The journey to documenting Abdus Salam

Published: June 20, 2013
Film-makers Zakir Thaver and Omar Vandal express their love for science through a documentary on Mohammad Abdus Salam. DESIGN: ABEERA KHAN / FAHAD NAVEED

Film-makers Zakir Thaver and Omar Vandal express their love for science through a documentary on Mohammad Abdus Salam. DESIGN: ABEERA KHAN / FAHAD NAVEED


It was during a casual conversation over a meal that film-makers Zakir Thaver and Omar Vandal came up with the idea of making a documentary on renowned physicist and Pakistan’s only Nobel prize winner Mohammad Abdus Salam.

Over a decade ago, in 1996, the year of Salam’s death, Science/Education Media Producer Thaver, and PhD from the Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, Vandal, met and discussed the idea.

“Later that year, when Salam passed, we talked about him over a meal… we didn’t know enough about him then and the conversation was somewhat superficial — Pakistan’s only Nobel Laureate, marginalised by his motherland because he was born to the ‘wrong’ sect, etc,” they said in an email interview.

“After college, the both of us were in New York and revisited the idea. In retrospect, we thought in the post 9/11 climate, by way of challenging emerging stereotypes. Our minds began to query icons from our own culture, as opposed to the usual Einstein poster that almost all science majors have up on their dorm room walls.”

Focusing on a more culturally-associated science icon, who to them seemed far more relatable, led the duo to the untold story of Pakistan’s most illustrious intellectual. “What struck us immediately on researching Salam was that he was so much more than just a scientist…we had no idea,” said Thaver and Vandal. “He was a giant on the world stage of physics and ranked amongst the most influential scientific personalities of the 20th century. Others from Pakistan, we discovered, had even less of an idea. So we felt it was a story that just had to be told.” The producers strongly feel that it’s extremely tragic that a kid on the streets of our country hardly knows much about the influential scientist and the documentary is, in a way, an attempt to highlight this significant point. “Perhaps a unified or consolidated, significant point is to look at what Pakistan lost out on because of prejudice. Virtually all scientific effort in Pakistan owes its existence to Salam.” “Salam was quite a superhuman… so yes, the science and his marginalisation are just two of several themes. Salam was so much more than just a stellar scientist,” they added.

With their documentary, Thaver and Vandal aim to foster an appreciation for the scientist, as well as create public awareness of science. But fulfilling the dream has been quite a challenge. “Fundraising has been the biggest challenge. In general, fundraising for documentary films, particularly biographies, is very hard. TC McLuhan, Director of Frontier Gandhi (a documentary on Abdul Ghaffar ‘Bacha’ Khan), spent over 20 years fundraising and working on her film. We’ve soldiered on for the past 10 years largely because this is a very important story that needs to be told. It also certainly helps when the subject of your documentary film is also a source of inspiration,” claimed the duo.

When asked what was probably the most interesting aspect of fundraising, the film-makers said, “When Salam scored the highest marks in his Marticulation examination, at the age of 14, the entire town showed up to celebrate his accomplishment. When he died, thousands showed up in Jhang and Rabwah to pay their last respects. It is those kinds of people — the kind that showed up to pay their last respects and to celebrate him when he was 14 — who have supported our project.” As part of their research, the two of them also visited Salam’s primary school in Jhang, an experience that seems to have been quite moving for them. “Visiting Salam’s primary school in Jhang was an incredible experience — Salam was clearly an icon who the students (and teachers) looked up to. There was a replica of Salam’s Nobel Prize and a portrait in the Principal’s office. Why can’t this be the case in every school in Pakistan?” asked Thaver.

Surprisingly, the project, which has been funded entirely through individual donations, managed to garner support from all across the globe, including major physics societies from India, the UK, US and many more. Nevertheless, the producers are still far off from their fundraising goal but are hoping to make the desired impact through their film in the coming year.

“We’re working very hard to raise enough funds to reach post-production in the final quarter of 2013 and complete it in the next six to eight months,” they said.

Considering the topic encompasses the life of a rather global ambassador, it does not come as a shock that a director like Mira Nair showed immense interest. “Mira suggested we do the docufilm guerilla style — ‘Start filming with whatever material and funds you have in hand. Film by day, hustle by night,’ she said. She, too, was clearly a huge believer in the power of Salam’s story and how important it was to document and tell it,” shared Vandal.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 21st, 2013.

