In front of a small but attentive crowd last night in Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences, Indian documentary filmmaker Yousuf Saeed presented two documentaries detailing cultural diversity, prompting a discussion among those in attendance.
Beginning at BU and working his way across the country — to as far as Chicago and Austin — the award-winning director said he plans to expose American students to the diverse cultures of Southeast Asia.
Saeed said he believes now is as good a time as ever to spread his message.
“As the world becomes smaller, not everything has to be uniform,” he said. “The diversity of cultures has to be respected and appreciated.”
In the first of a two-part series, Saeed showed two documentaries, his own — Train to Heaven — and Indian actor and director Girish Karnard’s Niche in the Lamp. While Niche, about Islamic Sufism, was filmed in a familiar documentary style, Train took the form of a short musical.
Train to Heaven draws together a harmonious montage of images. Train, primarily drawing a Hindu audience, features Sunni and Shiite imagery together in a rhythmic array of colorful posters.
“[It] portrays the diversity of culture . . . even religions are not monolithic,” Saeed said. “[In India], every few kilometers, you can find a different language.”
By presenting his films across the United States, Saeed “would like to introduce the fact that there are more than just Bollywood films in India.”
While Bollywood is the more mainstream and melodramatic Indian medium, Doordarsham, India’s national television station, features educationally and historically insightful documentaries.
Saeed came to the United States and BU on a grant from the Humanities Foundation and with help from modern foreign languages chairman and professor Chris Maurer.
Persian language professor Sunil Sharma met Saeed in New Delhi while he was researching a book on Sufi poetry.
“We’ve been trying to get him for two years,” he said.
Sharma said he thought the educational aspects of Saeed’s documentaries would be useful for students.
“[They are] very interesting and complex . . . very relevant to academics,” Sharma said. “[The documentaries] bring together many BU areas of study — Persian [and] Islamic history.”
Sharma said he hopes the films will encourage student interest in Indian, Persian and Southeast Asian courses.
Although the turnout was small — only about 10 students and faculty members — those who came said they were enthralled. Focused and taking notes during the viewing, fans and first-timers watched with undivided attention.
With a camera attached to her hand to catch every moment, Japanese University of Washington ethnomusicology graduate student Michiko Urita flew to Boston to see Saeed. She said she truly appreciated his work, and the film is also relevant to her studies in ethnomusicology and filmmaking.
College of Arts and Sciences senior Maryam Arif said she met Saeed in India through BU’s International Honors Program.
“I relate to [the Sufi documentary],” she said, “because I took a course and I read Sufi poetry at home.”
Originally a bioscience major, Saeed said he had a change of heart and decided to do his postgraduate study at the Mass Communications Research Centre in New Delhi. He said he felt working in media would be more gratifying because he could “create something interesting out of making images.”
After graduating in 1990, he landed a job working for the national paper, The Times of India, which had a television station for Doordarsham. He soon quit and took the plunge into self-employment, working with friends and a crew.
“Filmmaking is something you can’t do on your own,” he said.
His documentaries follow either environmental or cultural themes. A Project for Genocide featured the impact of a hydroelectric dam in India, and Journey Through the West Himalayas was an exposé of the different and rich cultures in the area.
Saeed said he feels his latest project, a piece on classical music in Pakistan, will be unique in the field of Indian documentaries. Since there is a notorious hostility between India and Pakistan, he will touch an area almost unexplored by other Indian filmmakers.
As for the future, Saeed said he would like to continue exploring the cultural plurality of Southeast Asia.
“[I would] like to concentrate more on exploring different forms of culture, music and art in Southeast Asia,” he said.
Saeed’s second workshop will be Thursday.