(Excerpted from my Ph.D. Thesis. IMPACT OF INDIAN MOVIES ON EAST INDIAN IDENTITY IN TRINIDAD 2013.)
This chapter examines how Indian Cinema, though dwelling primarily on the escapist and fantasy, mirrored aspects of Indian society in terms of politics, social values, minority and majority groups, dress, culture, traditions, values, religion and other aspects of life.
The chapter observes how the Indian celluloid mirror reflected Indian behaviors within certain broad dharmic principles contextualized by the filmi moral universe. It also examines how, while Indian movies were meant to reflect Indian society, they mirrored similar beliefs, practices, cultural nuances, ethos, dreams, dilemmas and changes in Trinidad East Indian society.
Indian movies generally projected the proliferation of demons, gods, avatars, city folk, country folk, love, peace, happiness, harmony, anger, hatred and jealousy all mingling and competing for celluloid space within the complex Indian filmi narrative. This syncretic dynamism of the Indian Cinema brought to life Indian society reflected on the silver screen in such a manner that there was a judicious mixture of a covenant of unreality, fantasy and escapism mingled with a dose of reality and Indian values, which drew their sustenance from the Puranic Literatures. At first glance, Indian movies seemed to operate within a traditional social vacuum where the narrative was reduced to simplistic messages based on a relaxed pragmatic approach to life and living, while superficially contextualized within the realm of fantasy and escapism, yet deeply rooted within the province of human dogmas. The average Indian movie cinema fan in Trinidad, particularly in the early days of Indian Cinema here, saw themselves reflected on the silver screen, in the first instance, because they saw people of their own kind, with whom they identified, living and working under similar conditions. When they saw Nargis in Mother India tilling the land, they saw in her, a mirror of their own life because they were accustomed to that kind of work in the sugar cane fields, in the rice fields and agricultural plots. For each individual the mirror was therefore different, because he or she saw in that mirror reflections of his own life, his past, his present and his future.
Indian Cinema, like most other cinemas, has evolved over time, responding to various social, cultural, religious and political contexts and challenges. To understand the distinctiveness of Indian Cinema, its distinguishing traits, privileged concepts and its impact on Trinidad East Indians, it would be useful to examine the forces that shaped Indian films and the changes in theme, content and style over the decades of its existence.
By convention, Indian films were generally made up of a narrative with inserts of songs and dances. Most narratives, though, were constructed with a protagonist and a villain, between whom the heroine generally prevaricated and got into difficulties. The narrative included a range of emotions from tears to comedy and fighting. It was not uncommon to see songs, dances, love triangles, comedy, daredevil thrills, fights, weddings, festivals, poverty, corruption, sacrifice, politicians and dancing courtesans all mixed up together in an Indian movie. Unlike English movies, which ran for ninety minutes, this three-hour-long, uniquely Indian melodramatic musical filmi extravaganza was broken by an intermission that usually came at some critical point midway in the narrative. As part of the Indian film formula, every movie contained at least six or seven songs, three or four dances and a few top stars. Almost without exception, Indian movies also tended to have a happy conclusion.
A deconstruction of the Indian movie narrative revealed “a hero culture” (Prince Charming), where the knight in shining armour (hero) always appeared, as if by magic, to save the heroine ( damsel in distress syndrome) as was seen in movies such as Sholay and Purab Aur Paschim. There was also the transformed hero, who, at some stage in the narrative, changed from a laid-back seemingly no good, fun-loving individual to one ready to take on the world to save the heroine or some noble cause. The audience though was never given any indication of any superhuman skills the hero possessed before a confrontation occurred. Often he was portrayed as one man fighting against huge odds, exhibiting herculean prowess in the process of overcoming his enemies. Those qualities appeared as if by magic in the hero in movies such as Junglee, Kashmir ki Kali (1964, The Girl from Kashmir), Dil Dekhi Dekho and Purab aur Paschim.
