Dr. Minhaj Sirajuddin, DBT-inStem along with DBT-WT India Alliance and Munmun Dhalaria, Moon Peak Films released a documentary film on stories of forgotten Indian Scientists. The documentary ‘Written Out of History- Forgotten Indian Scientists’ is a celebration of key figures from the Indian Scientific community- the ones who shaped our future in elemental ways. The documentary covers Prof. Sipra Guha, the eminent Indian botanist who discovered the haploid generation in plants through anthers, Prof. Sambhu Nath De, the medical Scientist who discovered Cholera toxin and Prof. Obaid Siddiqi, a pioneering neuroscientist, founder of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, TIFR.
It was a great pleasure to interact with Dr. Minhaj and learn more about him and the captivating documentary film.
Kranti:What inspired you to produce a documentary film about forgotten Indian scientists? Where did this idea come from?
Dr. Minaj: As I recall, DBT conducted an event and published a book “Ek Pradarshini – The Best of Indian Science” at the beginning of 2018. The book described the eminent scientists in our country in a variety of disciplines ranging from physics and astronomy to chemistry, biology and medicine. That was a topic of discussion among fellow faculty members at inStem: the book has been published, but will it reach the masses? We believed that visual communication was the best way to reach out to the masses. That was the topic of discussion and the key driver behind production of this film.
Kranti:In India, there are many forgotten scientists whose discoveries continue to shape the present world. What was the reason behind picking these three scientists for the documentary film? Is there a personal story behind?
Dr. Minhaj: It (IA Public Engagement Award) was a proper grant proposal, with an objective, budget and so on. We planned to cover three scientists because, due to the award's budget limitations, covering more than three scientists was not possible. To hold the audience's attention, we decided to create a 10-minute short film for each scientist. From the start, it was clear that Sambhu Nath De's work should be highlighted. After extensive research, the second and third scientists to be covered were decided. I was thinking of P Maheshwari at first, but while reading about his work, one thing that stood out was Sipra Guha's work, and her finding was a momentous discovery that checked a number of boxes, including botanical research, forgotten women scientist, and so on. The Third one was at that time, we intended to cover G N Ramachandran. Unfortunately, we encountered some difficulties while implementing it, and IISER Pune has already created a documentary film about GNR. Then we went back and forth who should be the third scientist and we decided to focus on Obaid’s work. There was also lot of information available about Obaid Siddiqi at NCBS archives, so we decided to focus on covering Obaid Siddiqi’s work.
Kranti:Do you intend to make more films such as this in the future?
Dr. Minhaj: I'd like to build this into a series; there are several great names that we haven't covered yet. For example, you know G N Ramachandran is also an important story and very important in science. There are many inspiring stories in Biology. There are a variety of books available with stories about Indian scientists that can be used to create such documentaries.
Kranti: What was your overall experience like working with media people, families of forgotten Indian scientists, and former colleagues/students of these forgotten Indian scientists?
Dr. Minhaj: Former colleagues and families were happy to welcome us; they opened their houses, drawers, etc. in order to share memories and artefacts, tell us stories, and take us back in time. They were very welcoming. In terms of working with media people, they have a very different creative side. I think there is a lot to learn from them.
Kranti: Can you tell us about the funding for the production of this film? What advice/suggestions would you provide to someone else considering making a documentary film on scientists?
Dr. Minhaj: Unless and until you are a filmmaker, you will need to collaborate with a filmmaker or scientists who can help you understand or bring down the jargons while making a documentary. Collaboration is important for making an effective documentary film.
Kranti: Everybody has someone in their life who inspires them to achieve something. Would you like to tell us about some of them and how they have influenced your life?
Dr. Minhaj: My inspiration comes from all of my mentors. Starting with my elementary school and professors through my master's thesis, my PhD adviser, and my postdoctoral adviser.
Kranti: You are a faculty member at inStem with a variety of responsibilities, as well as you are actively engaged in science communication. You recently published a book ‘Actually, Colors speak’ and this documentary was also released this month. How do you balance science communication efforts with your focused research work?
Dr. Minhaj: Ok, that’s a very tricky question. I haven’t thought about it actually. It just happened that both of these projects came out at the same time. The pandemic you know, gave a significant break from research efforts, helped me in refocusing on what I wanted to pursue. So both of these projects are output of that. Sometimes I am more excited about lab results, and other times, when things aren't going so well, I focus on science communication and public engagement efforts. It's nice to have both so we can rely on one when things get hard.
Kranti: Have you been interested in science communication and Public engagement from long time or have you recently developed an interest in the same?
Dr. Minhaj: My post-doctoral advisor Ron Vale has made significant contributions to science outreach, and I was definitely inspired by it. But I didn’t know how to execute it. I was not aware what were the media and means to seek for the execution. When the opportunity came up, I took it as a challenge.
Kranti: Being a rational person, what do you think about the state of scientific temperament in the current times?
Dr. Mihaj: In comparison to other countries, I believe the Indian community is more scientifically temperament. They will listen if it comes from an expert. We didn’t have fights over why we should wear masks or why should we get vaccinated like other countries. It is up to us to take it forward and use it to effectively communicate science.
Kranti: Where do you think India stands today in science communication? How can scientists contribute to effective science communication?
Dr. Minhaj: Almost every research institute in India today has a science communication office. We've actually come to the point where institutes believe it's important to communicate; it's a great place to be because it opens up more opportunities for diverse scientific careers. More educational institutes in India, in my view, should offer science communication courses.