The Sikh Religion, Through The Camera Lens

The 8th Annual Sikh International Film Festival is a two-day event that aims to raise awareness about the Sikh faith and community. Despite tens of thousands of adherents living in the U.S., Americans know very little about the faith, and often associate Sikhs with Muslims. Michel Martin speaks with film festival chair Paul Johar.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Comic Con has descended upon New York and so have thousands of enthusiasts ready to exalt in their love of anime, games, comics and more. We'll get the dish from one anime fanatic in just a few minutes.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we take a look at another festival coming to New York this weekend. That is the 8th Annual Sikh International Film Festival. The two-day event is an effort to present some interesting films, but also to raise awareness about this religion and its followers. It's estimated that there are about 20 million adherents worldwide with tens of thousands of adherents living in the U.S.

With us now to talk about the faith and the film festival is Paul Johar. He's actually Dr. Johar. He's a reconstructive surgeon by day. He chose the film festival by night and on weekends and he joins us from our NPR studios in New York. Dr. Johar, thanks so much for joining us.

DR. PAUL JOHAR: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: First of all, clarify one thing for me. I said Sikh. But as I understand it, the proper pronunciation is Sikh.

JOHAR: You're correct. The proper pronunciation is Sikh, but most people in the U.S. will go by Sikh and I think either one is acceptable.

MARTIN: OK. Well, thank you for that. Thank you for giving me a pass. And can you just tell us a little bit about the faith? As I understand it, it's a relatively new faith, about 500 years old.

JOHAR: You're absolutely right. Sikhism originated in Punjab in India. And you're right, it is about 500 years old. It was started by Guru Nanak, who was our first teacher back in Punjab and the reason was to eradicate the social ills that were present in the society.

For example, casteism. You know, in Indian society, as we all know, it goes by the castes, you know, higher castes and lower castes and then you have the untouchables, you know, the women were not treated well at that time. So, Guru Nanak came up with this new philosophy, which treated humanity as one. All human beings, regardless of who you were, what religion you belong to, in the eyes of God, everyone is equal.

We have five things that we have to abide by. One is the unshorn hair. That is one. It starts with K. There are five Ks. The first is Kesh, which is the unshorn hair. The second is Kanga, which is a comb to keep the hair nice and tidy. The third is a bracelet. It's called a Kara and it's worn on the right hand. It is a reminder for us to do only the things that are good, to stay away from bad deeds.

Fourth is a Kirpan, which a ceremonial dagger, which is worn. It's about four to six inches. It's mostly ceremonial. It is worn because we were, at one point in time, the defenders of the weak. So, it is a reminder for us to wear that. And the fourth (sic) is that we wear sort of a type of a brief. It's called a Kachera. It is different from the dhoti. If you have seen Gandhi, you have seen him wearing a dhoti. It's different from that because it allows us the freedom to mount, dismount horses, and it also gives us the - it sort of teaches us self-control.

MARTIN: So tell us about some of the films that will be showcased.

JOHAR: Well, we have a wonderful selection. We are screening 12 films between tonight and tomorrow. Tonight is a premier night. We're going to start off with two wonderful films. One is called "A Little Revolution," a story of suicides and dreams. And the second one is "Ulysses." The first one is about the problem that many farmers are facing in India. Over 250,000 of them have committed suicide because of the agrarian crisis and the high debts of loans that they have received and they have - you know, it's a pretty unfortunate situation.

So last year, we had showcased a film sort of highlighting that issue. This time, we have a film that depicts the life of the orphans and how to empower them. Unfortunate things have happened to them but, you know, how do we empower - how do we tell a nine-year-old, your father or your family members have committed suicide and you're the only one left? You know, how do you carry on with your life after that?

MARTIN: Well, I think we have a short clip of the film from "A Little Revolution." We can play that clip.

JOHAR: Yes.

MARTIN: Here it is.

HARPREET KAUR: (as Herself) We want these kids to realize that they can fight for their rights. They can come out. They can write letters and they can (unintelligible). If I could somehow inspire these children to use their voices to make a difference, if I could find a way to help them build their confidence, this internal sense of empowerment would really go a long way.

MARTIN: Are all the films documentaries or are there feature films, as well, or films for entertainment?

JOHAR: We have a combination of both. We have quite a few documentaries. We have - I think we're screening about six documentaries. We're screening about two or three short documentaries and there are a couple of fictional films, too. One is called "The Reunion," which I thought was a very powerful film, and it talks about two friends, both who are born in a Sikh family, are raised in a Sikh family, come here.

And then there is - 9/11 happens and there is a hate-related crime and one is, you know, one is sort of forced to cut his hair and to give up his religion, his faith. And then the two meet and there's a very interesting dialog that takes place between the two of them. It's made by Angad Bhai. It's 90 minutes in duration. And I think it's a wonderful dialog that takes place between the two of them.

There is a film called "Jeevika," which - you know, things have changed in India with the I.T. coming in there, with the country becoming more industrialized. People have forgotten how, in olden times, we used to make popcorn. We used to make shoes or we used to dye clothes. So, you know, those are very popular things in India. So there's a very light, musical, beautiful film made by Anureet Caur out of Canada to sort of remind people of, you know, the days where we used to do things in a much simpler fashion. So, you know, that's a good comedy. People will enjoy watching that, as well.

MARTIN: OK. So the foundation - the Sikh Art and Film Festival has been around for some time now, but the film festival itself is in its 8th year. Do you think that you're, I don't know, having an impact or do you just find it an enjoyable time to get together and explore the culture?

JOHAR: I think both. One of the principles when we started this was that we definitely wanted to create an awareness among non-Sikhs, but we also wanted to educate Sikhs who were born and raised here and have not made it back to India or if they go back to India, they go for a very short time and also are not exposed to the culture, to the heritage, the history of Sikhs.

And, you know, one of the things I've noticed is that, with each passing year, the number of non-Sikhs attending, the number of mainstream Americans attending the event has significantly gone up, which is something that we had aspired for, and I think we are achieving it in this film festival.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations.

JOHAR: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: Paul Johar chairs the Annual Sikh International Film Festival. He's actually Dr. Johar. He's a reconstructive surgeon by day and in his spare time, if we can call it that, he chairs this festival, which is now in its 8th year. And he joined us from our NPR studios in New York. Dr. Johar, thanks so much for joining us.

JOHAR: Thank you for having me, Michel.

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