In addition, there wasthe “fish-out-of- water syndrome,” where the hero appeared to be out of his natural element. The hero here was fighting against all odds, against the establishment, a villain or a group of thugs. Often, he was the country bum who came to town seeking a better life but could not fit in. He occasionally took on the establishment or crooked politicians but in the endgenerally returned to the countryside as was observed in postcolonial movies such as Jeene ki Raah, Shree 420 and Purab aur Paschim.
In some Indian movies there was the creation of the new self, that used the phenomenon to drive the narrative forward as in the movie Dosti, where one friend realized that he had to sacrifice his own ambitions for the other to progress in life. The pattern was the same in the creation of the new self in Anand, in which the hero realized that although he was living in a technologically modern world, which was full of changes, he could not be cured of terminal cancer, so he created a new self from which the narrative continued its run. This renewal of the self was a major component of the moral universe within which Indian films were generally located.
Indian movies seem to operate within an ideal moral universe in which there was often boundless sacrifice in upholding Indian values and traditions where the characters seemed to approach apotheosis in different ways, even while alive. It transposed the audience from being mere watchers to active participants in the process of searching and finding order and morality in the chaotic disordered Indian filmi moral universe. This filmi moral universe, which was projected at local audiences from the Indian silver screen, co-existed within the fabric of their (the audiences’) own personal moral universe and the parallel moral universe that society expected of them. As the audience became involved in the narrative where there seemed to be no solution to a conflict, as was the case in movies such as Talash, Dosti, Aap Ki Kasam (1974, I swear), and Anand, it (the audience) became an integral part of the projected narrative in search of the solution, where the solution almost always revolved around a return to the ideal moral universe.
Additionally, in dealing with issues within the domains of family life, sexuality, poverty, socialization, economic and national issues, the narrative was always constrained in arriving at solutions because it did not matter what contradictions occurred or what conflicts or tensions evolved within the narrative, their resolutions were contextualized within the realms of dharmic solutions and the ideal moral universe. It was this facet of Indian movies that endeared them to local audiences because Trinidad Indian movie audiences were able to identify with those filmi conflicts that were settled within the ideal moral universe, circumscribed by dharmic principles (solutions), and rooted in traditional values. They were comfortable with those dynamics based on their own religious and traditional backgrounds.
There was always the return to a perfect moral universe for local moviegoers because at the end of the movie when they exited from the cinema into their natural world, there was a feeling of satisfaction as they re-entered their own moral universe once more. In movies such as Mother India, Guide and Dosti, the ideal moral universe was always preserved at the end of the movie. For example, in Mother India, Nargis destroyed (shot) her own son when he strayed, to preserve the order of the moral universe. With respect to morality and values in Indian movies and with particular reference to Mother India, locals also believed that a daughter in the village was everyone’s daughter and every person had the responsibility for protecting the daughters of the village. When Nargis shot her son for his transgression of kidnapping the enemy’s daughter, she was upholding the dharmic principles of the moral universe that governed their lives. Most of what East Indians saw in movies such as Mother India and Upkar reminded them of their life in Trinidad. They were reminded of their societal and religious values, their work in the agricultural fields such as tending animals, tilling the land, planting rice in the lagoon, transporting heavy loads from the agricultural lands and working long hours because that was their universe. Indian movies were a most pleasurable experience for most East Indians because they reminded them of their growing up in the settlement societies with their Indian cultural background and romantic notions of life.
It was important therefore, for local Indian movie fans who worked the land or did other laborious work that they returned home satisfied with a sense of comfort and feelings of fulfillment after seeing an Indian movie, a treat they were probably not able to get from their daily work life or family life. Identity with what they saw in Indian movies brought “contentment and satisfaction to them in many ways” and the values and religious teachings kept them attuned to the moral universe. It was that feeling of satisfaction related to their identity and seeing themselves reflected on the Indian silver screen, which caused East Indians to return to the cinema repeatedly and whether the satisfaction that they received from viewing Indian movies was emotional, spousal, religious or identity related, it was a major factor in their returning to the cinema. Despite the fact that one of the heroes was shot by his mother many East Indians considered Mother India the most satisfying Indian movie they had ever seen.