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Reader Comments (41)

  • Shaami
    Jun 20, 2013 - 7:59PM

    A good effort indeed but unfortunately Our Government have abandoned Salam for a longer time now based on religious reasons and it is a shame.


  • Ahmed
    Jun 20, 2013 - 8:07PM

    And now ladies and gentlemen lets have another debate about Ahamdis.
    Lets forget about what the article is about and discuss the faith of Ahmadis.

    This goes for both sides. Please just focus on the story this time. The ‘Ahmadi’ topic has already been discussed a gazillion times. I know they are persecuted , i know they don’t get their rights, I know they don’t have freedom in Pakistan. But please lets leave that for some other news report. Not this one.


  • Morons
    Jun 20, 2013 - 8:07PM

    It is such a positive news. We need to inspire our children towards education with the story of this unsung hero of our country. But my suspicions on its release in Pakistan since Mullah can never accept promoting positivity in society through an Ahmadi member.


  • Zawar Munawar Saleemi
    Jun 20, 2013 - 8:19PM

    Brilliant effort and best of luck! Please share a link for fundraising and any social media links.



  • Umer
    Jun 20, 2013 - 8:19PM

    How much money is needed to complete this documentary?


  • CrankShaft
    Jun 20, 2013 - 8:24PM

    People like Dr Salam should be the inspiration for our youth instead of conquerors etc. Dr Salam was the greatest scientific mind that this land has ever produced yet majority is unaware of this great man’s achievements. Good job by the documentary makers to highlight his life and contributions to the world of science.


  • Nadir
    Jun 20, 2013 - 8:26PM

    Link to trailer here:


  • naeem khan Manhattan,Ks
    Jun 20, 2013 - 8:48PM

    It makes me proud immensely that we still have people in Pakistan who cared about the man who was considered an icon in the world scientific community. When I was growing up in Mardan, we considered Abdus Salam our hero, there was no such thing being Ahmadi but he was a Pakistani and made us so proud of him and some of the class mates even dreamed to follow in his footsteps. Thank you Zakir Thaver and Omar Vandal for taking so much time and effort to do this noble cause. Kudos to both of you.


  • Morons
    Jun 20, 2013 - 9:05PM

    @Ahmed: I can only classify your statement as phlegmatic. Although, it is not absolutely essential to start a debate, the story itself states a lot of pointers that can be debatable to some. Still in most cases people usually state their despair for the situation Ahmadis (and most other minoritites) are in Pakistan when ever referred to someone or some news related to them. The debates starts only after people post apathetic comments.


  • Rizwan
    Jun 20, 2013 - 9:10PM

    A fantastic effort, when I read about him I was shocked by what he had delivered to the nation despite his differences with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto after he proclaimed Ahmadi as non-Muslims. Wikipedia has such a tremendous wealth of information on his work and achievements for Pakistan and its nuclear program. Another documentary on the life of Dr. Abdus Salam, “The Dream of Symmetry” by Pilgrim Film is still not completed and only promo is available. I just hope this projects get to be completed and the new generation understands the genius we had in our midst but alas the nation was blind and dumb. The new generation will rise up to the challenge and ensure Dr. Abdus Salam gets the true status he deserved as a Pakistani and a fantastic Physicist.


  • Zain
    Jun 20, 2013 - 9:13PM

    Respect for Dr Abdus Salam regardless of what faith he belongs to.
    Unfortunately he was born in Pakistan just like the 170 million other unfortunate people.


  • Jun 20, 2013 - 9:14PM

    Ask the People of Pakistan to help you with funds, ask the students who are desperate to find an inspiration in someone who they can look up to. I being a student of research can assure you of any assistance to the best of my abilities also an amount from my pocket money.

    Let me know if I can be part of this initiative. @TauseefJShah


  • Umer
    Jun 20, 2013 - 9:34PM


    nother documentary on the life of Dr. Abdus Salam, “The Dream of Symmetry” by Pilgrim Film is still not completed and only promo is available

    Its released and is here;

    Abdus Salam: The Dream of Symetry


  • Ehsan
    Jun 20, 2013 - 9:45PM

    The life of Salam is a perfect story it shows us, What it takes to becaome a genius..?? How a poor boy living in slums can make his way to the Royal Swiss Academy..!! How he faced a lack of Coorporation from Govt..?? How such a Poor child laid the Foundations of ICTP..!! How your weakness could be your strength??
    It will be a lovely story if Mullas would let you Broadcast it…


  • Z.Khan
    Jun 20, 2013 - 11:06PM

    You are right. Then accept himn as asset for Pakistan and let the government and other wealthy come forward to finance the project. But it will remain a wishful thinking because you can not separate Salam and Ahmadiyya. Some where some time this issue will prop up again


  • Rebellious Revoultionary
    Jun 20, 2013 - 11:15PM

    To donate for this project in order to make it a success, Please visit the following URL for more details. Thank You


  • ayaz
    Jun 20, 2013 - 11:20PM

    may i help u sir in fund raising.Islam is the beacon of light.Proud of Pakistan.


