By Mayank Chhaya
Chicago, The baffling and paradoxical life of Dr. Abdus Salam, the first Pakistani and Muslim to win a Nobel Prize for Physics, is a subject of a compelling documentary by New York-based Indian American filmmaker Anand Kamalakar.
Salam (1926-1996) is a dichotomous figure in the world of science. He once said: “I would never have started to work on the subject (physics) if I was not a Muslim.” Yet, in his lifetime, not only was he shunned by Pakistan, the place of his birth, because he belonged to the outlawed Ahmadiyya sect, but had the misfortune of standing up for science in a country that had no particular interest in it.
Salam once said with clear anguish that when people in the West say Islam is decaying, it is atrophied, asking how many Muslims have won the Nobel Prize. “In Britain we can say one — Abdus Salam, in India we can say Abdus Salam. In Pakistan where he was born we can’t say that because the government has decreed that he is not a Muslim.”
He received his Ph.D in quantum electrodynamics at 24 and went on to do pioneering work in physics. It was only because of Pakistan’s strategic interest in developing nuclear weapons, in whose early development Dr. Salam played a crucial role, that he had a brief period of official patronage.
The documentary ‘Salam’ — produced by Omar Vandal, a doctorate in Immunology and Microbial Pathogenes, and Zakir Thaver, a Karachi-based science/education media producer — was screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival on January 29. Kamalakar answered email questions from IANS. Excerpts:
Q: What prompted you to chronicle the life of Dr. Abdus Salam?
A: The producers Zakir and Omar have always been troubled by the fact that Abdus Salam was not given his rightful place in Pakistan’s history because of his religious beliefs. They have been attempting to make a film to shine a light on his illustrious career since their youth. After almost 10 years of collecting archival material … they approached me through an acquaintance and I was taken by their commitment and the layered story of Salam.
Q: When did you discover that science, particularly physics, and Islam were not necessarily adversarial in Dr. Salam’s estimation but, in fact, complementary?
A: I discovered this while viewing the archival interviews. This aspect always fascinated me about his story. Salam went through a complicated evolution on this subject. We have tried to reveal the best we can on where he stood on this at various stages in his life. He was contradictory and controversial on this subject at many stages in his life.
Q: I ask specifically because that is at the core of his ironic and even somewhat tragic life. Here was a man who considered himself devout Muslim and precisely for that reason, chose to pursue physics, but his own country and culture, revolving around Islam, rejected him so thoroughly. How did you approach that strange dichotomy?
A: This aspect is what drew me to make this film. How did Salam reconcile working in an area of physics, which essentially attempts to prove the absence of god, and here he is, a devout Muslim who attributes his talents to his belief in Islam and god… In this sense, Salam was a bit of a schizophrenic but found a way to rationalise this approach. We reveal this duality in many instances in the film… But we wanted to respect his position and give it credence as he was able to walk that line and be a man of science and religion at the same time.
Q: Were you surprised to discover that he saw no contradiction between a pure physicist and a devout Muslim?
A: More than surprised I was fascinated. One of the reasons the producers and I found common ground is because we are all rationalists. We are non-believers and subscribe to the logic of science more than anything. So when we found that Salam saw no contradiction but in fact believed that the religious text in fact encouraged science and informed his explorations, and reality did not reflect that, it was an intriguing area to explore, especially in a time when Islam is often viewed as a regressive religion in the mainstream.
Q: Since you were dealing with a very sensitive theme, what kind of challenges did you face in obtaining archival audio-visual material as well as interviews?
A: We really did not face any great difficulty in procuring archival material as such. We did face difficulty though in interviewing people with the extreme point of view on the Ahmadi issue. We ended up using clips from YouTube to show the extremist view. I was denied a visa to visit Lahore. I had to hire a cameraman there and manage the shoot remotely. We never received a clear answer why I was denied a visa, even though I am a US citizen. We concluded probably because this issue is still controversial there and I am of Indian origin.
Q: Have you been able to resolve the extent of Salam’s involvement in Pakistan’s nuclear bomb? Journalist and author Tariq Ali says it is not clear whether Salam was involved in Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. Both sides — the Ahmadiyya and the Pakistan establishment — have their own reasons to deny it.
A: I think this is answered in the film quite succinctly. He definitely was involved in the initial stages but then changed his mind.
Q: In the light of the way Salam was treated how do you think it impacted the future of science in Pakistan?
A: We address this is in the film with great emphasis. I think this is the greatest tragedy of his life. The younger generation of Pakistan has suffered the most and science in general has taken a back seat as a result of Salam being exiled. The casualty of any kind of intolerance towards knowledge, intelligence and brilliance are the young. Pakistan has suffered irreparable damage by distancing Salam and his legacy. At its core, this is what the message of our film is. Any kind of intolerance is damaging to the human spirit and soul.