A new documentary film, “They Called Me Osama,” released earlier this month seeks to educate people about the Sikh religion and the experiences of Sikhs in America, including bullying in schools, racism, and hate violence. The film, made by Maneetpaul Singh Chawla with funding from the University of Connecticut’s IDEA grant program, aims at preventing abuses of Sikhs and informing mainstream Americans about the centuries old Sikh religion.
“This film was made for people who have never heard of a Sikh before,” Chawla told NBC News. “Speaking from first-hand experience, it is clear that the majority of the public does not know what the Sikh religion is or why we look the way we do. I hope my film will help spread awareness and answer some of the basic questions people have when they first see a Sikh.”
Since 9/11, Sikhs have been the target of violent crimes, and that troubling trend continues to grow as most Americans are ignorant about the religion, often confusing the turban-wearing Sikhs with beards for terrorists or Muslims. Many Sikh advocacy groups in the U.S. are raising consciousness about their religion, which is considered the fifth largest religion in the world.
Maneetpaul Singh Chawla of Trumbull, Connecticut, is a 22-year-old Indian American filmmaker, who has created the short documentary which talks about the discrimination and racial abuse faced by Sikh Americans in the U.S. It features firsthand accounts of various victims of hate crimes, cyber racism and bullying. The film underscores the various virtues of the religion – how it was founded, what it believes in and its ideologies – in its effort to educate those unfamiliar with Sikhism.
The documentary features Jagraj Singh, a British YouTuber – who founded and runs Everything’s 13, a Sikh educational charity – conducting street interviews at New York’s Times Square, to find out if people know about Sikhs.
The video opens with a mic-wielding Singh’s seemingly futile attempts to get people to listen to him. When he does get their attention, most of the answers to his question about whether they know anything about the Sikhs end in blank stares.
Paramvir Singh Soni, chairperson of the Guru Nanank Foundation of America, acknowledged that there is a sense of fear in the community and said Sikh Americans are touched by the steps being taken by Obama.
“We are still looking for stronger actions against hate crimes. I think there we need to do some more work, but we are making progress,” he said. Singh said the community wants to have the next president as one who can address its challenge. “Someone who is more open to the Sikh community, somebody who is more engaged,” he said.
Dr. Rajwant Singh, Washington-based chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, said the Sikh community is very concerned about the possible backlash from the Orlando killings.
Chawla, who recently graduated from the University of Connecticut Stamford with a dual degree in business administration and digital media design, obtained funding for the video through the university’s IDEA grant program. The film was shot primarily in New York City, with some scenes in Atlanta and Ohio.