  • Z.Khan
    Jun 20, 2013 - 11:54PM

    In Germany, very recently, two functions to recognize the work of Dr Salam were organized. His brother and few close associates attended it. His fans in this country can assist for fund raising as well inclusion of some shots for these function. If interested can indicate and assistance will be coming forward.


  • Jun 21, 2013 - 12:14AM

    We laud the efforts of the two young gentlemen to make a documentary on a great Pakistani hero. In today’s chaotic and hectic lives the younger Pakistanis will definitely like to hear about their one and only Nobel Prize winner. May this documentary motivate others from the younger generation to win acclaims for their country!

    Abdul Quddus
    DET-United States Central Command


  • Naeem M Siddiqi
    Jun 21, 2013 - 1:12AM

    Every Pakistani and Muslims are very fond of Heroes of the past. when some body talks about the deficiencies of the present, we extend the accomplishment of the past to present and think we are equal to everybody today. To my knowledge there are less than a dozen Nobel prize winners in our ” Ummah ” while Jewish faith have earned about quarter of all nobel prize awarded so far.There are only two Muslims who have earned Nobel in Sciences.One is Dr. Salam.We treated him shabbily and in a way dishonored him, Its about time that nation recognizes him as a Scientist, establish an institution in his honor to recognize the bright young men and women who are getting lost in the crowd for many reasons. Let us produce more Salams to honor Salam. We must respect our genetic endowment and try to harvest it. Its very easy to do through our existing system.If any student secures more than 90% of the marks in high school he should be isolated and be placed on fast and supervised national track for success. We have shortage of excellence and dearth of talent. We have under !% mostly mediocre graduates whom we call them bright. All of us outside who have contributed to adopted countries could do the same for our fatherland. Its sad country pushed out the talent for various reasons.Let us make a start in name of DR. Salam not because he was an Ahmadi but because he was a superior human being born in Jhang a city in Pakistan.


  • Umer
    Jun 21, 2013 - 1:32AM


    We laud the efforts of the two young gentlemen to make a documentary on a great Pakistani hero.

    So how much have you donated for this effort US CENTCOM? May be if you drop less bombs and support more of such causes the world would be a better place?


  • hasan ansari
    Jun 21, 2013 - 3:30AM

    Please be safe !


  • Nadeem
    Jun 21, 2013 - 3:31AM

    A very worthy and noble idea. However the bigoted Pakistani nation will not allow their youths to benefit from this documenatry. The brainwashed Mullah following parrents would arther tie a suicide vest around their young children and will be proud when he blows up other Muslims!!!!! Pakistan and Pakistanis area lost cause now. A country that can allow the residence of its mentor and the father of the nation to be blown up? What can you say about them? Even in India the residence of Jinnah is well preserved!!! And the bigots will never accept Dr Slaam as a hero becuase he was an Ahmadi. Just go check with PTI’s Imran Khan and you will get your answer.


  • John the Baptist
    Jun 21, 2013 - 4:22AM

    A giant amongst midgets! Incredible personality, great devotion to science.


  • Haris Chaudhry
    Jun 21, 2013 - 4:50AM

    @ Umer:

    So how much have you donated for this
    effort US CENTCOM? May be if you drop
    less bombs and support more of such
    causes the world would be a better

    It is not the responsibility of US Centcom or US gov to be conducting ‘fundraising’ for a movie ! Perhaps best to check your figures: USA is still the largest donor to Pakistan (more than Saudi, China and UAE combined) !

    USA also conducts capacity building and is funding over 400 projects in Pakistan.

    It is juvenile to link someone dropping bombs on its foes to raising funds to make a documentary !

    We Pakistanis have a habit of expecting tons from US, delivering zilch in return and bad mouthing US continously as we grab what we can from it with both hands… Kind of biting the hand that feeds us !