Divergent strands were evident within the contextualization of Indian films that were released in Trinidad. Those strands were linked to the average Trinidad East Indian through poverty, gender issues, a society in transition, tradition versus modernity, land issues, Hindu- Muslim relations, self-sufficiency and several other factors that were common to East Indians in Trinidad and their counterparts in India.
In movies such as Mother India, Do Bigha Zameen and Upkar a host of contemporary issues such as, poverty, gender, land and modernity versus tradition issues were explored. East Indians were able to identify with those issues because they faced similar concerns in their everyday lives. Many items such as the chulha (fireside), jaata (stone rice/wheat grinder), water goblet (earthen pot), simta (two-pronged holder), and taawa (flat round iron) that were seen in movies such as in Mother India and Dosti reminded East Indians of the use of similar implements in their homes and villages. In addition, they were able to identify with many of the images seen in the movies, as the images were familiar to them in their daily life.
Fans of Indian movies in Trinidad tended to identify with the noblest virtue of the hero or heroine as portrayed in those movies and producers seemed to contrive situations forcing the choice between good and evil. The result was that they always chose good over evil. This was one particular area of Indian films that seemed permanently etched within the local spectator’s expectations since local Indian movie fans had come to expect that good will triumph over evil in Indian movies. The good over evil syndrome was well known to local East Indian cinema fans through the Ramayan, the Mahabharata and festivals such as Phagwa, Divali and Ramleela so that when they saw it in the movies they were able to easily identify with it. Movies such as Mother India, Jai Santoshi Maa, Ramayan, Shree 420, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995, The Big Hearted Will Take the Bride), Mujhe Dosti Karogi (2002,Will you be my friend?) and Dosti, to name a few, gave credible support to this aspect of Indian movies where good triumphed over evil. This was consistent with their view that Indian mythological literatures, particularly those of the Hindu tradition with which they were familiar always resolved conflict situations with the rise of good over evil. No matter how many Indian films were seen by the local Indian movie fans, the expectations were always the same that good will triumph over evil in the Indian moral universe. Those “audience comfort” endings were what stayed with the local fans.
In essence, the Indian movie, while seeking to mirror social and other aspects of Indian society, often created an intricate maze through which the Indian film goer traversed. It is amazing that despite the intricacies and the sometimes confusing nature of the Indian filmi narrative, the audience was seldom ever lost and there was always a return to the moral universe. The Indian movie “good or evil” syndrome, combined with the return to the ideal moral universe, was however different to the Hollywood situations where one saw villains getting away with criminal schemes in movies such as The Getaway (1972), Inside Man (2006) and Ocean’s 11 (2001). Nevertheless, Indian movies always sought to reflect and uphold Indian values and traditions in conformity with audience preferences.
The Tradition-Modernity Conflict
This time-honored perennial theme juxtaposed concepts of traditional values with modern trends. Almost every Indian movie can be found to exhibit some aspect of the tradition versus modernity conflict. There was always the dichotomy where the hero or heroine was asked to choose between good depicted by Indian traditions, and its opposite as evidenced by western trends and values.
Movies of the earlier era, such as the 1940s and 1950s, tended to juxtapose traditional Indian values with British and American values, as seen when English language words were used in place of Hindi words. English represented the West and Hindi represented things Indian. This culture clash was also seen in the type of clothing worn by the leading characters, for example, English style clothing in place of Indian traditional clothing. Interestingly, the values dilemma in Indian movies always seemed to exist in a kind of time warp circumstance. In the final solution to a conflict, the leading characters usually re-established tradition over modernity, while leaving room for certain modern concepts that contributed to the resolution of the final conflict as was the case in Mother India where the shooting of the son to preserve tradition was juxtaposed with turning on the valve to usher in a new era of water distribution. This battle was not lost on the average local Trinidad Indian movie fans who actively sought to preserve their traditions and culture at every turn while they fought aspects of modernity in Trinidad. For example, some parents in the early days refused to send their children to local schools for fear of their exposure to western culture, modernization and religious conversion.
