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March 8, 2000

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NY desis get to tell their own stories

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S Mitra Kalita

Romieol Daniel recites prayers from the Torah and leaves work early on Fridays to observe the Sabbath. But since the 56-year-old resident of Rego Park, Queens, is from Bombay many people are surprised to learn he is Jewish.

Daniel is one of about two-dozen people featured in Desi: South Asians in New York, a documentary made to explain the diversity and vastness of south Asia, its emigrants and the culture they have created in the United States. Desi will air March 14 at 2000 on Thirteen/WNET New York.

"We really have a dual identity," said Daniel. "I really do identify very much with the Jewish community, but also identify with the Indians here. The food we eat is Indian. Back home, my wife wears saris." Daniel, who is pictured reciting religious prayers and dancing around the Torah with other Jews in the 60-minute documentary, hopes the film will raise awareness about the various communities with which he identifies. The film, made by the Glazen Creative Group, is part of Thirteen's 'Ethnic American Series', which explores the lives of immigrants in New York City.

Profiles of the Dominican and Korean communities have already aired, but head producer Alan Glazen said the south Asian film has been the most enlightening thus far. The producers started Desi with the intention of focusing on Indian immigrants. Once members of the Indian community convened to discuss the documentary's direction, they urged Glazen's staff to expand the project's scope to south Asia, a region encompassing India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives.

The documentary gives viewers a history lesson in the founding of these nations, starting with the 1947 independence of India from the British to the 1971 creation of Bangladesh out of East Pakistan. Glazen, who had never been friends with any south Asians in his 50 years, said he was shocked that the groups wanted to be lumped together.

"Didn't you guys just drop a ... bomb to try to destroy each other?" he said, referring to the nuclear testing India and Pakistan carried out in May 1998. As Glazen began researching, he discovered that the whole concept of being "south Asian" was very much created in New York City. He learned that people living on the Indian subcontinent more commonly identify themselves with a particular region or village or city. But once they arrive in the United States, they define themselves as desis, which literally means "from my country". The word has become an umbrella term for people from south Asia.

"The political differences are between governments, not between people. I went into it thinking these are people who do not get along," he said. "This film is upending the impressions that we have of them." Glazen and fellow producer Shebana Coelho interviewed about 30 South Asians of varied religions, classes and geographic regions.

From Daniel's synagogue in Manhattan to a Muslim mosque on Long Island to a Hindu temple in Flushing to a Sikh temple in Richmond Hill, south Asians speak of the role religion has played in reinforcing their cultural ties, even away from home.

The film is narrated entirely by its subjects, the first and second generations of south Asians in the United States. "There is no voiceover because we want to try and represent the community as they would like to be represented," said Coelho, who was raised in Bombay, attended high school and college in the United States, and now works in Manhattan as a freelance producer. "This is unabashedly a celebration of a community."

The documentary takes a viewer on a tour of New York City's south Asian commercial centers, many of which are found throughout New York City. Experts interviewed in the Thirteen/WNET film estimate there are 200,000 south Asians in New York City.

Against colorful storefronts and signboards, residents of and merchants in south Asian enclaves throughout the city tell a story of transforming and cleaning up once-abandoned neighborhoods. In Jackson Heights, businesses selling saris, spices and jewelry have turned the area into a commercial center drawing shoppers from the tri-state area every weekend. In Long Island City, Bangladeshi stores display signs for imported fish and halal meat that is killed according to Muslim standards. In the Midwood section of Brooklyn, Pakistani Muslims gather outside for afternoon prayer.

Still, far away from their homelands, businesses say it is in their best interest to cater to all segments of the diverse south Asian community.

"Here, you know everybody is the same... Indians, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, American," Subhash "Sam" Kapadia, 56, said. He was the co-founder of the first Indian store in Jackson Heights, the Sam and Raj electronics store opened in 1973.

Viewers hear Sanjay Kumar, who left Sri Lanka at age 14, admit that when he first arrived in the United States, he would pick up the telephone just to hear its dial tone. Now president of Islandia-based Computer Associates International Inc, Kumar is pictured in the documentary talking to Microsoft founder Bill Gates. There also are interviews of taxi drivers and newsstand vendors who repeatedly say they came here for education, economic opportunity, better lives for their children.

"These neighbors, they walk by us every day and we don't have a clue what they're like," Glazen said. "I went into this expecting to uncover difference and my goal was to present these differences. I hve been humbled by this whole experience. My upbringing isn't unique. I thought my whole world was unique but it is echoed everywhere. I echo it, it echoes me."

He encouraged south Asians to join mainstream audiences in tuning in to Desi's debut. He said the documentaries on Koreans and Dominicans were a part of Thirteen's fundraising drive and raised enough money to pay production costs. "Everybody always says, 'We want more shows about us'," Glazen said.

"Is there an audience for (this series)? Whether or not there will be more south Asian programming, the night of March 14 will spell that future."

An interview with Sanjay Kumar

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