Review: Kavery Kaul’s ‘The Bengali’

The Bengali Documentary Review - 2021 Kavery Kaul Film

The travel skeptic is usually the same person who doesn’t find value in cinema beyond popcorn entertainment. This individual won’t visit the local movie theatre alone. They worry about wasting time; they see a glass half empty. The travel skeptic doesn’t like subtitles. (Oh, that scary one-inch tall barrier.) But there is always hope for such individuals because that one special breakthrough film may inspire them to acknowledge and appreciate the vast possibilities of cinema. The Bengali, a 2021 documentary by filmmaker Kavery Kaul, addresses the dangers of roaming into unfamiliar territory but also celebrates what can be gained from the experience.

The Bengali centers on New Orleans author Fatima Shaik, an African-American woman whose grandfather, Shaik Mohamed Musa, emigrated from India to America in 1893. Kaul’s documentary subject discusses stories about her family heritage, and how the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina inspired her to seek out “a new world.” In the Indian village of Khori, Fatima attempts to gain the locals’ trust while searching for the truth about her grandfather.

The Bengali Documentary Review - 2021 Kavery Kaul Film

Two storytelling techniques stand out in The Bengali. During the first half, Kaul uses her own voice to recreate investigative phone calls about Fatima’s grandfather. There’s a poetic quality, as the filmmaker speaks softly without incorporating a second voice. This device pushes the story forward organically and complements the gentle demeanors of the Khori locals. Secondly, Kaul never shows Fatima stating her intentions beyond looking for information about Shaik. She does, however, repeatedly include footage of villagers who discuss the possibility that their American guest may want to farm land that technically belongs to her family. So, there’s an interesting dynamic as Fatima engages with people who reveal their true thoughts in private conversations with the director. Most of the villagers, if not all, had previously never met an American before; Fatima isn’t just a curious tourist — she’s an Other with unclear motivations, one who eventually manages to ease the locals by dissolving stereotypes.

The Bengali Documentary Review - 2021 Kavery Kaul Film

Fatima’s achievements in Khori allow for some profoundly moving sequences in The Bengali. There are small logistic victories and lively conversations about cultural differences; there’s a dance sequence in which young girls interact with an American for the first time — it’s comparable to Chilean children processing their first experience with cinema in Ignacio Agüero’s 1988 documentary One Hundred Children Waiting for a Train.

In New Orleans, Fatima recalls her Indian journey while speaking with family members. They hear unforgettable stories but also see footage of something that had previously been just a myth. The collective images in The Bengali function as a cultural gateway — the villagers change their worldview through the American’s stories, and Fatima clears up familial rumors in New Orleans about a foreign land that once seemed so far away. There’s plenty of skepticism to be found in The Bengali; however, that’s just the starting point for an important conversation about first encounters, cultural education and life-changing travel experiences.

The Bengali will make its New York Premiere at DOC NYC, November 13 at 4:45pm at IFC Center. Virtual screenings will be available though November 28. 

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.