Editor’s Note: Mohammed Hanif published a review of this film in Urdu at the BBC. A translation into English by Zahra Sabri is published below with Mr. Hanif’s permission. The film is the definitive story of Abdus Salam, the first Pakistani to win the Nobel prize. It captures in vivid detail his life’s journey—from a small village in Pakistan to worldwide scientific acclaim—and his fraught relationship with his homeland, where he faced rejection for being a member of the “heretical” Ahmadiyya movement.
by Mohammed Hanif, translated by Zahra Sabri
Dr Abdus Salam had once said, “It became quite clear to me that either I must leave my country or leave physics. And with great anguish, I chose to leave my country.”
I heard these words in what is probably the first documentary film ever to be made on the life of the Nobel prize-winning Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam. The producers of the film are two young men from Pakistan, Omar Vandal and Zakir Thaver. I’ve been hearing these young men go on about Salam since some ten years. They have been labouring over the film for more than a decade.
I had suspected that these two men might lose interest in this topic similar to the way that the whole nation of Pakistan has washed their hands of Salam, having labelled him a kafir. However, their efforts have borne fruit and the film Salam: The First ***** Nobel Laureate is ready for screening.
The asterisks in the title stand in for the space where the word ‘Muslim’ should have been, but since this word has been expunged from the inscription above his grave in the town of Rabwah, the filmmakers have used asterisks to describe Salam so as to evade the possibility of a fatwa.
In Pakistan, we have very little tradition of making or watching documentary films, but this film on Dr Abdus Salam is really a love story – the story of his love for Pakistan. The kind of love we find in classical Urdu ghazals where the beloved is callous and unrelenting, and the lover displays persistence and faithfulness of the highest order. Despite the endless snubs and rebuffs he is repeatedly subjected to, he continues to haunt the beloved’s lane. Upon the beloved’s banishing him to another land, he spends his days in exile languishing and sighing and uttering ‘And now the moon must be rising above my homeland…’ sort of sentiments.
The filmmakers have taken tremendous pains to search out and include in the film audio and video clips of Salam that I, at least, had never come across before. The portrait formed of Dr Salam through interviews with his sons, wives, fellow scientists and administrative assistants is that of a dyed-in-the-wool Pakistani figure who may have given up living in his country, but who never gave up his green passport.
A man whose entire research and all his family is abroad, but whose dying wish is to be buried in the soil of his own country.
When he talks about India’s first atomic-test explosion, his eyes possess the gleam produced by the thought of teaching the enemy a lesson. He is present at Multan with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto at the meeting where it was decided that Pakistan must become a nuclear power and Salam should be appointed a scientific consultant.
But quite soon after, the Ahmadis are declared kafir and Salam once more resigns and leaves his home country with a broken heart. Wherever he goes, though, a tiny little Pakistan continues to abide within him.
Just witness the scene in his study in England where he sits cross-legged on a sofa, solving in his notebook abstruse problems of physics the very thought of which wearies us. All this while, a recitation of the Qur’an plays on his gramophone. Then he rises to turn on a radio lying in a corner of the room to hear the news on Radio Pakistan’s international service.
When he embarks on the mission to establish the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, the rich countries of the world are all set against it. A senior delegate tells him, “Physics is the Rolls-Royce of sciences, and countries like yours need a bullock cart.”
In recounting this, his eyes have the kind of mischievous glint we find in the eyes of rookie fast bowlers in Pakistan signalling, “Just you come and face me. I’ll teach you what I’m made of! What I want, I will most certainly have.”
Not only did Salam end up building that centre, it exists today under his name. His purpose of making it was so that other people shouldn’t have to quit their home country to do physics in the way he had been compelled to do. Scientists should be able to come there for a three-month period, do their work, and then return to their respective countries to spread their learning.
Upon reaching a certain age, he looks like a typical Pakistani uncle who wags his finger at us and recites our shortcomings. He says that the mathematics department at the Punjab University that he himself once headed has been around since a hundred years. So why hasn’t it managed to produce a single PhD in all this time?
In his last years, he is a dejected lover. He runs for the post of Director-General of Unesco and his own country refuses to back his candidature. Once more, he gets his heart broken and sheds tears. Yet his work continues.
An assistant of his reveals that whenever he would call her into his office, she would take along a dozen pencils for she knew from experience that they could be done in as much as five minutes or she could find herself taking notes for hours and hours.
When this worthy son of Pakistan, who started out from a high school in Jhang and went on to win the biggest award for science, has to present himself for the Nobel Prize ceremony, he comes adorned in a sherwani with a white turban on his head and khussas on his feet. One of his fellow awardees remarks that whilst the rest of us were looking like penguins in our black suits, Salam looked like a prince.
Dr Salam was such a diehard Pakistani that although he contracted two marriages, he only ever maintained one passport, and that too a Pakistani one.
This prince once said in description of his callous beloved, “We… have inherited a house which has no windows, and its walls are very high, and it’s very difficult to know whether we have inherited a house or a prison.”
Look around you at the walls that grow higher every day and remember that lover of his home country who is buried beneath this soil and whose grave is inscribed with asterisks.
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Mohammed Hanif is a British Pakistani writer and journalist who writes a monthly opinion piece in The New York Times. Hanif is the author of the critically acclaimed book A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which was long-listed for the Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and won the Commonwealth Prize for Best Book. His second book, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, won the Wellcome Book Prize. He also worked as a correspondent for the BBC News based in Karachi and was the writer for its acclaimed drama and the feature film, The Long Night. He work has been published by The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, The New Yorker and The Washington Post. His play The Dictator’s Wife has been staged at the Hampstead Theatre.
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Film Website: www.salamthefilm.com