Review: In Search of Bengali Harlem


This film is an introduction to the fabulous talent of Alaudin Ullah, writer, director, producer, and comedian. He uses his national origin, Islam, and social issues to introduce audiences to the Bangladeshi-American world. Fun clips of his stand-up savvy are interspersed.

But the film’s primary insightful focus is on Alaudin’s journey to learn about his parents, whom he has spent his entire life marginalizing and ridiculing on stage and off. While his parents were from the region now known as Bangladesh, he was born in New York City. All he cared about was survival and fitting into his East Harlem neighborhood.

While making this documentary, Alaudin began learning about the early tragedies and conflicts in his parents’ lives. One of the reasons he knew so little was because a few years after he was born in 1968 his father, then in his 60’s, had a stroke and eventually died in 1983. His mother, about 40 years younger than his father, was left in a community where no one spoke her language and her son rejected her. While she was stubbornly bent on bringing her son up as a Muslim Bangladeshi, all Alaudin wanted was to be accepted as a hip East Harlem rebel.

As his mother experiences health problems and moves into a health care facility, Alaudin, realizes, with a kind of panic, that he knows very little about his parents. His mother is not able to communicate much about his father and seems almost unwilling to speak much about herself.

At this point, Alaudin enlisted the help of a filmmaker and historian, Vivek Bald, to help him learn about his parents and film his discoveries. The first question: How did his father come to settle in the US?

Prohibited by the Immigration Act of 1917, his father couldn’t have entered America legally. Asians and other non-white people were banned from entering the US until 1952. Knowing his father came years earlier, Bald takes him to The Municipal Archives of NYC to learn when and how his father ended up in NYC as a dishwasher in an Indian restaurant married to a Puerto Rican.

Once a complicated truth emerges, Aladdin wants to know why his father originally left his family and everything he knew in India. As a matter of fact, his father’s nationality changes three times while in the US. First, he was Indian because he came from southwest India. Then, after the Indo-Pakistani Civil War of 1947 he was Pakistani. Then, after the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, he was Bangladeshi.

Alaudin takes a trip to Bangladesh as part of this documentary. There he learns about the conflicted life of his then 18-year-old father who had a fight with a landowner. He also meets the matchmaker who explains his father’s eventual re-marriage, about 40 years later, to a young 20-year-old who becomes Alaudin’s mother.

“In Search of Bengali Harlem” is full of the richness of Bangladeshi life both in the US and in Bangladesh. Alaudin’s frank confessions about his rejection of his culture and family are raw and his transformation, once he learns the truth about both his parents, especially the tragedies of his mother, is sobering.

Interspersed alternately with archival shots of early ship workers, stand-up clips from Alaudin’s one-man act “Dishwasher Dreams,” and honest reflections as he uncovers the truth about his mother, “In Search of Bengali Harlem” proves to be a high-interest documentary.


Directors: Vivek Bald and Alaudin Ullah
Cinematographer: Kitra Cahana, Joseph Alvarado, Shahadat Hossain, and Shamsul Islam
Editor: Beyza Boyacioglu
Languages: English, Bengali
Country: United States of America
Release: Nov. 5, 2022

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