‘In Search of Bengali Harlem’ is a Pursuit of Belonging

The documentary follows Alauddin Ullah as he traces his family’s past to 1930s New York, where Black, Puerto Rican, and Bengali marriages created a culture of their own.

Snigdha Sur

January 6, 2023

‘In Search of Bengali Harlem’ is a Pursuit of Belonging
'In Search of Bengali Harlem,' a documentary film by Vivek Bald and Alaudin Ullah

“It’s fall October 1983. He’s from the villages of Bangladesh. I’m from the streets of east Harlem. We have nothing in common.”

That is one of the earliest lines — spoken by comedian and actor Alauddin Ullah — in the documentary In Search of Bengali Harlem, which premiered in New York City this past November. Some may remember Ullah as the funny, heavily accented teacher in American Desi who asks for a “rubber” instead of an eraser. But, in the documentary, Ullah, now 54, shows one of his most vulnerable sides, explaining how growing up in Harlem in the 1970s and 1980s, he never really understood his father, Habib, whom many onlookers mistook to be his grandfather because of their age gap. “I saw your grandfather,” neighbors would tell him. “I’m like, ‘No, that’s my father.’ And they would do a double take.” 

Years later, Ullah would discover that he wasn’t his father’s only family. Habib had married a Puerto Rican woman in the mid-20th century and had kids. It was only when his wife passed away that he returned to his homeland of Bangladesh to take on another, Mohima, Ullah’s mother. And Ullah’s father wasn’t alone.