Salam wrote in his diary: ‘Declared non-Muslim. Cannot cope.’
Salam wrote in his diary: ‘Declared non-Muslim. Cannot cope.’

At a cemetery in Rabwah, Punjab, Professor Dr Abdus Salam’s gravestone reads: In 1979 [Abdus Salam] became the first Nobel laureate for his work in physics. The eulogy doesn’t make sense, until the camera cuts to an obvious close-up, and lingers for two seconds too long.

One word between first and Nobel has been painted over in white: Muslim.

Abdus Salam was a wunderkind. The son of a poor man who studied under candlelight as a child, published his first scientific paper at the age of 17, became a PhD in theoretical physics from Cambridge at 24-years-old, was accepted as the youngest Fellow of the Royal Society of London when he was 33-years-old, was awarded the Sitara-e-Pakistan in 1959, founded Pakistan’s space programme Suparco in 1961, he gave Pakistan its first Nobel prize for physics in 1979.

He was also an Ahmadi — which, as per the Pakistani constitution since 1974, is why the word ‘Muslim’ is painted over, and why the documentary, Salam: The First ****** Nobel Laureate, has such a unique title.

A documentary film on Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate, Dr Abdus Salam, that took 14 years to make, would be a shoo-in for the awards season, if it weren’t for politics

Producers-cum-researchers Zakir Thaver, Omar Vandel and director-editor Anand Kamalakar’s sleek documentary is a fantastic work of asceticism; it is restrained, straightforward and simple to comprehend, but not simplistic.

The film, which took 14 years to make and two years to edit, covers specific milestones in Salam’s life through interviews, archival footage and animated newspaper clippings. Unlike conventional television-ish documentaries, the filmmakers do not employ the services of a narrator to spoon-feed information.

Dr Abdus Salam’s vandalised gravestone
Dr Abdus Salam’s vandalised gravestone

The lack of a narrator, speaking in detached sombre tones, adds considerable weight to the storytelling, because viewers are deviously turned into active participants by the visuals and derive their own conclusions from what they have seen. This narrative tactic frees the filmmakers to interpret Salam’s life with a sense of passive objectivity, and to subtly lead the story from their own point of view.

For instance, we hardly go into attention-diverting details. Salam’s greatest achievement, his research and the theory that won him the Nobel Prize, are superficially skimmed over.

Like his theory, Salam himself is a detached presence, even when we look at his interviews or hear his voice recordings. Consider him a guest in his own documentary.

Although not overly explicit at first, Salam develops a creeping, misanthropic disposition in the latter half of the documentary.

The lack of a narrator speaking in detached sombre tones, adds considerable weight to the storytelling, because viewers are deviously turned into active participants by the visuals. This tactic frees the filmmakers to interpret Salam’s life with a sense of passive objectivity, and to subtly lead the story from their own point of view.

We are told that Salam was a difficult man to hang around with, whose brain was a livewire of scientific postulations — 90 percent of which were ridiculous, and 10 percent had genius potential. Fate, and the advice of another laureate, had robbed him of an idea that could have seen him awarded him the Nobel 23 years earlier.

Preoccupied with science, Salam had little time for his family. He was also a deeply religious man, interviewees advocate. In his quiet moments, he would play the Quran on the vinyl record for inspiration, his elder son Ahmad Salam tells the viewers while giving us a tour of his study.

Dr Abdus Salam receiving the Nobel prize for Physics in 1979
Dr Abdus Salam receiving the Nobel prize for Physics in 1979

We are shown that the world, including Pakistan, knew of his genius, yet politics forced him and his family away from his native country. Even before he became a Nobel laureate, however, Salam made constant trips to Pakistan at the behest of prime ministers and presidents who sought his advice.

The constitutional ostracism of the Ahmadiyya community under the Second Amendment in 1974, and then Ordinance XX in 1986, however, had left a scar. In protest, Salam grew a beard.

Back in Pakistan, his scientific contributions are absent from school curriculums. The Government of Pakistan did issue a commemorative stamp in 1998 that carried his portrait — which the film’s website details as an addendum to Salam’s on-screen story (there is a handy timeline of Salam’s life on the site). University students, however, hardly know who Abdus Salam was; a few recall his Nobel award, but they have no idea for what.

The sad irony of that one sequence alone is Oscar-worthy — and let me be perfectly clear on this, Salam is an award-season thoroughbred — not that the film will go to the Oscars, I am told. Like Salam’s life, there is excessive politics in the film business.

Salam: The First ****** Nobel Laureate, is available to view on Netflix from October 2nd

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 6th, 2019