Fight for Faith and Service: A Revealing Documentary About an American Sikh Soldier
- “Colonel Kalsi: Beyond The Call” is about one man’s struggle for identity, equality and respect in America and the U.S. armed forces.
The film opens with white text on black as President Harry Truman’s voice reads “…there shall be equality of treatment for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, creed, or color or national origin.” This promise is at the heart of Kamaljeet Kalsi’s story – and the documentary.
The promise that all who wish to serve and are willing to sacrifice for the country should be able to do so with dignity and respect. Kamaljeet had to put up a fight for his dignity and identity and the film takes you on a journey through his struggles of taking on one of the largest government institutions in the country — The U.S. Army.
“Colonel Kalsi: Beyond The Call” is directed by award-winning filmmakers Geeta Gandbhir and Anand Kamalakar. As seasoned New York-based documentary filmmakers, this is their first collaboration as directors. They both started their careers around the same time in the mid-1990s as editors under their mentor, the well-known filmmaker Sam Pollard.
Geeta and Anand are of Indian heritage and Kamaljeet’s story resonated with them as it was a struggle for identity, equality and respect in America, which both were familiar with on a personal and professional level. Both have a long list of films they have worked on, that deal with social justice issues in America.
I spoke to one of the filmmakers – Anand Kamalakar – regarding his interest in making this film and this particular subject. According to him, being of Indian origin and being familiar with both the Sikh faith and the long history of Sikhs in the armed services gave him insight into his subject.
When Geeta approached him with the idea of making this film, Kamalakar was drawn to Col. Kalsi’s story by the belief that when someone is voluntarily putting themselves at risk in the service of their country, the least the country can do in return is to allow them the right to do so with dignity.
Kamaljeet comes from a long line of service members; His father and grandfather both served in the Indian Air Force, while his great-grandfather served in the British Army. Kamaljeet wanted to continue his family’s legacy in his adopted country and enlisted in the U.S. Army while in medical school.
The Army was accepting of his religious identity and attire while Kamaljeet was in training. When it was time for him to deploy to Afghanistan, however, they reneged on their promise. They insisted that he would have to cut his hair and shave his beard as it would interfere with the mission and “esprit de corps” (spirit/cohesion of the unit).
A requirement of the Sikh faith is that hair not be cut and that the head be covered with a turban. As Kamaljeet says in the film, “… I am happy to bleed for my country, I am happy to die for my nation in service. But I can’t give you that which does not belong to me”.
Esprit de corps has been the reason often given to keep blacks, gays, women and others out of the forces. Although the U.S. armed forces were desegregated by executive order, they were not welcoming to all. It was a deeply unpopular decision but it opened the doors to all and made any discrimination based on “race, color, religion or national origin” unlawful.
Kamaljeet joined the army to serve and was willing to die for his adopted country, but he was firm that he would not compromise or give up his religious identity.
Born and raised in a family that immersed itself in the principles and practice of the Sikh faith, the idea of giving up his core identity was anathema to Kamaljeet.
So Kamaljeet sued the U.S. Army and the film tracks the hardships he had to face to serve his country.
Using archival footage of Sikh soldiers the film also provides a historical context and points out instances where Sikh soldiers have served with their religious identity intact in all the great bloody wars since the First World War.
The strength of the film lies in the way it provides contemporary context to long-standing issues of race and bigotry that are the background of many issues in the U.S.
The filmmakers incorporate footage of the January 6th Capitol Riots, to bring Kamaljeet’s decade-old battle into the present day. Some of the forces he had faced as a minority within the military were on display on that dark day.
Military service demands great sacrifice — personal and familial, life and limb, and mental and physical health are all impacted. But what about society’s obligation to honor those who are making these Sacrifices?
Kamaljeet is a man of quiet dignity, willing to fight for his beliefs and well aware of the impact his fight has, not just for other Sikhs, but for other minorities in military service. The documentary is about Col. Kalsi, but it also serves as a reminder of the constant fight to protect constitutional rights that is a part and parcel of living in the USA.
As Anand Kamalakar told me, the U.S. can only move forward by embracing diversity. This conviction informs the film and raises questions about the conflict between faith and public service that minorities are often forced to negotiate.
Geeta Gandbhir is an Emmy and Peabody award-winning director and editor. Her recent projects include “I Am Evidence,” “Call Center Blues” and “Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power,” among many others. Anand Kamalakar’s last film “Salam-The First Muslim Nobel Laureate” won numerous awards and was streamed on Netflix. “Holy (Un)Holy River,” “Garwin” and “300 Miles to Freedom” are some other films he has directed and edited.
“Colonel Kalsi” screens at the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) on May 13, 2023, and has a run time of 40 minutes. www.colonelkalsifilm.com, www.nyiff.us
Sudha Uppala is an avid reader, film and documentary viewer, and occasional writer. Over the years, she worked as a sub-editor and features editor at a newspaper, as a technical writer, a teacher’s assistant, and a volunteer reading tutor. She considers her experiences working as an ESL teacher for adults and with the Americorps eye-opening and with giving her a new perspective on life in the U.S. Her interest areas are children’s education, adult literacy, mental health, and the immigrant experience.