Many Indian movies based their narratives on a superstitious Indian society that was facing modernity in the process of change. In this respect, there were many commonalities between Indian and Trinidadian societies. In both societies, one found the lonely isolated backward villages versus the busy forward-looking towns and cities, where mud huts competed with concrete jungles; where poverty competed with the rich and powerful; where tradition competed with modernity, where fatalism pervaded life in the country villages while pro-western trends of self-made futures dominated the cities. Here, patriotism competed with materialistic goals and Indian values competed with western values. In Trinidad in particular, where East Indians lived in settlement societies located outside the city areas, many Indian movies such as Do Bigha Zameen, Mother India and Shree 420 had special meaning for them in terms of land issues, identity, poverty and their value systems.
While Indian movies portrayed two distinct Indian societies, one steeped in traditionalism and the other influenced heavily by pro-western, postcolonial ideologies, that was also true of the Trinidad East Indian society where the majority was steeped in traditionalism circumscribed by pro-western colonial entities, except that in Trinidad most of the pro-western East Indians were those who had converted to Christianity while most of the traditionalists remained Hindus and Muslims. Because of the treatment meted out by the British to East Indians in Trinidad, it was natural for them to have some kind of antipathy towards the British who ruled both Trinidad and India, their original ancestral homeland. Local East Indian audiences had followed the Indian independence struggles, celebrated the departure of the British from India in 1947 and were able to identify with those sentiments in Indian movies. In that sense, Trinidad, and particularly Trinidad East Indians, were aware of Gandhi, Nehru, and their contribution to the fight against the British and were quite happy when the British left India. There were large celebrations in Trinidad, to celebrate Indian independence in 1947. Some local East Indians hung pictures of Gandhi and Nehru on the walls of their homes, in the prayer rooms and on their altars, where they performed aarti (waving of the sacred light) to them, as they were given the same reverence as images of Rama and Krishna, Hindu gods.
Many Trinidad East Indians who had never seen an image of Nehru or Gandhi saw them for the first time in Indian movies. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mahatma Gandhi seemed like a god to East Indians in Trinidad and whenever his image appeared on the screen, they generally bowed their heads to him in reverence in much the same way as they bowed to the Hindu gods. At the Kailash Hindu Mandir in Sangre Chiquito, in East Trinidad, Elizabeth Baboolal and family had installed a murti (statue) of Gandhi on the altar of their family’s public temple and for decades, most Hindus who worshipped at the temple performed aarti to the murti of Gandhi. In other temples, pictures of these heroes were hung on the walls and worshipped in similar fashion. During the period of the 1950s and 1960s, when heavy traditionalism was still popular in both India and Trinidad, it was common to observe the reverence paid to those great men, who had driven the British out of India and whose photographs were regularly seen in Indian movies.
Trinidad Indian movie audiences could identify with the mud huts, poverty, changing society, British rule in India, urban areas versus the rural areas, colonial and postcolonial ethos, Indian versus western traditions and Hindu values all reflected in the cinema, on the Indian silver screen, because they saw themselves and their society transposed in those settings. Much of what they were accustomed to in Trinidad such as working in the fields, living in rural areas in their mud huts, being under the yoke of the British rule, the fight to retain their Indian roots and traditional values versus modernization all found parallels on the Indian silver screen.
The local East Indian in Trinidad was perennially faced with a conflict of tradition versus modernity especially with the hegemonic march of American and English movies in Trinidad. The efforts to convert them to Christianity and to educate them and their children along western lines and the government’s seeming movement towards a callaloo culture were inconsistent with their values and traditions. In addition, the presence of American troops in Trinidad in the 1940s and 1950s presented severe challenges to the average East Indian family in Trinidad in terms of their traditional lifestyles versus modern American lifestyles and the involvement of young East Indian girls with American soldiers.
