Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot to death at his Mesa, Arizona, gas station on Sept. 15, 2001, by a Boeing aircraft mechanic who decided to “go out and shoot some towel-heads” in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks.
Sodhi, who wore a beard and turban in accordance with his Sikh faith, was not an Arab Muslim like those who brought down the Twin Towers. A decade before his death, Sodhi had immigrated to the U.S. from Punjab, India, home of the Sikhs, who are also mistaken here for Hindus.
With the election of Donald Trump and the anti-Muslim baggage he brings to the White House, educating Americans about Sikhs and their monotheist faith is more critical than ever. But organizer and founder Bicky Singh says the timing of this weekend's SikhLens: Sikh Art & Film Festival in Orange and Santa Ana is coincidental.
“It's the weekend before Thanksgiving, always,” says the longtime Orange resident whose event falls during California's Sikh Awareness Month.
But Singh agrees current events make his event more important than ever. Hours after Trump's victory, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund issued a press release warning the faithful “to be very careful” moving about the country, noted Singh, who then took on a proud tone. “We are Sikhs, we are from India, and we have been living in this country for 100-plus years,” he says. “We are as American as anybody else. We work hard. Because of my religion, I have a turban and beard.”
He and his wife, Gurpreet, were among the “unsung heroes” honored at the 45th anniversary OC Human Relations Awards last May in Anaheim, where they were recognized for their cultural, interfaith and educational programs that include SikhLens.
A technology professional obsessed with Sikh film, music and art, Singh had been contributing to art exhibitions for years when he mentioned to some Hollywood friends the 9/11 backlash Sikhs were experiencing. They replied the problem was Sikhs are rarely seen in feature films, documentaries or on the news. “You guys don't have your story out,” Singh recalls being told.
The idea for the festival was born. The first several runs were in Hollywood, where “it became very big; 4,000 people came,” Singh says. “It was a very giant networking event for people from around the world.”
But he wondered if the event was truly “moving the needle toward fairness” for Sikhs. That prompted another conversation with Hollywood friends who noted the children of Sikhs do not study film or broadcast journalism. That got Singh thinking about starting a fellowship program.
Then he remembered Chapman University is “a stone's throw distance” from his home of 30-plus years and that he had met former president Jim Doti and other school officials at previous festivals in Tinseltown. Singh called Bob Bassett, the dean of Chapman's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, to move the festival to Orange County and have SikhLens Foundation fund student films with Sikh themes. “Through learning about Sikh culture, heritage and faith,” Singh says, “our hopes are that in 15 years, these young people going through film school will become the CEOs and executives in the media who greenlight Sikh-centric films.”
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SikhLens opens Friday at the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana with Chaar Sahibzaade: Rise of Banda Singh Bahadur, a recent animated film about the martyrdom of the four sons of guru/poet/warrior Shri Guru Gobind Singhji. Next is All Quiet on the Homefront, a short drama from Chapman graduate student Harjus Singh about Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind, who was honorably discharged after serving for the U.S. in World War I and granted citizenship, only to have it revoked because he was not a “free white man.” The Grand Budapest Hotel's Waris Ahluwalia stars as Thind, who became a writer, scientist and lecturer on spirituality.
Saturday includes two world-premiere screenings of Doctor Ji, a documentary on Thind's amazing life. But first comes another doc, Under the Turban, which explains what it means to be a Sikh. Eh Janam Tumhare Lekhe is a Punjabi feature film based on the life of the late Bhagat Puran Singh (played by Pavan Malhotra), the founder of a home in India for society's castaways that still thrives today. Three short film programs also screen.
Sunday brings the documentary Sikh Musical Heritage: The Untold Story, which is about the rich and colorful tradition of Sikh music commonly known as Kirtan or Gurmat Sangeet, and Kalyan—A Servant of the Night, the first Kirtan music video. Another doc, Table for Sixty-Thousand, examines the 60,000 free meals served daily by community members of the historic and holy Sikh site the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. Ardaas is a drama about a city teacher (Gurpreet Chuggi) who transfers to a village school where he helps locals confront the issues facing them and rediscovers the power of prayer. It's followed by another popular Punjab movie that came out this year, Love Punjab, a family dramedy about a kid forced to visit the heart of India's Sikh community. Also from this year are Udta Punjab, a crime drama that reflects an insurgence of substance abuse among young people in the Indian state, and Nikka Zaildar, a rom-com about a guy's scheme to marry a reluctant fellow student—to unexpected ends.
Besides films, the festival features the “Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind Archives Exhibition” opening Friday in Chapman's Leatherby Libraries, Sikh music in Chapman's Musco Center Saturday night, plus youth art and writing workshops all weekend. See you there!
SikhLens: Sikh Art & Film Festival at the Frida Cinema, 305 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana; sikhlens.com. Fri., 7 p.m. $30 in advance; $100 at the door (includes opening-night films and 10 p.m. after-party with food and drinks). Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun., 10:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Most films, $5 in advance; $15 at the door.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.