As he waits for PBS to broadcast Valentino’s Ghost, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Michael Singh plans to visit universities with clips from the documentary
and discuss the image of Arab Muslims in popular
American media. Singh, who has a degree in cinema from
the University of Southern California and a master’s in
Indian civilization from the University of Chicago, has
made documentaries on a variety of subjects including a
bio of gospel legend Mahalia Jackson (Power and the
Glory). Singh has three documentaries at the Sikh Film
Festival in New York — The Rebel Queen, about Maharaja
Ranjit Singh’s widow who had a long-running fight with
the British in the second half of the 19th century;
Uncommon Journeys, about four Sikhs who chose uncommon career paths; and a work in progress, Riding the Tiger,
based on Singh’s personal experiences of India in 1984 —
the army operation on the Golden Temple, the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi, and the consequent killings of Sikhs.
“While growing up in India,” Singh says, “my brothers
and I were always considered to be white, even when we
dressed in kurtas. Our light skin and light eyes must’ve
been the main factor, plus we spoke with American
accents… We kept our hair long, not for reasons of Sikhi,
but for reasons of Beatlemania.”
How did you come to make Valentino’s Ghost?
‘My Sikh ‘half’
emerged due to
1984 more than
Filmmaker Michael Singh
discusses inspiration and life
lessons with Arthur J Pais
Bicky Singh in California; Mirren Kaur in Washington,
DC; T Sher Singh in Canada. These are visionaries who
provide critical financial support. In Hollywood parlance,
these are ‘mensches.’ They get the job done. They wish to
create a market for things Sikh, in effect, and to create Sikh
history and sustain Sikh culture. So they, along with filmmakers like me, are hoping to transform a tradition of apathy into one of commitment, of Sikhs being generous not
just to the local gurdwara, but to the local writer, filmmaker, historian, artist. But even then there are so many Sikh
film projects like mine that need their support.
I know the tide is turning. I’ve been able to make four
Sikh-themed films in three years, solely because Sikhs have
been willing to fund me. And that is why I am working on
Riding the Tiger. But we need more money and other kinds
What about The Rebel Queen?
The idea came from my friend Bicky Singh. He was interested in her story. I didn’t know about her. And, unlike
most people, Bicky puts his money where his mouth is! He
hired me to travel with him through the UK with him in the
summer of 2009, filming people who knew of Maharani
Jindan, so I collected quite a bit of footage in London,
Glasgow and other cities, from these experts. It was Bicky’s
financial commitment that got the film made.
Tell us about your family.
My father Ram Singh was raised a Sikh in a Hindu family, as was the tradition in the Punjab for many years. I
believe that this tradition goes back to Guru Gobind Singh,
who needed troops to fight the Mughals, and who asked
Hindu families to raise their firstborn as Sikhs, to come
and help him repel the rather violent Muslim rulers.
At the age of 16, in an orange orchard, my father experienced a mystical moment, a vision of sorts, of Christ speaking to him. He became part of the wave of young Sikhs who
converted to Christianity. He was a practicing Christian for
most of the rest of his life, although I know he felt close to
Sikhism as well. He created the first academic institution
for Sikh studies. This while he was principal of Baring
Union Christian College, in Batala, Punjab. It was a very
controversial institution, especially because he hired a
young atheist missionary, Hew McLeod, to be a professor.
It was my father who suggested to Hew that he write a history of Sikhism, a book published by Oxford University
Press. The book was at the center of many disagreements
amongst members of the Panth. My father greatly valued
his ancient copy of the Granth, which he used to read, and
which he kept in a velvet cover. I think he felt more and
more Sikh, and less and less Christian, as the decades and
years rolled by. I’m not sure why. He married a woman, our
mother, who is an American of Dutch and German ancestry.
You have spoken about how your life was in danger in
1984. You did not wear a turban. How were you identified
as a Sikh?
I was able very easily to pass as a white person during
1984 but for a year after the killing of Sikhs I grew a beard
and wore a turban as a sign of solidarity. A year later I felt
like I was merely wearing a costume, and that though I
admired many things in the Sikhs and understood their
agony following the Amritsar and New Delhi killings, I
could not really be a Sikh.
Going back to your question on how I was identified as a
Sikh, I think I was first seen as a dangerous person, an eyewitness to a massacre. I had taken quite a few pictures following the Indian army assaulting the Golden Temple. In
New Delhi, I was also taking pictures of attacks on Sikhs
after Mrs Gandhi’s murder. My brother Surinder and I
were actually staying with the Anglican Bishop Maqbool
Caleb and his family, directly adjacent to the Rakabganj
gurdwara, where people were being massacred just outside. The bishop asked us to relinquish our guest bedroom,
and he housed some 30 Sikh women and children for three
days. He and his wife, son and daughter were very brave.
And their servants as well. The mobs were just outside the
gate, accusing the bishop of harboring Sikhs, which he certainly was. But he remained calm, never opened the gates
of his house; he is going to be an important part of my film.
When did your Sikh identity start emerging?
My dad used to take us to the Hariminder Sahib (the
Golden Temple), but we felt that it was a visit to our heritage, not our present-day identity. Even though we spoke
Punjabi, we didn’t understand the Guru Granth Sahib at
all. My Sikh ‘half’ emerged due to 1984 more than anything
else. I was afraid that someone would find out I had a Sikh
name. My name is actually Mohinder Kumar Singh. My
mother has always called me Mike, or Michael, and I use
that name professionally to distinguish myself from the
many Mohinder Singhs out there. But watching Sikhs
being burned to death or killed in cold blood made me
more aware than ever of my Sikh blood.