During this period, there was also political turmoil in the land with the adult franchise being granted in 1946 and further elections in the 1950s. They were faced with this problem of modernity versus tradition every day of their lives so when they saw it reflected on the Indian silver screen it did not appear strange to them. When they sent their sons and their daughters abroad to study, and they returned with modern ideas, ideologies and new ways of doing things, they were faced with issues of tradition versus modernity within the confines of their homes so that when they saw it in the movies it was nothing strange to them. They had lived with it, and they knew what it meant and they were able to identify with it. For East Indians in Trinidad, however, this conflict assumed even greater proportions since they were in the minority here whereas in India this was not the case. It was in identifying with their Indianness through the celluloid space of the Indian silver screen, and the validation of many of their social, religious and cultural practices through that medium, that they found the strength and courage to resist the hegemonic march of western and American values within the confines of their own settlement societies. The identification with Indian movies provided the foundation not only for their preservation of a culture that they had brought with them from India but also the resistance to western oriented values. Indian movies became a shield that in one sense, protected their original cultural patterns that they had brought with them from India, and on the other hand, was the catalyst for a resurgence of creativity in Indian culture that saw several changes made to their traditional cultural patterns.
Fantasy and Escapism
Indian cinema is a montage of various influences that combined myth, ritual, values, fantasy and ideology into a kind of realism that was both fanciful and escapist. It presented to the cinema fan, a view of a celluloid filmi kingdom in which reality was suspended. Any analysis of Indian film and its narrative would likely reveal certain key elements of the fantasy world created in Indian movies revolving around the fairy tale story and song and the dance routines. While the song and dance routines emerged as the main ingredients in the creation of this fantasy world, it was not an essential ingredient for the narrative itself. In many situations, the songs superseded the plots. If the songs were catchy and rhythmic, they became very popular. Many people went to the movie mainly because of the popularity of the songs. Hand in hand with the plot, the songs were perhaps the major reason for the film. Therefore, many film producers were largely dependent not only on the playback singers, but also on the music composers and directors for the success of their films. If the music composers could not come up with songs that were popular with audiences, then generally the films were not as successful as they could be, even though there were powerful actors in the movie. Songs could make or break an Indian movie, and that was an unpleasant fact in the domain of the Indian filmi kingdom. Filming creativity, improved stunts, increased budgets, elaborate sets, great storylines and visionary directing all seemed to play a secondary role to playback songs. If the audience loved the songs, the movie would be a success. If the songs did not “catch on,” the movie was doomed. Largely, therefore, the creation of the fantasy feeling in Indian movies had much to do with the music and songs in them.
Superficially, one might accept the fact that the music and song inserts in Indian films were a by-product of the movie but on further examination, one could conclude that the movie was just an excuse for the propagation of the songs, because most of the songs in Indian movies were not a necessary ingredient in the narrative. On the other hand, there was the view that without the songs the Indian movie just could not exist on its own. In any event, the songs have spawned an entire playback industry on its own which some considered threatening to the Indian movie industry itself. However, for local fans the songs could not exist without their filmi pillars because for them it was the fantasy that was involved in the picturization of the song in the movie that gave it added meaning. Local Indian movie fans derived as much satisfaction from the visual portrayal of the song as from merely listening to the song. There were thousands of local Indian movie fans who loved Indian songs and had never seen the movies from which they originated. Seeing the “acting out” of the song in the movie was of great importance to them. Many interviewees contended that once they loved a song it was only natural for them to see how it was dramatized in the movie. It was the creation of this fantasy world during the picturization of the songs that mesmerized local Indian movie fans. Local fans were known to have gone back, repeatedly, to see the visualization of a popular song in a movie. Many interviewees admitted that they had gone to see some Indian movies, mainly because of the songs from those movies.
