“The True Guru is the ocean of pearls, one attains it according to his Writ. The Sikhs like swans gather together according to the Will of the True Guru. The ocean is full of gems and pearls, the swan eats them, but the ocean always remains full. The Lord wills that the ocean and the swans are not separated. Only that Sikh comes to the Guru, on whose forehead this Writ is recorded from the very beginning. Such a Gursikh not only ferries across the world-ocean, himself, but also saves his family and the whole world.” (Guru Arjan, Var Ramkali
I just watched “Ocean of Pearls” last night on streaming Netflix and I fell in love. I fell in love with the characters, with the story, and with the Director, Sarab Neelam whose film was honest without being didactic, powerful yet gentle, clear yet subtle. Neelam moved with his family from India to Toronto when he was 10, and this film is semi-autobiographical. I think this film has value for everyone regardless of their religion beliefs. We all have to make decisions about who we are, what we believe, when to compromise, and when to stand up for our values.
“Ocean of Pearls” addresses political and social issues that are both universal and specific to time and place. It’s the story of Amrit, a young Sikh (beautifully acted by Omid Abtah) who struggles to integrate his cultural values into the contemporary world of a money driven health care system, racial profiling, and a society that requires him to compromise personal integrity. Amrit is a brilliant surgeon who moves from Canada to accept a position at a prestigious hospital in Detroit.
As Amrit strives to balance his goals to advance his career and gain acceptance, his hair becomes the metaphor for his personal struggle to assimilate. Amrit wants to be accepted as doctor in an American hospital while staying true to himself, his girlfriend, and family and community. He struggles with the question of whether or not to cut his hair and remove his turban. He asks himself whether or not keeping his long hair is more important than his opportunity to save lives and advance the field of medicine. He begins to make many of the “reasonable” compromises as he tries to define what is truly important. He wants to live a life of seva (selfless service to others), which is the basis of his spiritual tradition, yet being part of the American health care system, he is asked to accept that people will die when health insurance companies deny coverage. He continues to ask himself what values of his traditional upbringing are “pearls” that cannot be dismissed and forgotten.
While some reviewers criticized the film for being melodramatic, I did not. I agree with the decision of “Asia Pacific Arts” to include this film in its top ten films of 2008, saying that “its domestic and romantic melodrama feels true and never sensational, while its passion to reveal social injustice is never didactic. And, I was further delighted to hear Snatum Kuar, an American singer songwriter, who is a Sikh, and visited my town of Fairfield Iowa while on tour, chant her beautiful kirtan at the beginning of the film.