THE BENGALI (2022, doc)

Greetings again from the darkness. We don’t often get tales in documentaries, but that’s the interesting approach documentarian Kavery Kaul takes here. Rather than reporting only the results, Ms. Kaul travels with Fatima Shaik as she pursues answers to the questions of her family’s roots.

Ms. Shaik is an African-American writer from New Orleans, and she’s on a quest to find out if all the stories she heard growing up are true. The only way to know is for her to travel to the village in India where her grandfather, Shaik Mohamed Musa, lived prior to emigrating to the United States in the very late 19th century. She carries one photo of him.

Fatima is friendly enough as she works her way through the village, but it’s fascinating to see how the locals treat her. First, they have never seen an African-American, and her skin color is a topic of discussion. But more importantly, they are clearly suspicious of her, and even say, she “doesn’t belong here.” The language barrier causes some issues, but mostly they view Fatima as a threat – someone attempting to reclaim land owned by her ancestors. Further distrust occurs because Fatima is a Christian, and the Catholic Church is not trusted here.

Her encounters with the villages are interesting, and it provides a case study in how humans react to those who look and talk differently … it’s not a reaction limited to white Americans. For the most part, director Kaul’s travelogue approach works, and Fatima gets the results she was seeking. Perhaps the time with the locals could have gone deeper, but the 70-minute run time feels just about right.

The film opened at the Quad in NY on September 9, 2022 and will open at the Laemmle Royal in LA on September 16, 2022


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