In Trinidad, during the early days of Indian movies (after 1948), many areas of the country were still without electricity. Battery operated radio was the main source of information and music. Indians everywhere flocked to the nearest radio to listen to the few Indian programs broadcast on Radio Trinidad at the time. Those programs were replete with the new filmi music and people listened to the film songs whether they had seen the movie or not. Those who had seen the movie boasted to friends, while the song was being played on radio, of having seen the movie, which contained the song. It was considered a “big thing” to talk about having seen the movie from which a “radio song” was heard. The Indian movie and filmi songs were like magnets that caught the imagination of local East Indians, whether it was the purpose built cinema, the tent cinema or radio. The moving Indian images on the screen and the Hindi words spoken in the films combined with the songs, the fantasy, the escapism and the Indian hero and heroine to create a surreal kind of magic that held the hearts and minds of the local Indian movie audience captive. That surreal atmosphere beckoned them to return repeatedly to the Indian movie cinema as their pockets could afford. Many walked miles to get to the cinema to satisfy that love for Indian movies and songs.
People often inquired into the reasons why local East Indian audiences were attracted to Indian films. Some explained that it provided an escape route from the social, political and religious realities of the society in which they lived and felt ostracized and neglected. Others posited that it was an approach to dealing with their insecurity, poverty, hopelessness and homelessness while there were those who claimed, at least for that short period of time in the cinema, that they belonged to a fantasy world, a world in which they could live their dreams, suspending time, making it stand still, so that they could be whoever and whatever they wanted to be while they lived in the celluloid world of the cinema. Alternatively, it provided them with an oasis of peace, bliss and solace for those few moments away from the ostracism and neglect they encountered in their own homeland, Trinidad. It also gave them an opportunity to create a psychological surrogate homeland, the motherland, with which they could identify. For many Indian movie-going East Indians in Trinidad, the India of the imagination resided in the cinema therefore going to see an Indian movie was not just an entertainment routine but was more a cultural statement for most of them.
It was ironic that while Indian movies portrayed a sense of fantasy and escapism, for the local Indian movie cinema fans, there was no escape from their own situation in Trinidad, where they experienced ridicule, ostracism and unmistakable disdain. The cinema, for them, was itself a kind of escapist route, an escape valve, where they were able to sit and for three hours, escape from their own plight and situations in their settlement societies, within the context of the national society. The cinema therefore seemed to encapsulate them, individually and collectively, providing a sort of protective shield that, for at least three hours, they were in a world of fantasy, escapism and identity, protected from the rest of their home society in Trinidad by the celluloid images that they so willingly absorbed. It was as if this absorption of the images beamed back at them from the silver screen, repeatedly, became part of their body framework so as they left the cinema and took again their positions in society, they exuded an identity, which individually and collectively, strengthened their image of themselves.
Sacrifice and Dharmic Principles
One of the religious books the indentured immigrants brought from India was the Bhagwat Gita that taught sacrifice as one of its fundamental principles. While to some it may seem a fundamental Hindu concept, sacrifice was a characteristic of many Indian movies. Though it may appear to be generic, in many Indian movies, sacrifice played a fundamental role in the narrative and the resolution of conflicts. For example, in Mother India, Nargis sacrificed for her children; in Dosti, a friend goes through tremendous sacrifice for another friend, in Mere Bhabi (1969, My Sister- in- law) a mother sacrificed her child to save the life of another woman while in Guide, Dev Anand sacrificed his life to bring rain in a drought-ridden area for the benefit of the people.
Another principle of the Gita, the dharmic (righteous) destruction of the wicked, was also illustrated in many Hindi films. Very often, in many movies the son was called upon to avenge the death of some family member, father or friend. In Trishul, the mother brought up the son with one motive and that was to avenge the death of his father. In movies such as Kallicharan (1976), and Yadon Ki Bharat (1973, Procession of Memories) the son takes on the role of retaliator, avenging the loss of a close relative that may have occurred a long time ago. In some of those movies, one saw the sacrifice of a whole lifetime to avenge a wrong.
