website for the film and if you find the project worthy, please donate here - even if it's only $20. You can also see Behind the Scenes pictures here. Also, read The Friday Times article here.

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