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The Ocean of Pearls: Sikh Doctor Struggles to Fit In

New America Media, Commentary, Audio, Sandip Roy Posted: Aug 23, 2009

Hear Sandip Roy's interview with Ocean of Pearls director, Sarab Singh Neelam.

This is how a first-time feature film often goes down. A minority director writes an impassioned script about someone who looks like him, someone who is largely invisible on the big screen. Then a producer comes along and says he likes the script but could you turn the lead into a straight white guy named Jeff.

For Sarab Singh Neelam it was the other way around. The Sikh doctor turned filmmaker wanted to tell a story about the inequities in the health care system. He envisioned a Caucasian actor for the lead role. It was his producer Jim Burnstein who suggested he make his lead a Sikh doctor. He said, no Sarab, you are wrong. Americans would love to see America through the eyes of someone different, recalls Neelam.

Neelam decided to risk it. As a result his film, The Ocean of Pearls, is as much about medicine as it is about identity. Neelam says he realizes now that the two arent that separate. Just because you wear a turban doesnt make you a good Sikh, he says. Just because you wear a white coat doesnt make you a good doctor. Its the internal qualities that are important.

Ocean of Pearls is about Amrit, a young Sikh doctor, a rising star in surgery, who has to figure out his priorities in life, struggle to find place for his traditions and fit into his hospital in Detroit.

Neelam says as a Sikh man who has chosen to wear the turban and not cut his hair, hes faced a lot of the same issues himself. I have been stopped at airports and asked to take my turban off. I have had my turban patted down by hand. To me, its like taking your clothes off in public, he says. As a boy in Toronto he remembers kids knocking off his turban at school, eggs being thrown at it, being asked to prove that hes a boy during swimming class.

He was tempted to discard the turban. Like Amrit, he has stood before the mirror and run his hand over his head wondering what it would be like with short hair. I guess what stopped me was my grandmother, he says.

She survived the partition of India along with his father, but they watched the rest of the family being killed before their own eyes. She was beaten on the head and the shock would trigger violent episodes where she would go crazy and start hitting people. At other times she was all love. Neelam says despite everything the family still held on to their faith and its symbols. Everything my grandmother owned was in one little suitcase, says Neelam. Everything, and that included her Guru Granth Sahib-ji, the Sikh Holy Book.

He knows its hard for people to understand why Sikhs seem to be so hung up on turban discrimination. Could they not focus on the real principles of seva or service, instead of lawsuits about not being allowed to come into a club with a turban, or turban pat downs? Neelam says he just thinks about his grandmother and all she went through to hold on to her faith. When you start losing the external identity, you also start going downhill on the internal identity, says Neelam. The external identity gives you the courage to stay on the external journey.

But he says half of the Sikhs in America do cut their hair and he understands that they feel they need to do that in order to fit into Western cultures. But Neelam holds on to his turban, making him possibly the only turbaned Sikh director in Hollywood or for that matter, even in Bollywood. A few Bollywood films lately have had turbaned heroes. But Neelam says they still feel slap dash. The turbans are obviously not tied by the same person through the film. They look different in different scenes. You can see the cut hair peeking out from the back. The continuity for turbans is not good, he chuckles.

As the film opens in limited release across the country, Neelam is heading back to his other life as a gastroenterologist. He says its too early to think whether he is a doctor who makes films or is a filmmaker who practices medicine. But he doesnt think they are that far apart. Both are really an art, he says. Both can make someone feel better.

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