Some of the principal concepts deliberated on in Indian movies were kaam (action, love), aartha (wealth), dharma (religious teachings), and moksha (liberation). Peculiar to Indian movies, those concepts also found their counterparts in western movies, though not with the same underlying philosophical bases. While wealth may be understood by westerners in western movies in terms of materialistic acquisitions, to the Indian moviegoer its connotations are always circumscribed by dharmic principles of righteous conduct in the acquisition of such wealth as seen in movies such as Mother India, Beti Bete andAradhana.
During Ramayan and Bhagwat yagnas, local pandits regularly preached concepts of right conduct to their flock based on dharmic principles derived from their holy books. Local Indian movie fans were able to identify with similar Indian movie portrayals because of the teachings that emanated from the Ramayan and the Mahabharata, which were part of their local traditions. In most Indian movies seen in the 1950s and 1960s, there were always messages of values for sacrifice and living. Movies such as Beti Beti, Awaara and Dosti have had a profound impression on many local Indian movie fans in this regard.
In the real world setting of Trinidad, East Indian family ties and family commitments placed immense strain on relationships that required sacrifices from family members. For instance, parents became disapproving and prone to apportioning blame; or made extravagant demands of their children in terms of arranged marriages to prevent a boy or girl marrying someone of whom the parents did not approve. Religious, social and economic barriers sometimes became inflexible and parental expectations were accorded high priority so that in many instances children made huge sacrifices in terms of love, job opportunities and friendship to please their parents. For example, many were refused permission to convert to Christianity in order to secure a job.
In many Indian movies, there were depictions of arranged marriages where children made tremendous sacrifices to please their parents. For example in Kabhi Kabhi (1976, Sometimes), Amitabh Bachchan said to Raakhi, when told that her parents had arranged her marriage to someone else: “We cannot even think of displeasing our parents on this matter…” In addition, the extended family, still very much a part of their settlement society in Trinidad up to the 1970s, exerted its own peculiar set of social, religious and other pressures, which called for sacrifices of one kind or another from members of the clan, and which locals often saw reflected on the Indian silver screen. There seemed to have been an underlying thought among local East Indian Trinidadians that in order to uphold dharmic principles some kind of sacrifice was always necessary, especially as they were faced with western traditions in their own lives.
The resolution of conflicts in Indian movies was always in favor of tradition and traditional values that had underlying dharmic connotations. Local East Indian movie fans identified with those traditions and values, which they upheld in their lives and which, in most cases, called for some form of sacrifice in their own lives.
Sacrifice was nothing new to East Indian families in Trinidad, as they were accustomed to poverty and hardships that included living without adequate water, food or clothing. They knew what it was like to work for long hours in the hot sun or in the rain, to go for long hours without food or water, to walk for long hours to get from place to place and to wear the same clothing, day after day, because they could not afford to buy new ones. They knew what it was like to sacrifice for their children; mothers knew what it was like to ensure that the children were fed while they themselves went to bed hungry; they knew of the sacrifice that it took to go without fulfilling their own needs so that their children could have access to the education that they (the parents) were denied. When they saw portrayals of parents sacrificing to send their children to another part of India or abroad for educational purposes, they were able to identify with that because they had done the same thing for their children in Trinidad.
Many parents had made great sacrifices to send one of their children to study in England in the 1950s and 1960s in an effort to lift the family fortunes. Their sacrifices were not only limited to their immediate needs but also had an impact on the other children of the home who also contributed in the financial support of the sibling abroad. It meant denying them items they needed to support the sibling studying abroad. East Indians in Trinidad who had to sacrifice to preserve their traditions and values readily identified with those portrayals in Indian movies. This concept of sacrifice for the education of their children would in later years become a major East Indian identity marker in Trinidad and would greatly influence their position in society. Seeing it played out on the Indian silver screen gave them the encouragement to make huge sacrifices for their children and family.
