New Delhi: A moving documentary on the brutal slaying in Pakistan of American journalist Daniel Pearl has made its Indian debut, even as Hollywood film The Mighty Heart which features the complete story of slain journalist is still under production.
Ramesh Sharma's The Journalist and the Jihadi, that was screened at the American Centre on Wednesday evening, works on various levels.
It's a profile of Pearl the journalist and of Omar Sheikh (the British-born Al Qaeda operative who has been sentenced to death for the murder), as also a chronicle of the events that unfolded when their lives intersected in Pakistan post-9/11.
Then, it's a story not just about Pearl and Sheikh but also about the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Pakistani spy agency. It talks about other forces that were there working as the drama unfolded. To that extent, there are a number of sub-texts within the 88-minute documentary that has been co-directed by Pakistan-born British filmmaker Ahmed Jamal and
Narrated by noted CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour The Journalist and the Jihadi made its world debut at New York's Tribeca Festival in April.
"It's very appropriate this documentary is being screened as we in America celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday," said US embassy deputy chief of mission Geoffrey Pyatt before the screening that was attended among others by Minister of State for Defence M M Pallam Raju.
"Thanksgiving is a time for remembrance and of healing and we sincerely hope this documentary will help in the process," Pyatt added, referring to the growing divide between the Western and the Muslim world.
To that extent, the documentary is ideally placed, as it is also the story of a man who tries to bridge the divided world.
"It is most ironic that Daniel should have got killed in the way he was, because he was probably the last person to be termed anti-Islamic. In fact, in the WSJ (Wall Street Journal) newsroom, he was called Danny of Arabia," Sharma said after the screening. The filmmaker is best known for his critically acclaimed political drama 'New Delhi Times'.
Pearl, the WSJ bureau chief in Mumbai, was kidnapped in Karachi and murdered Jan 29, 2002 allegedly at the behest of Omar Sheikh while chasing the paper trail left by the 9/11 bombers. Sheikh was one of the three terrorists New Delhi released on Dec 31, 1999 in return for the passengers of an Indian Airlines jet that had been hijacked to Kandahar in Afghanistan.
Unlike other journalists, Sharma maintained, Pearl "attempted in his own idealistic way -- and that was probably the humanism in the man - to bridge a divided world through his writings".
"He was fascinated by Islam and Islamic culture. Most of his writing was very compassionate. It was a writing that tried to understand Islam, tried to make sure that Islam and all the various misunderstandings of Islam were explained to American readers," Sharma maintained.
The Journalist and the Jihadi emerged while Sharma's Moving Pictures Company production house was researching for a series of documentaries on post-Taliban Afghanistan, including a biopic of President Hamid Karzai.
"We also did a major film on jehad 'The Sword of Islam'. When we were researching that, we came across, a number of times, the story not just of Daniel Pearl but also of Omar Sheikh," Sharma said.
Early on in the project, Sharma realised that much of the shooting would have to be done in Pakistan and so he roped in Ahmed Jamal, who has done a lot of work for Britain's Channel 4 and is best known for his film "The Fundamental Question".
In Pakistan, Jamal managed to rope in the policemen who investigated the case. "Gradually, we started putting together a very compelling narrative - the profile of Daniel the journalist, of Sheikh the jehadi - and a chronicle of the events that took place that made this into such a compelling drama when their lives intersected in Pakistan post-9/11", Sharma stated.
And, as often happens in such projects, the money began to run out. As if by divine intervention, Sharma "bumped into" South African producer Anant Singh, who operates out of London and Los Angeles, at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Singh brought US TV major HBO on board and from then on the project ran like clockwork.
Given the powerful message that emerges from the documentary, it would be interesting to see what the Angelina Jolie starrer A Mighty Heart that retraces Pearl's steps in Mumbai and Karachi - this segment has been shot in Pune - has to offer.