If you were to meet Gurinder Singh Khalsa, the recipient of the 2019 Rosa Parks Trailblazer Award from Indiana Minority Business Magazine and founder/current chair of SikhsPAC, you would immediately be struck by his essential goodness.
If there is a personification of Hoosier Hospitality, it would be Gurinder Singh Khalsa.
Writer/director Jenna Ruiz, a student filmmaker from IUPUI, has captured the heart and soul of Gurinder Singh Khalsa in the deeply moving, emotionally riveting 18-minute short film Singh, a film having its U.S. premiere at the 2019 Indy Shorts International Film Festival that centers around the true story of Gurinder Singh, a Sikh man who in 2007 was forced to choose between his religious beliefs and his flight to see his dying mother in her last days.
Singh is an emotional rollercoaster of a film, the kind of film where even if you're familiar with the 2007 incident in which Singh was stopped while trying to board a flight in Buffalo, NY, you'll still find yourself riveted by the incidental details and ups-and-downs of a situation where time after time people, mainly in the form of TSA agents, had the opportunity to do the right thing yet chose repeatedly to justify themselves with strict enforcement of vaguely written policies and/or simply enforcing their own obvious personal biases.
If you can't tell, Singh really, really ticked me off.
The master stroke here is having cast Singh himself in the film, a choice that can occasionally backfire (I'm lookin' at you Clint Eastwood) but a choice here that adds authenticity and honesty and ache to the film. Singh himself isn't necessarily a true actor, but he brings such a vibrancy of humanity and presence to the role that you're mesmerized by everything he says and does. Having only recently met Singh myself despite having largely traveled in the same circles for years, watching his performance here has left me even further captivated by the man whose perseverance and faithfulness led to the founding of SikhsPAC and to significant, bipartisan changes to TSA's headwear policy. Now, clearly spelled out, Sikhs are permitted to wear turbans, or dastaar, through airport security and TSA agents are not allowed to touch the garments. Instead, the person wearing the covering touches their own turban and then undergoes a swab test for clearance.
It's a much more respectful policy that allows for TSA agents to do their jobs and for members of the Sikh community to honor their faith.
As a film, Singh pulsates with the electricity of the highly charged situation that's unfolding. Jackson Sexson's original score gives the film an emotional undercurrent that helps steer it away from melodrama or histrionics, while Jim Dougherty's precise, humane lensing for the film captures the tension and the aching presence of a man who seems powerless when surrounded by TSA agents whose enforcement of policy is clearly clouded by stereotypes and personal biases. Dougherty captures that tension, the offside stares and watchful eyes determined to find "something" even if it's not actually there, and it's such vivid lensing and impactful acting by the rest of the film's ensemble cast that you'll likely pretty much be uncomfortable the next time you have to go through an airport security checkpoint.
Yet, there again, Singh takes us back to the core of who Gurinder Singh Khalsa is as a human being.
Rather than wallow in victimization, Gurinder Singh Khalsa sought and fought for dramatic changes and, in fact, his efforts proved to be wildly successful as he proved, unquestionably, that one person can make a difference in the world.
Singh, an enlightening and empowered short film beautifully written and directed by Jenna Ruiz, will most assuredly change your world.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic