Profile - Interview with Vivek Bald - January 2010

Vivek Bald

In January 2010 WHS conducted an interview with Professor Bald about his interest in film, writing, and music.

  • You write books and make films. Which comes first?

At this point, working on the Bengali Harlem project, the two practices or modes of expression are so intertwined that I can't say that one or the other comes first. I'm working on a book uncovering early histories of South Asian migration to the US that span from the late 19th century into the early 1960s, and a film that focuses in on one aspect of those histories - a group of Bengali Muslim ex-seamen who settled in Harlem in the 1930s-40s and intermarried within the local African American and Puerto Rican communities. Those are two aspects of the same project for me, expressed in different media, addressing the same core issues, but potentially reaching different audiences.

When I was working on Mutiny, I was also working in two modes - film production and music production/performance and although they were also very interconnected, they were still distinct. But what I found with Mutiny and my earlier film Taxi-vala, was that after a time on the film festival circuit, I was primarily screening the films in educational settings - schools and colleges. And wherever I did a screening for students, their teachers or professors asked for written material that they could assign, to give their students a deeper sense of the historical context of each film or of the issues that each explored. Luckily, in each case there were articles by other scholars and journalists that I could refer people to. But in the case of Bengali Harlem, I decided to do both myself - produce a film that could address audiences visually, sonically, emotionally and intellectually and draw them into the topic; as well as a book, in this case based on several years of research, that could provide people with the opportunity to explore that topic in a more extensive and sustained way. I'm now also beginning to map out a third aspect of the project, in which I would make the raw footage of the interviews available and searchable alongside images and documents via a database-driven website, to give viewers the ability to explore the subject even further in a more interactive way.

  • Which takes longer, book or film?

Some people can churn out films in a year or even less - and for that matter some scholars and writers can turn out a new book every year. For me, both take several years, though I'm trying to speed that up.

  • You're also deeply involved in music. How do these three interests fit together?

With Mutiny, which was a documentary focusing on a particular moment in South Asian diasporic music - in which second-generation artists were bringing together aspects of electronica, hip hop, dub, and punk with South Asian classical, folk, and film music - I was running a monthly club-night in New York devoted to that music as well as producing and performing myself. Taxi-vala and In Search of Bengali Harlem are not music films in the same way, but music is interwoven throughout both films as part of what creates a sense of place and propels the narrative forward.

  • More pleasure to be had in films or books?

They are equal to me - different but complementary.