Salam: A Biopic Or An Eye Opener?

Abdus Salam
Courtesy: Kailoola Production

The documentary of the legendary Dr. Abdus Salam took almost fourteen years to be made since the interviews and material used were very difficult to obtain. This 75-minute long documentary was screened at DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF), coincidentally seven days ago, when the recently elected government asked Atif Mian to resign from his post in the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council because of his Ahmadi faith, can I just point out the irony.

After the painstaking 14 years taken to make this documentary, it was finally played to a large audience in Washington DC. The audience was largely made up of Pakistani’s and ranged from children to old people; all of whom were eager to know more about the Nobel Prize winner.

Titled Salam, the documentary starts off with Farsi narration and Dr. Abdus Salam receiving the noble prize dresses in traditional wear including a ‘pag’ and ‘khussay’. The next few scenes establish that Dr. Abdus Salam was very well loved and pampered by his parents. The movie takes us to his government school where his picture now hangs as an ode to him.

Then comes the jarring image of his grave where his tomb stone reads: “The First Nobel Laureate” but it seems like a word has been erased as there is space between the word First and Nobel. The missing word is that which you can’t utter when talking about an Ahmadi for the Constitution of Pakistan stated in 1974 that Ahmadi’s can’t be called Muslims. The bitter truth in Salam, stays with you long past its duration, the impact is hard to shake off.

Salam, the 75-minute documentary also shows the magnificent  funeral Dr. Abdus Salam received on 1996, but that also makes reality strike harder as you realize Pakistan’s sad descent into intolerance and extremism.

Most biopics easily deviate towards propaganda, but this one was well balanced and beautifully illustrated the internal conflict that Pakistan as a nation goes through. From Salam being the most priceless possession during Bhutto’s reign to Salam having to resign with a heavy heart after being declared non-Muslim (and Bhutto didn’t even bat an eye). This scene leaves one wondering if Salam resigned in the hopes that a man of his stature and with all his contributions to Pakistan, would make the government re-evaluate their decision. In the end, though, Bhutto’s political calculus won. This movie is a definite eye opener and no better time to watch it as a Pakistani.

Both the film producers are science students and they stumbled upon the idea the day they realized that being science students, they knew nothing about Pakistan’s greatest scientist even though they had studied science all their lives. One of the theme of the movie is our youth’s lack of knowledge of our leaders. In a very impactful scene was from a government collage in Lahore, where when asked what she remembered about Professor Abdus Salam, a girl could only describe him as being a “cute older man” and having a kind face. Even though he served as the Dean of the mathematics department for numerous years.

Obtaining footage for this documentary was a painstaking task, the makers had to get most of his interviews from PTV and they also felt that some of the footage was missing. This is probably why this project took so long. Some of the most valuable information came from the interviews of people who were a part of Dr. Abdus Salam’s life. The documentary sheds light on his personal life, his colleagues and even his former personal secretary.

Dr Abdus Salam wasn’t painted in divine holistic light, he was shown as he was; the good and the bad. Even if the truth was uncomfortable, it was shown. Dr. Abdus Salam was known to be rude and mean at many times, he was also not a man of much words. This was depicted in his former assistant’s narration of his experience. He was married to two women at the same time, one from his community and the other was a foreigner, both attended the Nobel Prize ceremony, leaving the committee members seriously confused.

The role played by Dr. Abdus Salam in obtaining nuclear bomb for Pakistan was also explored in the documentary. It showed how he convinced Pakistan that in the age of science, being able to protect yourself was essential yet at the same time it showed that he believed in the theory of means to an end.

Salam – The First Muslim Nobel Prize Winner was wad to rejoice and celebrate the life of an accomplished man whose work made him happy, yet you can only partake in it if you remove one crucial word from the title.

This is definitely a good watch, but you need to keep your heart mind and soul open.