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NONFICTION FILM

A Gandhi-like force for peace

A documentarian tirelessly tracks the less-remembered legacy of Pakistani Muslim leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who opposed violence.

October 19, 2008|Allan M. Jalon | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Blood-DRENCHED stories about suicide bombings, armed clashes and assassinations that pour from Pakistan's tribal belt these days, while stressing the eruption of Taliban-Al Qaeda-related conflict, often also define the regional culture as one steeped in violence for centuries. But what rarely gets told is how the people of the wild west of Pakistan also share the modern history of radical nonviolence.

Little known in the West is a figure named Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who argued that religiously justified violence was "not God's religion." Known as Badshah (also spelled Baacha) Khan to his followers, the devoutly Muslim leader was called "The Frontier Gandhi" and built an Islamic parallel to Gandhi's violence-eschewing ideals of compassion for one's enemies and peaceful resistance to oppression as a means of overcoming it.

Khan, a Pashtun tribal leader who died at 98 in 1988 in Peshawar, also founded the Awami National Party, which today fights against enormous odds to organize tribal aspirations in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan and nearby areas away from the Taliban. The ANP website -- awaminationalparty.org -- carries an image of Khan's long-nosed, serene face at the top. On Oct. 2, Asfandyar Wali Khan, Khan's grandson and the president of the ANP, survived a suicide bomb attack outside Peshawar that killed four others.

On Nov. 8, the first full filmic account of Badshah Khan's exceptional life will get its American premiere in New York at the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival, an art film showcase mounted by a group that includes novelist Salman Rushdie on its advisory board. The documentary, titled "The Frontier Gandhi: Badshah Khan, a Torch for Peace," is the work of filmmaker and writer T.C. McLuhan, daughter of the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who spent 21years to bring the story to the screen.

A restless, determined woman, McLuhan -- she's called Teri -- made numerous trips to Afghanistan and other places where the Badshah Khan story unfolded, even as American bombs fell in Taliban-held Afghanistan after 9/11 and through the dangerous times that followed. She shot the film in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier Province, giving this story of filmmaking persistence a geopolitical dimension not many can match. Just her tale of transporting two canisters of film stock from Los Angeles across several South Asian borders becomes a saga.

She says she made six trips over the winding Khyber Pass. She dug into archives Afghan film officials sheltered from the Taliban. She managed impossibly smooth tracking shots on rutted streets using a makeshift dolly her Indian cinematographer built with skateboard wheels. A warlord became her guide and appears with her in production stills, standing in a rugged Afghan gully. She had her equipment thrown into the street by police. And she kept going back, using her Canadian citizenship and a widening network of connections to make her account of South Asia's least known great man.

For McLuhan, 62, the finished film completes a journey that started in September 1987 in Berkeley, when an acquaintance gave her "Nonviolent Soldier of Islam," a book by the late Eknath Easwaran, who knew Khan.

McLuhan says her long commitment to her project grew from her feeling about Khan's "uncommon greatness. And that was accompanied by, certainly, uncommon courage. I felt a depth of spirit that I simply wanted to know more about."

She's sitting in her Manhattan editing studio with a poster of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" (her father made a memorable cameo in the movie) on a wall. The slightly built McLuhan speaks of her filmmaking adventure as if it was all somehow fated. She says that, upon receiving Easwaran's book, "I looked at it and thought, 'I don't know anything about this part of the world,' and three weeks later, at about 3 in the morning, I picked it up and felt all the electrons around me shift."

South Asian luminaries she interviewed included Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose memory of meeting Khan as a boy is one of the film's most intimate moments, and former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who makes it clear he doesn't view Khan as a Pakistani patriot (which Khan really was not, given his quasi-nationalistic ideal of a Pashtun homeland).

McLuhan has made two other films, one a fictional tale about twins -- she is a twin -- called "The Third Walker." She also made "The Shadow Catcher," a documentary about photographer Edward S. Curtis, and has written several books. She refers to Khan, whom she never met, as "BK," as if they were close friends.

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