It wasn’t planned to be this way, but the coincidence is almost too perfect: the biopic Salam – The First ****** Nobel Laureate played at the DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF) on the day that the newly-elected government of Pakistan asked distinguished economist Atif Mian to step down from the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council because of his Ahmadi faith.
Salam, a 75-minute documentary that stays with you long past its duration, played last week to an audience of largely Pakistanis in Washington DC, from college students and temporary residents to those born and bred in the United States, and those who were young men and women who still lived in Pakistan when a 53-year-old Abdus Salam won his Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979.
The documentary begins with Norwegian-language commentary accompanying the now well-known footage of Dr Salam accepting his Nobel Prize in a sherwani, pagg, and Saleem Shahi khussay. Borrowing from one of his colleagues, who is interviewed in the film, he looked like a Mughal prince among other men dressed like “penguins” in their tuxedos.
In the first few scenes, we learn that Salam was his parents’ favoured child. On the special occasions that the family cooked chicken, a piece was kept aside for him. We see that the government school that he attended as a child still displays a framed photograph of him in his former classroom.
And then we see the jarring image of his tombstone, with the rather illogical phrase “The First Nobel Laureate” on it. There’s some white space between First and Nobel; as if something has been erased. What's missing is the word we can’t utter in relation with Ahmadis for the Constitution of Pakistan decided they can't be called Muslim in 1974.
In a later part of the film, we see how glorious a funeral he had received in 1996. It is hard to imagine any two shots other than these that can better illustrate Pakistan’s descent into religious extremism.
Biopics can easily veer into propaganda to resurrect their subject’s desired image or to present their side of the story. This one is far from it, even as the film is a labour of love for its makers. The film’s producers – both science students and one even has a PhD! – set out on this project when they were struck by how little they knew about Salam considering they’d studied science their entire lives.
This theme is part of the movie when young people in current-day Pakistan are asked what they know about Dr Salam.
At Government College University, Lahore, where Prof. Salam served as head of the mathematics department for several years, a girl admits that she doesn’t know very much about Dr Salam, but describes him as a “cute older man” who smiled a lot and had a white flowing beard. I believe what she was describing is a benevolent face.
It is no wonder that the film took 14 years to complete. It is meticulously researched and sourced using painstakingly obtained archival material. In fact, the producers believe that the Pakistan Television Network, where Salam used to frequently appear, may have deleted some of its footage of him.
But the most priceless information comes from interviews with people who had one degree of separation from Professor Salam. We are welcomed into his home and his workplace; we meet his family and his colleagues, even his former personal assistant, who have rarely spoken about Salam in public before.
As director Anand Kamalkar explained, this allowed the film to piece together a holistic yet intimate picture of a man who was almost always in two places physically and mentally.
The film also touches on some uncomfortable truths about Salam such as the fact that, as the quintessential stereotype of the genius scientist goes, he could be dismissive and rude if you caught him at the wrong time. He would later apologise but not in as many words, his former assistant narrates. The film acknowledges the fact that Salam stayed married to two women at the same time – one from his community and the other a fellow scientist and foreigner – and that the Nobel committee members were rather puzzled when both appeared at the ceremony. This one, in particular, seemed to ruffle some feathers.
An older couple sitting ahead of me was confused; the wife turned to the husband and asked who the white lady was the second time she appeared. “His second wife,” another audience member replied. The older lady was not amused to learn that.
Salam’s role in Pakistan’s quest for a nuclear bomb is also explored at some length in the film. Although he later expressly came out against the use of nuclear energy for anything other than peaceful purposes, he had very much been a part of establishing Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities.
Salam knew his country – he understood that if President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s regime was to be convinced of the need to bring Pakistan into the scientific age, he would have to give something to get something. Like one of his colleagues says in the film, Salam could be a bit of a “user” of people or circumstances that he believed could benefit his ultimate goal.
He wasn’t incorrect in anticipating that trade-off; as the Scientific Adviser to the President of Pakistan in 1961, he was critical to the establishment of Pakistan’s space program (SUPARCO) and the Karachi Nuclear Power Program (KANUPP).
Later, when Prime Minister Bhutto declared the Ahmadis as non-Muslim, he resigned in a heartfelt letter to the premier. One wonders if Salam resigned in the hopes that his influence and contributions as Pakistan’s foremost man of science would force the government to rethink its decision. In the end, though, Bhutto’s political calculus won.
The film is very clear in showing why it was exceedingly important to Salam to be recognized as a “Muslim” scientist from the “third world”, perhaps even more than the knowledge that he could have won the prize 20 years earlier than he actually did. It provides important context into why his diary entry from September 7, 1974 – the day Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim by the Pakistani state – reads “declared non-Muslim, cannot cope.”
To Salam, the 1974 amendment to the constitution displaced not only his identity but the vantage point from which he saw a world that couldn’t quite place him: a third worlder among Westerners, a devoutly religious yet avowedly scientific man among atheists. For someone who had built his entire life around that identity, who saw his fellow physicists’ racist comments and stereotyping of him as his call to answer, this felt like a deep personal blow. Forty-four years later, the blows haven’t stopped.
In a Q&A after the film's screening, the producers said that Salam’s second wife had earnestly asked that his biopic be a happy film. And, in some ways, it is, for onscreen you see Abdus Salam as an incorrigible go-getter in absolute love with his work, the smiling hero of a rags-to-riches story almost straight out of a fairy tale.
However, if Pakistan’s treatment of its Ahmadi citizens weighs on your conscience, you will not exit the cinema feeling good.
Salam – The First ****** Nobel Laureate is meant to celebrate the life of a man who derived so much happiness from his work, yet we cannot partake in this happiness for we could risk landing up in jail -- or worse.