On movies and culture

On movies and culture

Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

Some were surprised at the reaction of people of African Origin to the Marvel movie “Black Panther”, which elicited such a deep cultural outpouring exhibited in clothes and music. I was not, and it had nothing to do with the US$150 million Disney had spent on the publicity on top of the US$200 million budget. It was because, for the first time, here was a film that African audiences could relate to primarily because it appeared to them to be authentically African.

It is my hope that now the movie has been commercially successful beyond the producers’ wildest dream (approaching US$1Billion) movies of this kind, affirming the humanity of people of African origin, will continue to be made. I believe it will go very far in improving relations between the two major groups in Guyana and Trinidad – of African and Indian origins.

I have written of the tendency of groups placed in the same social space to compare themselves to each other. In the Caribbean, people of African origin had implicitly, if not explicitly, insisted that the “Creole Culture” - formed out of the White/African encounter when the former had enslaved the latter - was the “national culture” and relegated Indian cultural expressions as retrogressive. In this comparison, to be “Guyanese” or “Trinidadian”, the Indian had to jettison his “Indianness” – encompassed in his culture.

Now that the point has been made so powerfully about the adverse consequences of the western impositions on the African psyche in the character of Eric Kilmonger, and of the depth and profundity of African points of views (Wakanda has five different groups working together – a lesson for us?) maybe local people of African origin will appreciate the point I made two decades ago that Creole culture was an “abomination” that must be re-evaluated by its adherents.

This re-evaluation, I believe, will lead to a greater appreciation of the attempts by Indians in the Caribbean to retain their culture against the daily efforts to strip them of it. I still remember Ms Jocelyn Dow (of the WPA and now Chair of the Forestry Commission) exploding that sometimes when she turns on the TV, she doesn’t know whether she’s in India or not. It was an expression of the deep seated premise that Indian music or film was not really “West Indian”. I believe that to the extent African Guyanese appreciate African culture and interrogate creole culture, they will resent to a lesser degree Indian cultural expressions. And as I said, Black Panther may trigger this movement, presaged by the “Black Power” movement which was somewhat short circuited after the 1970’s.

For Indians, starting with the first Indian film shown in 1935 (Bala Johan), Indian culture received a great shot in the arm and it revolutionized both its form and content – less than fifteen years after the abolition of Indian indentureship. Before the introduction of Hindi Films, most of the singing, for instance, was confined to the folk expressions that would have been remembered from their peasant experience. With Indian movies dominated by songs, new forms were introduced into the local repertoire.

Hinduism was particularly enriched with the Bhajans from the movies – like Tulsidas’ Mujhe Apni Sharan Me Le Lo, by the immortal Mohamed Rafi - practically replacing the older, peasant songs – later, ironically, to be spared in the eighties in the Chutney compositions. The movies of the pre-and post war era were heavily influenced by the need of the average rural Indian to deal with the challenges of modernization by retaining or adapting time-honoured values. The writer remembers vividly movies, for instance, like Choti Bahin that emphasised the individual’s responsibility to family (especially sisters) and Dosti, the need for loyalty to friends. There is not an Indian movie that did not extoll the fundamental importance of family – including those like Baghban in the present.

The Indian movie, while refracted through that country’s own commercialized attempts to deal with westernization, yet never lost sight with the essential need for cultural continuity. Nowadays Holi or Phagwa would be incomplete in both India and its diaspora without the song popularized by Amitabh Bachan – Rang Barse –from the movie classic Silsila.

More power to the people through movies!