Documentary Review: A New Orleanian traces her roots to “The Bengali”

“The Bengali” is a lovely home movie about finding one’s roots, a simple tale that connects a New Orleans family to its West Bengal patriarch, who came over from India in the late 19th century.

School teacher Fatima Shaik grew up hearing the stories about her grandfather, Mohamed Musa Shaik, and seeing the hookah he’d brought over from India when he landed in New Orleans in 1893. She’d heard the lore about him being an “Oxford” man, from Calcutta, about him having land back in the old country.

The hookah, family homes and family members were lost in Hurricane Katrina. That adds impetus to her quest.

With Indian American filmmaker Kavery Kaul as her translator and the person documenting this journey, she’d go back to Calcutta — or a village close to it — and see how much of this “lore” was fact, and how much was just grandpa over-selling his past.

Through Fatima, a devout Louisiana Catholic, we learn of a number of immigrants from India who made their way to the port of New Orleans and how interested her family and her adult daughters are in this part of their lineage. As Gandhi discovered, growing up in South Africa, people of Indian and later Afro-Indian descent were “Black” to the dominant, segregationist white culture. Being fair-skinned, Fatima’s family felt an “otherness” that appears to have equated with rootlessness.

So she takes off on a big adventure, a stranger in a strange land, but a place that lingers in her DNA and that might jibe with family memories.

Weaving the Cajun accordions of New Orleans with the tablas and sitars of India into the score, Kaul follows, aids and assists Fatima, who works extra hard not to come off as the stereotypical “ugly American.” That’s not easy, as she is an ever-smiling, inquisitive foreigner who asks a lot of question. She stands out in the crowds of her grandfather’s country, and sets off alarm bells in locals every time she mentions “my grandfather’s land.”

Kaul, being more Indian than her film’s subject, becomes the person the locals confide in as she and Fatima track, via an old letter to an Indian lawyer, the village where Mohamed grew up and the land he might have left behind when he emigrated.

Kaul is the one a mistrusting local man says “I can’t tell if she’s black or white” to, who overhears Muslim villagers gripe “She’ll sing Catholic songs,” whom a village elder lectures “She’s from another religion so she can’t be one of us.”

Fatima smiles, tries to teach local girls the “second line” Mardi Gras dance from New Orleans, and never quite figures out how that the way to defuse the local paranoia might be saying “I’m not here to make a claim on his land.” Because as far as we know, that could be her intent.

“Why are you asking SO MANY QUESTIONS?” more than one local wants to know.

In “greedy, wasteful” America, as she knows the locals see “us,” most of “us” know better than to verbally renounce our property rights, after all.

Her encounters with the Catch-22 rabbit hole of Indian bureaucracy — ancient and English-inculcated record keeping, without any hint of English “efficiency” — are as amusing as they are frustrating.

“Madam, I KEEP the records. I can’t SEARCH the records!”

As you can guess by the fact “The Bengali” was finished and merited a release, there is a warm (ish) payoff to their efforts.

That, and the unknown history it dips into, makes the film rewarding enough to merit a look, even if it never quite transcends its limited “home movies made by a professional filmmaker” reach.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Fatima Shaik, Kavery Kaul

Credits: Scripted and directed by Kavery Kaul. A Dada Films release.

Running time: 1:12

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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