SIKH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2009: DOCUMENTARY
Who Do You Think You Are - Meera Syal
Director: Safina Uberoi
Who Do You Think You Are was a ten part BBC series in which each episode took a British celebrity back through their personal family history to reflect on the larger histories which have shaped Britain.
Meera Syal is best known for her work as writer and actor on the landmark British television series Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumar’s at Number 42. In the documentary, Meera starts her journey in her parent’s home in Britain where her mother and father have lived for the last forty years. Although they have strong memories of growing up India, they have very little information about their family history. Meera realizes that her journey into the past is going to be one of real discovery for the whole family.
Meera travels to India, landing in the capital of Delhi. Meera’s parents are unusual in that they had a ‘love marriage’ rather the traditional marriage ‘arranged’ by the family. Her mother is Sikh, but her father came from a Hindu family. Meera decides to begin her journey with her father’s family:
Meera’s paternal grandfather was a journalist and wrote for Milaap, an Urdu language newspaper for 3 decades. Milaap, was originally published from Lahore, but after the Partition of India it’s offices moved to Delhi. Meera’s first appointment is with the current editor of Milaap. The editor’s grandfather sounded the paper and he recalls Meera’s grandfather as a vocal journalist, often difficult, and a bit of a rebel. As they talk Meera gets a portrait of a man who was outspoken against British rule and even had to go underground to avoid arrest.
Meera’s next stop is her father’s brother who also lived in Delhi and knows the family history. She is met by the noisy and cheerful enthusiasm of a big Indian family. After lots of big hugs and plates of hot food, Meera’s uncle tells her that the family records are in Haridwar, a holy city on banks of the Ganges at the foothills of the Himalayas.
The next day Meera’s aunt and uncle take her to Haridwar. The city is flooded with pilgrims, tens of thousands pour in everyday to bathe in the holiest of Indian rivers. In the crowded back lanes, Meera meets the family Priest. The Priests of Haridwar have been keeping family records for about 800 years- long before Europeans started compiling population data. It takes several hours of patient waiting as Priest combs through his manuscripts, but in the end Meera is able to trace her family back 7 generations. That evening Meera joins half a million pilgrims as they worship together on the banks of the holy Ganges.
Meera decides to Lassara, her father’s village in the northern state of Punjab, which is mentioned in all the records as ‘home’. She drives along dusty highways till she reaches the verdant green fields of the Punjab to a charming village called Lassara. Here she makes enquiries about her father’s family and is directed to the village Priest who maintains the old land records. The records were drawn up in the 1880’s by British administrators on long bales of cloth. The old Priest sits with a friend and unravels the cloth, looking for Meera’s family. It turns out that almost one-third of the village were Syals, and as the hot afternoon wears on the Priest is unable to find Meera’s family. Meera gives up and decides to go for a walk- and makes a completely unexpected discovery- In the back lanes of the village an old man comes up to her. He actually lives in the house which belonged to her grandfather. The old man welcomes Meera to his home, she meets his family and sees the buffalos still standing in the old cow shed. With tears in her eyes, Meera takes a brick from the home her father left 60 years ago.
Meera’s parents met in Delhi and belong to different religions, but both came from villages in the Punjab. Meera decides to drive to her mother’s ancestral village Bassian, which is only a few hours away from Lassara. Meera is met by her mother’s sister and an uncle who take Meera to a beautiful old homestead, crumbling but still full of charm. Meera is deeply moved to stand for the first time in the home where her mother grew up.
Meera’s aunt and uncle start to tell her about her maternal grandfather and she learns that he too was part of India’s freedom movement. Meera’s grandfather Phulan Singh went on the Jaito Morcha, a protest march in the 1920’s in which thousands of Sikh peasants marched in peaceful protest against the British administration. Meera learns for the first time that her grandfather was arrested along with many thousands of other protestors and imprisoned for almost 2 years.
Inspired by Phulan Singh’s story, Meera decides to go to Jaito, the site of the protests. Jaito is a small village where the British, suspicious of any large gatherings, had banned Sikhs from collecting at their local place of worship- the Jaito Gurudwara (Sikh temple). Meera arrives at the Gurudwara in mid afternoon, the sun beating down on it’s white marble steps. While offering her prayers, she meets an old man who knows the whole history of the Jaito Morcha. He shows Meera where the protestors marched and how they crossed their arms to show they were not carrying any weapons. And he points out the site where many were shot, massacred by British police.
Inspired by the courage of the protestors, Meera follows their trail back to Amritsar, the holiest city for the Sikhs. It was in Amritsar that the protestors gathered from all around the Punjab, collecting at the Golden Temple at to take a vow of non violence before they began their long march to Jaito. At the Golden Temple, Meera meets with the Librarian who has researched the Jaito Morcha. He shows her a large volume which commemorates all those who fought for freedom in Punjab. Meera is deeply moved to find her grandfather Phulan Singh remembered in the book.
The Librarian then sits Meera down to show her some extraordinary photographs of the Jaito Morcha. The photographs show how hundreds of protestors would gather at the Golden Temple, recorded their commitment to the struggle, and then marched over several days to Jaito. There they were be met by the colonial Police and arrested. Bound by their vow of non-violence, the protestors never resisted arrest even when facing batons or gun fire. Over the 2 years of the Jaito Morcha 40,000 Sikhs were sent into prison. The jails were often in make shift outdoor compounds and the living conditions were terrible. Hundreds died in jail.
Meera is overwhelmed by the huge sacrifice made by these ordinary people for India’s freedom. Meera walks around the Golden Temple, watching the sun set over the golden dome and the waters of the holy pool turn crimson. As pilgrims around her offer their prayers, Meera reflects on how the history of movements like the Jaito Morcha was never mentioned in the schools she went to in Britain.
At last Meera is on the night train back to Delhi. She thinks about how India’s hard won freedom was betrayed by the Partition of India. But with her sadness, there is also the deep satisfaction of having truly found her family’s place in India’s history.
Back in England, Meera meets again with her parents. She tells them the story of her journey and gives each of them a present:
Meera gives her mother a photograph of the group of 500 protestors which includes her grandfather Phulan Singh. For her father Meera has a piece of the red brick from the family home he left behind over half a century ago. The family is moved to tears.
Safina Uberoi is an Indian-Australian filmmaker. Safina studied film at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in Sydney and the Mass Communication Research Centre, New Delhi. She has directed a number of award winning documentaries including most recently A Good Man for Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV which has won Best Australian Documentary at the Sydney Film Festival.
Her other films include My Mother India which won 11 major international awards including the Australian Film Critics Circle Award for Best Australian Documentary. Safina directed an episode on British Asian writer-actress Meera Syal for the high profile BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? which was nominated for a BAFTA and won an Indie Award. Safina also directed 1-800-India, a documentary for PBS in the US which won the Golden Eagle Awards for journalism.
Safina has taught theatre at the National School of Drama, New Delhi and the national Institute of Dramatic Art, Sydney. She was lecturer in Media at Macquarie University in 2005 and has taught film in a number of Australian institutions.