By Rebecca Huval
Filmmaker Sharat Raju is no stranger to the misperceptions that haunt the Sikh community. In 2003, he wrote and directed the Independent Lens short fiction film American Made about a Sikh family stranded in the desert. After the family’s car breaks down, passersby are reluctant to give them a ride because of the father’s turban. The two sons argue with their parents about what it means to wear a turban and how to live comfortably in America.
Since then, Raju and his wife and co-producer, Valarie Kaur, have been working on a documentary for the Yale Visual Law Project, The Worst of the Worst, about a Connecticut supermax prison where inmates are held in solitary confinement for years at a time. After the recent shootings at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the couple paused their project to report on reactions to the tragedy among the Sikh community. A Sikh herself, Valarie Kaur has earned intimate access to Sikh families in Wisconsin. She has also published op-eds for CNN and The Washington Post. Meanwhile, Raju has interviewed families beside her and reflected on how his views of Sikhism have become more nuanced since the making of American Made.
What inspired you to write American Made?
Boy, that’s a long time ago. That was my master’s thesis film at the American Film Institute. My first day of film school was Sept. 10, 2001. A few days after [9/11] I got reports that Indian and Sikh people were getting beat up, and people like my parents, who have lived in America longer than they lived in India, felt the need to put up an American flag to feel safer.
The first hate crime post-9/11 was a shooting of a Sikh man in Phoenix, Ariz. [Ed. note: The Independent Lens film A Dream in Doubt examines this shooting].
There was all this talk of Sikhs not wearing turbans so they could look more American. [In my film], I wanted a son looking at it in a more pragmatic way, and a question of what it means to be and look American. I saw a car stranded on the side of the road and thought, “Would that look suspicious and what would it mean if in that car was a family that looked like my parents? What if it was a turban-wearing Sikh family?”
You wrote the film as your graduate thesis. How has your understanding of the topics in the movie changed since 2002, if at all?
So I wrote it on a very abstract level. I knew something about the Sikh community because I grew up in the Indian American community, but I didn’t know Sikh people personally until I started researching. I didn’t know what it would be like to wear a turban, and it’s a huge part of their identity. My wife is Sikh, so I’ve now been in this community much more than I was then. If I were making the film now, I think I would have taken less chances in the film. The main character goes from being this devout religious man to removing the turban at the end of the film. Now that I know the community better, I don’t know if I would have come up with a story so tight.
What was it like working with Kal Penn? Did you think his decision to work with the White House seemed like a natural fit?
He was great. So I was auditioning characters for that role, and he hadn’t done Harold & Kumar yet. I thought, “We’ll audition him, but maybe he’s just a comedy guy.” But he’s an amazing actor, he has a deep understanding. He wanted to know everything about what his character had studied in college — he was very method. And he was a huge part in getting the younger kid [Te’Amir Yohannes Sweeney, who played Kumar's younger brother] to be a little bit loose. He made everyone feel comfortable because he’s so funny.
I know he’d always been inclined politically, and with Obama he started campagining and going to colleges to say, “Kumar is telling you to vote for Obama.” He was very instrumental in getting the college vote, and got a master’s degree in public policy [Ed: Actually, Penn is currently working on a graduate certificate in international security at Stanford University]. He’s not just a one trick pony. He’s very versatile, very smart.
Knowing what you know now, do you feel the main character removing the turban is less believable?
It does happen all the time, and there are devout Sikhs who don’t wear turbans. [In real life], someone who very strongly believes in the turban wouldn’t go in 25 minutes from wearing it to not. But I don’t think it’s a sign of weakness. [Anant] did it to save his family, so you could argue that’s a sign of strength and not weakness. I’ve heard of Indian soldiers in war removing their turbans because the person next to them is dying and bleeding, and they need to use the cloth. But we did it for narrative purposes.
What was your reaction to the events at Oak Creek?
We had just been in Washington, D.C., because Valarie, my producing partner and wife, was invited to speak at the White House at a gathering of people of different faiths. [When we heard the news], we got off the highway and started looking it up. It was unbelievable. Valarie and I had been working in community justice with the Sikh community. It felt like the work we had done — what was it for if it wasn’t to prevent something like this? The images were so similar to the images after Sept. 15 when Balbir Sodhi was killed. It was so awful. The strange thing was, Valarie was getting called by CNN and Fox to give “Sikhism 101: What are Sikhs?” This is what we’ve been doing all along. Where were these quesitons in 2001? We’ve been saying there’s still Sikh violence post-9/11, and nobody’s really addressing it. And now that something terrible is happening, it’s like, “Oh, this has still been going on all this time?”
What we’re trying to tell everyone is this could be your temple, synagogue, mosque. We got there and it’s this small suburban gurdwara. It’s set back from the road. It’s so strange that this is now in the lineage of Aurora Theater, Columbine, these places in America where terrible things are happening. It’s surreal and hyperreal. You see caskets with bodies, and you see it on news stations. It’s not anything I want anyone to go through, but has been happening to many communities for the last several years.
