'Sarah Thaha Thoufeeq' rekindles memories of India's oldest Jew woman Sarah Cohen

'Sarah Thaha Thoufeeq' rekindles memories of India's oldest Jew woman Sarah Cohen
Sarath Kottikkal with Sarah Cohen, Thaha Ibrahim, and Thoufeek Zakriya.

How long would one wait to fulfil a dream? How long, if the dream was to tell a life story?

Sarath Kottikkal had to wait for seven years. And the 30-year-old film-maker from Thrissur realised it was worth the wait when people greeted him with emotional hugs, welled-up eyes and grateful smiles after watching the premiere of his documentary Sarah Thaha Thoufeeq at Beit Hatfutsot, Israel’s Museum of the Jewish People at Tel Aviv a few weeks before the world went into lockdown.

The documentary showcases the heart-warming tale of friendship between late Sarah Cohen, the oldest Jew lived in India, Thaha Ibrahim, a local tailor and Thoufeek Zakriya, a calligraphy artist.

“It was overwhelming. The crowd included Sarah aunty’s friends and family, her grandnephew and Israel’s Consul General in Mumbai Yaakov Finkelstein, Israel’s Indian ambassador Sanjeev Singla, Thaha and his wife Jasmine. The only person missing was Sarah aunty,” he says.

Sarah Cohen had passed away at the age of 96 at Jew Town, Mattancherry, where she stayed back when the Jew traders who had come to Kerala during the British regime left for their homeland after Independence.

'Sarah Thaha Thoufeeq' rekindles memories of India's oldest Jew woman Sarah Cohen
Sarah Cohen at Thoufeek's wedding reception.

Sarath’s documentary unveils the companionship between Sarah, Thaha and Thoufeeq. “Everyone is surprised how Thaha, a Muslim spice vendor, became part of a Jewish family where the rest of the world witnessed conflicts between their Semitic religions. After the death of her husband Jacob Cohen, it was Thaha who looked after Sarah aunty. To the childless Cohens, he was a friend, a son and a caretaker. Thoufeek, an artist and a chef, is an expert in Hebrew calligraphy and became close to Sarah aunty. Though he moved to the Middle East later, Sarah aunty loved him like a grandchild,” he says.

Sarath’s relationship with Sarah started when he stumbled across a news feature on the oldest Jewish women living in Mattancherry. He was an undergraduate in visual communication and he came to Kochi, met Sarah and made a small video which he screened at his college.

'Sarah Thaha Thoufeeq' rekindles memories of India's oldest Jew woman Sarah Cohen
Sarath Kottikkal with Thaha Ibrahim

“Back then, I had no idea about documentary making or the scope of the subject I had shot. But on seeing video, my teachers asked me to work on a bigger scale. I started watching many documentaries to learn various styles and in 2013, I started shooting the life of Sarah aunty and her relationship with Thaha.”

What started as a secular tale, the project grew beyond Sarath's expectations, quite organically. As he delved deeper, the documentary became his life story too as he spent years and years knowing humanity, love and bonds.

Embodiment of love

Speaking about Thaha, Sarath recalls, “Thaha is an embodiment of love. From someone who grew up as a street vendor, this man has evolved into a wise scholar with knowledge in history, architecture, photography, Jewish customs and rituals. I am mesmerised by his relationship with Sarah aunty. Their love was pure, unconditional, so deep. No matter how many job offers he got, Thaha never left Sarah aunty’s side. He said he had to look after Sarah aunty, that was a promise he made to Jacob uncle. He also helped her with her embroidery work, making kippahs (traditional Jewish caps), and managing her souvenir shop near the 450-year old synagogue near her residence. She kept asking Thaha why he loved her so much; Thaha just smiled.”

Thoufeek came into the picture much later. “A calligraphy artist, he made copies of the Torah, the Jewish Written Law, and shared a special bond with Sarah aunty. It was her greatest wish to attend his marriage, and she did. She could even see his child,” says Sarath.

'Sarah Thaha Thoufeeq' rekindles memories of India's oldest Jew woman Sarah Cohen
Film-maker Sarath Kottikkal

Sarath brought all these emotions into Sarah Thaha Thoufeek. Choosing from the thousands of visuals, shot over seven years, was hectic, especially when there were contributions from Thaha too, but Sarath made the right choices. The response tells it all.

“There are no rehearsed or staged footages. There are visuals shot in mobile phones too. It’s not a film of visuals, but content. There was this time when Sarah aunty wished to see the Lulu Mall. No sooner than she expressed her wish, Thaha arranged a taxi and took her there. The visuals he shot on his phone, of aunty enjoying the sights, are used in the film. There are footages from Thoufeek’s wedding too. Her cheerful chats, funny conversations, endearing personality are shared through the film. And not even once have I used the word communal harmony in the narration,” he adds.

It was after the filming was wrapped up that Sarah died. For Sarath, it was an unbelievable day, “I was there at Sarah aunty’s funeral, but I couldn’t shoot any of the visuals. That wasn’t a shooting material for me. She was more than a character; she was a strong woman, a loving soul and a caring human being; it’s a feeling beyond words.”

Big names

What makes the documentary even more special is the talent pool associated with the project, and the list includes national-award-winning sound engineer Justin Jose who has worked behind Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat and Baahubali, producer Thomas Kottackakom, music composer Prashant Pillai, cinematographer Vishnu Thandassery, editor Lijin Cherian, poster designer Jairam Posterwala, subtitler Sanal Raj and title graphic artist Sanath T G.

While saying that it all just happened, Sarath admits that he never really tried for anything. “All the doors opened before me, even the screening at Israel, which was arranged by Yaakov Finkelstein at the behest of Thaha. After the screening, the Consul General just hugged me. It was both emotional and surreal to me. He later sent me the thank you mails and emotional messages he received after the show. I think that it was my destiny to work on this documentary,” says Sarath, who hasn’t devoted much time to anything else more than Sarah Thaha Thoufeek, barring a few advertisements.

Sarath plans to take his work to film festivals across the world. The film was to be screened in Kochi last month, but as lockdown played the spoilsport. He is now waiting for the end of lockdown, to let people know about the beautiful tale of human bonding, a fading history and a culture that needs to be preserved along with lessons of humanity beyond borders.

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