Black Panthers and Indian actors in Trinidad

Black Panthers and Indian actors in Trinidad

Photo : Dr. Kumar Mahabir

There have been much energetic excitement by Africans in the Diaspora at the release of the Black Panther. The film features Trinidad and Tobago-born Winston Duke as the antagonist, M’Baku.

At the film’s premier at the IMAX cinema in Trinidad, there were African drumming, chanting, singing and dancing by participants who sported ethnic clothes, headdresses and accessories.

In character as Queen Mother, Ramonda of the fictional Wakanda, told the audience: “I am here with a message from the ancestors. Embrace and celebrate your Africanness. Be proud of who you are. Wakanda is more than a place. Wakanda is the manifestation of the dreams and hopes of every little black boy and girl” (Express 22/02/18).

This is the same pleasure Indo-Trinidadians (Indians) experience when they see themselves in movies and advertisements. Unfortunately, they (Indian men in particular) are marginalised or non-existent in the local mainstream media.

The appearance of the KFC Carnival adv on TV, with two Indian male actors, came as a breath of fresh air in a dark, suffocating closet. The Massy Forever adv, with KI (Kris Veeshal Persad) belting out his catchy soca chutney jingle, evoked the same feeling to Indian children in particular. 

In an interview on Black Panther on MSNBC TV, Winston Duke said: “For me, it’s definitely something that allows me, and I hope a lot of other people of colour, to see themselves reflected in the media and the things they consume” (11/02/18).

Except for local plays written and directed by Indians like Victor Edwards, Seeta Persad and Walid Baksh, Indian actors and actresses have been given minor roles or none at all (“invisible”) in “national” theatre and cinema. In this context, The Cutlass is a recent local movie with a difference. And indeed, the tagline of the movie on the cinema poster is “A breakthrough in Caribbean Cinema.”

Surprisingly, Arnold Goindhan is given the lead role (by the non-Indian Teneille Newallo) as the kidnapper named “Al” in The Cutlass. Paradoxically, he is given only a fleeting presence in the film’s trailer. He is the only Indian actor, and the only Indian character, in a movie that is based on crime, race and class in Trinidad.

The kidnap movie premiered to a sold-out audience at the T&T Film Festival in 2016 and received rave reviews. It copped the T&T Film Festival’s Best Trinidad and Tobago Feature Film and People’s Choice awards.

The last time an Indian was chosen for a major role in a local feature film was in 1974, 44 years ago. That film was titled Bim which starred Ralph (Anglicised from Rabindranath) Maraj.

As an actor, Ralph Maraj was preceded by Basdeo Panday who became the first Indian in the Caribbean to appear on a big screen in Nine Hours to Rama (1963). The movie was about the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Panday also acted in two other British cinematic movies: Man in the Middle (1964) and The Brigand of Kandahar (1965).

But the Indo-Caribbean actor who has earned the honour of starring in the most movies – Hollywood included – is Errol Sitahal. He acted in Tommy Boy (1995), A Little Princess (1995) and Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004).

Valmike Rampersad, Nisha Kandhai, and Dinesh (“Dino”) Maharaj are rising stars to watch. Originally from Cedros, Dinesh is the lead actor in the new feature film Moko Jumbie.

Local advertising agencies, and drama and film directors in Trinidad, should include (more) Indian actors in their productions. This initiative would see additional patrons and greater sales. “Diversity does in fact, sell,” said Darnell Hunt, a professor of Social Science at the University of California, who was commenting on the financial success of the Black Panther (Washington Post 19/02/18).  Studies have proven that diverse casts attract wider audiences.

Black Panther is on an historic run that could easily hit US$1 billion in ticket sales. One reviewer wrote that the movie satisfied “an audience hungry to see itself represented on the big screen in a way it seldom has before.”

If cinema owners in Trinidad and elsewhere wish to do better business, they should stop behaving as if they are living in an apartheid system. For generations, they have

been reluctant to show previews of Indian/Bollywood movies to non-Indian audiences in theatres. The mega success of Bollywood soaps such as Kasamh Se, Banoo Main Teri Dulhann

and Bade Achhe Lagte Hain on national television for multi-ethnic audiences has still not opened the eyes of businessmen to make more cents (pun intended).

And while I am on the topic of ethnic diversity and profit margins, the operators of  

The Fiesta Plaza in MovieTowne in Port of Spain should provide stage space for Indian cultural performers. This has never been done. We are not living in apartheid South Africa.

 THE WRITER is an anthropologist who has published 11 books.