  • Qudsia
    Jun 21, 2013 - 8:00AM

    Keep up the good work!


  • Uzair Peracha
    Jun 21, 2013 - 9:46AM

    Great job by Zakir Thaver and Omar Vandal. I am proud of you guys.


  • Aneeq Ahmad
    Jun 21, 2013 - 2:43PM

    that is a great effort because belonging to a group u don’t like doesn’t u must not appreciate the work of someone from that community… that is a great effort wish u best of luck in this regard. i am an ahmadi and i am very happy and just wishing that this film find its way toward cinema and screen and shall not be ban by government or any other party :)


  • Akbar Jahanzeb Durrani
    Jun 21, 2013 - 4:04PM

    I weep for this unfortunate nation heading for self destruction.We are in the strong grip of hardcore Fascists and God alone knows as to what is to be our fate.However it makes me immensely proud when I think of that Brilliant and beautiful mind that is Dr. Salam.Anyone potraying Dr. Sahibs life and career is to be praised and admired. Please keep up with this good work.


  • SRahman
    Jun 21, 2013 - 4:59PM

    Alhamdolillah, a good news from Pakistan after long time. I wonder if we as a nation are waking up or it is just a dream? In reality we are not obliging Dr. Abdul Salam but giving a hope and a role model to our new generation. May Allah make it a very productive documentary.


  • vasan
    Jun 21, 2013 - 5:00PM

    Umer : Begging US even for this cause ?? Pathetic
    The good intentioned producers must take care of their safety first because of reasons known to all. There are the so called “Religiously pious” wolves and vultures around. Take care and be safe.


  • Umer
    Jun 21, 2013 - 6:48PM


    Umer : Begging US even for this cause ?? Pathetic

    Not begging, making a point on where US priorities lie. The way terrorists/Al-Qaida are being supported by US in Syria these days would probably not bring good results for instance.


  • Kaleem
    Jun 21, 2013 - 8:05PM

    Brilliant effort. I pray that you guys succeed in your project.
    I attended his funeral and cannot forget that day. I remember the news channels did not mention a thing of this great man and only a few line news in urdu print media on the bottom somewhere.
    Pakistan and Awam are just so lost that they dont even know what others think of them. Only Allah can save this crowd.


  • Yahya
    Jun 21, 2013 - 10:32PM

    Great Effort. I hope we start appreciating our Heros and start inspiring our young to make new Heros in an otherwise rapidly dying country.

    Where can i donate?


  • Aftab Wilson
    Jun 22, 2013 - 2:04AM

    Abdus Salam Documentary Film website: (follow link to donate page)

    ~6 min teaser:


  • awais
    Jun 22, 2013 - 3:46AM
  • Aysha M (original version)
    Jun 22, 2013 - 4:46AM

    Legislation in 1974 against Ahmedi muslims turned Pakistan into a sectarian-sty, It should be repealed


  • Munir ali
    Jun 22, 2013 - 9:56AM

    Hmmm… Salam was really a product of preindependence India. Other physicists who came through the same Indian system was S. Chandrasekhar (born Lahore), a Nobelist and considered the father of modern astrophysics. The biggest influences of this generation were earlier Indian stalwarts like Ramanujan (in the top few mathematicians of the past century) and Sir C.V. Raman (first physics Nobelist from Asia). Really, pakistan as a nation had no role in the making of Salam and I wonder why we are constantly chest thumping about him as if we did.


  • Maqbool
    Jun 22, 2013 - 1:02PM

    Neither Chandrasekhar, nor CV Raman, nor Ramanujan considered themselves Pakistani, whereas Abdus Salam did. Well Ramanujan could not have, he died circa 1920…Chandresekhar became a US Citizen (but not that this matters in the grand scheme of things). I don’t think this is about thumping our chests, unfortunately as a country we are a very far cry away from that. I think this is another story of opportunity lost…


  • Umer
    Jun 22, 2013 - 4:26PM

    @Munir ali:

    Hmmm… Salam was really a product of preindependence India.

    Its hard to disagree with that. Post-independence pretty much everything went downhill.


  • I.Khan
    Jun 24, 2013 - 3:18AM

    @I.Khan Kamalzae
    ……That is the brilliant effort the guys making towards uncovering the legend of science actually what he was before becoming the scientist what he has done for the science. May ALLAH bless them to complete the documentary and shows to the world of ISLAM about Dr. Abdul Salam Sahib…Best of luck and thumbs up guys……..!


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