What have you found in your recent reporting in Milwaukee?
We just knew we had to come here are bring our camera. In the immediate aftermath, we wanted to capture what was going on, and we have no idea what we’re going to do with the footage. Valarie has been reporting back through Twitter. At the memorial, media was relegated to the back in a bullpen. Because we know the families, they gave us permission to go everywhere to be the family’s documentarians. Valarie was live-tweeting the memorial, and even the White House said to follow Valarie. We’re filling a news vacuum and trying to keep the story going.
We keep being reminded of how resilient the community is. There’s a Sikh saying: chardi kala, which means “indomitable spirit” or “high spirit in the face of the worst tragedy,” and that’s the spirit they’ve been embodying. The older generation is stepping up, the younger generation is sharing what it’s like to be an American in the community. There’s always one or two people who will go to do the extreme and do something terrible, but there are thousands of people who are affected by this and sending letters from around the world of support.
What can people do going forward to prevent something like this from happening in another community? That’s part of keeping the story alive in the media. Paul Ryan was announced as Romney’s vice president choice, and the media disappeared. The lessons from this have not been learned or discussed. There has to be some long-term engagement, which we’re not as well-suited to do as a community and a country. Eight or nine days later there was another killing in Oak Creek, a Sikh man at his store. It sounds like botched robbery, but it’s piling tragedy upon tragedy. There’s very little national coverage of it, but it’s still part of how the community feels it’s under attack.
After the shooting on the 5th, the FBI turned [the gurdwara] back to the community. That day, as soon as they opened the gurdwara, volunteers were still cleaning blood, patching bullet holes. They opened up on Sunday for services, and the media came. That’s one week after the massacre happened. It’s unbelievable. It’s amazing how strong everyone has been.
One interesting line is your film is when Anant says, “Sikhs aren’t terrorists, Arabs are.” On a related note, how have you felt about media coverage in the aftermath of the shootings saying that the shooter mistakenly killed Sikhs when he meant to attack Arabs?
Let’s retire mistaken identity. The idea of mistaken identity is horrible. The media has done a good job of saying we shouldn’t attack Muslims either. Still, you’re conflating killing Muslims with [killing] terrorists, and it’s not acceptable. Even if he meant to kill Muslims, I think he meant to kill anyone who wasn’t a white Christian male. I think white supremacists are threatened by the changing cultural landscape in this country. But I still think the media is doing a better job than 10 years ago.
Another interesting line is when the younger son says, “If you took off the turban, you wouldn’t be any less of a person.” Do you think younger generations of Sikhs have shied away from their traditions to protect themselves?
I think there are some kids post-Sept. 11 who see their parents still wore their turbans in the face of racism and [strangers] spitting on them, and they want to honor their tradition. But there are some people like Ranjit in the film. It’s complicated because the history of Sikhs wearing turbans is that they will be visible and wear the turbans in the face of adversity.
I think this goes for any minority that comes from this country: What do they want to retain as part of their identity and what do they feel they don’t need as much? I’ve seen people after this killing on Sunday, they haven’t worn the turban, and now they have vowed to grow out their beards and wear turbans.
What are the aspects of Sikhism you wish the public understood?
The things that have drawn me to it: It’s a real commitment to social justice and community service. Seva, it’s called, “service,” manifested in this lunch called langar when you can come and have a community meal and sit on the ground. Kings and paupers have to sit on the ground together. It’s radical egalitarianism that’s at the core of the religion. It’s standing up to injustice, and all paths lead to God. It’s very open.
People might not understand because if you don’t know Sikhs, it may be intimidating to see these men with turbans with beards. But it’s so welcoming. That’s part of the ethic: to invite people in. That’s what the turban is meant to signify. If you’re ever in trouble, you can go to someone in a turban for help. I think people should just go to a gurdwara on a Sunday. Someone will tie something on your head, and you can have a delicious meal. And it’s worth it just to support and show solidarity. They’re so thankful to see someone from outside their community visit.
What lessons, if any, can be learned from these tragedies?
One lesson is knowing who Sikhs are, what they stand for, and believe in. We should really really have a conversation and understanding. There is a very significant growing of violence and hatred in America. It manifests in tragedies like this. Ever since the election of Obama, the FBI has reported an increase in homegrown hate groups. This should be talked about in rational ways instead of “Oh, you can’t take away our gun rights.” This isn’t the conversation. The shooter and people like him, they could have been caught and educated at a young age and made to understand people of different faiths and background who make up America.
We’re failing for our children. We need to figure out what we can do to change that. Whether it’s introducing very basic religious studies: Who are the people of the city you live in and who make up America? The need for education is one of the lessons.
And the people who make this violence, how can we keep them away from weapons? I think the discussion should happen on the policy level and the community level.