Dr Abdus Salam in 1987.-Photo Courtesy the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Italy.

Dr Abdus Salam, the only Pakistani Nobel laureate, has been forgotten in all but name. On the occasion of his eighty-third birth anniversary, Dawn.com meets with Zakir Thaver, a Pakistani who is fighting against all odds to make the first documentary film on the eminent scientist.

How did your film project start?

I had been working for a production company in New York for three years and wanted to work on science documentaries. It was during this time that I came up with the idea of making the Abdus Salam film project. But back then, TV producers [in the US] weren’t interested in making a film on a dead scientist from Pakistan.

In 2004, my colleague Omar Vandal and I set up a company in New York called Kailoola Productions. The idea behind it was to bring science to the developing world and bridge the knowledge divide via TV.

Why have you chosen to make a film about Dr. Salam?

There isn’t a single exclusive documentary on Salam. But his story is remarkable and it deserves a full-length documentary.

While we were working on the film, my colleague Omar Vandal traveled to Pakistan and he got access to Salam’s house in Jhang and his grave in Rabwah.

There’s a rusted plaque on Dr. Salam’s house identifying it as his birthplace. No one lives there now and it is in a rather bad shape.

My colleague was awestruck when a kid outside Salam’s house in Jhang not only knew who the eminent scientist was, but was able to tell Omar that Salam had worked on the electroweak unification theory.

This incident proves that Salam’s story also provides an amazing opportunity to educate children in physics.

Did you contact the Pakistani government before starting production?

We decided not to bother contacting our own government institutions such as the Ministry of Science and Technology. One very good example of what not to do was the Jinnah project, which was a complete disaster. And part of why I think it was the case was that they had taken money from the government.

The other reason we didn’t seek official support was that Salam was an Ahmedi and I don’t think the government would have ever bothered [supporting us]. The word Muslim has been whitened out from Salam’s epitaph, so why would the government bother funding our project? For officialdom, Salam is too much of a political risk to celebrate.

What funding have you managed to generate?

We were able to raise 40,000 dollars from Pakistanis, which came in handy because we were able to fund our script.

Right now, we’re trying to raise another half a million dollars for the project. We were hoping that expatriate Pakistanis would contribute wholeheartedly to this project, but sadly that hasn’t materialized on par with our expectations.

We’re also seeking funds from corporations, but they want us to leverage still more ‘sweat equity’. We have also pursued funding from Muslim countries, but there hasn’t been any response yet, which might also be because of the Ahmedi issue.

We are hoping that our project will get through with the support of the BBC, Al Jazeera, and Nova in the US, but that’s still in the works.

We can’t give a definite timeframe as to when this project will come to completion, but we will persist no matter how long it takes since this project is a labor of love for us.

Have you considered approaching the Ahmedi Jamaat?

The Ahmedi Jamaat were very concerned about the film being misconstrued as Ahmedi propaganda, so they backed off the project. But lately there’s been a resurgence of interest from some well-to-do individual Ahmadis as they realize that it’s not propaganda – our script is quite clear that it’s a film on an eminent scientist of Pakistan.

Who penned the film script?

The script has been completed by Nigel Calder. Nigel has made Salam narrate his own story from beyond his grave so we’ll have an actor narrate in the voice of Salam.

What resources have you been able to mobilize for the film?

We have everything under the sun on Salam, and by Salam. We’ve done extensive research and taken great hassle to get rare footage of Salam. We even have footage from Korean Broadcasting Station. Our eminent board of advisors includes Moeen Qureshi, Nobel laureates Ahmed Zewail and Charles Towner as well as filmmaker Mira Nair.

What has the process taught you?

It is supremely unfortunate how science is perceived here in Pakistan. Science unfortunately has been deemed a Western enterprise, even though, Salam himself had said that science is a shared heritage of all mankind. The sad truth is that Pakistan has lost out on failing to capitalize on its wealth; on people like Salam.

The original story was published on 29 Jan, 2009 on Dawn.com


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