Hindu values seem to pervade Indian movies. Indian movies portrayed two sets of values, core (eternal) values, and the paraphernalia values that supported the core values that were established. Those core or foundational values were generally linked to scriptural injunctions stemming from the four Hindu goals of life mentioned earlier though not necessarily portrayed in Indian movies in the same sense as espoused in the scriptural texts. Those pillars of life often found their own translations within the realm of Indian films, so there was always a conflict of love, of love versus wealth, of love versus dharma, wealth versus dharma and liberation from poverty.
It was for this reason that Indian movies appealed to such a large section of the community of Indian movie cinemagoers because in India where the population was made up of approximately eighty percent Hindus, and in Trinidad, where, among East Indians there was a similar percentage of Hindus, there were many commonalities between the two societies. Local East Indian movie fans identified with many of the traditional Indian values portrayed in Indian movies and non-Hindu local Indian movie cinema fans, who were also knowledgeable about those concepts, were not averse to them either, since they all lived in closely knitted communities and were familiar with the concepts of the Hindu religion.
The paraphernalia or second string (situational) values that supported the core or foundational values in Indian movies were what made Indian movies so interesting. The core values always reflected some traditional standpoint that conflicted with the paraphernalia that abounded in the movie and was the mala (thread) through which the entire narrative was beaded and local Indian movie fans were able to identify with those values. The situational values always seemed to conflict with the core values while the resolutions were always in favor of the traditional core values. This was seen in movies such as Dosti, Mother India, Sholay, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayengeand Ham Aap Ki Hai Kaunamong others where traditions triumphed.
The adherence to traditional Indian values by Indian movie producers presented to the audience a kind of cultural frontage that acted like a buffer between modernity and traditional ways. The average Hindu moviegoer was able to identify with those traditions and values, as portrayed in Indian movies. More so, the Trinidad Indian movie audience was a mixture of Hindus, Muslims and Christians who lived in close harmony with one another, and who would generally be aware of one another’s values, and were able to identify with those values projected on the silver screen. They saw themselves mirrored in the movies and were at home with the values propagated. There was no doubt that the Indian moviemakers were trying to please their home audiences but unknowingly, that home audience had extended to Trinidad. The configuration of many Indian movies to reflect Hindu value systems augured well for East Indians in Trinidad, as they were able to identify with those values. Indian movies in Trinidad largely functioned to reinforce existing value systems amongst East Indians and to point the way forward in terms of merging traditions with modernity.
In the 1950s and 1960s in villages throughout the country people gathered on evenings, after seeing an Indian movie, to relate the story to friends and relatives and to discuss the movie. Often the discussions were in relation to the teachings of Sanatan Dharma and the movie and they found that most times the movies were in harmony with the teachings of Sanatan Dharma, as they knew it in Trinidad. Many avid Indian film fans often used incidents from Indian movies to make their point about success, sacrifice and achievement in life. In Indian movies the local panchayat in the Indian villages made many decisions and the people generally adhered to those decisions but in the Indian settlement villages in Trinidad it was slightly different in the 1940s and 1950s where the panchayat was still very active. Their decisions had the force of law as the local magistrates had sanctioned panchayat decisions at the time. The filmi panchayat was a validation of East Indians’ adherence to the panchayat system in Trinidad and they identified with the panchayat system when they saw it in Indian movies because it was part of their social and judicial system in Trinidad and had the support of the law.
The family often formed the backbone of most Indian movie narratives, where conflicts were woven around relationships and values that bound families and friends together. The family was firmly rooted in tradition and values, and conflicts were constructed around those themes. Additionally social, economic, and caste issues revolved around the family entity and generated tensions that gave Indian movies their uniqueness. Even as concepts of morality and judgmental or situational values construed and changed around the peripheral and mundane, the central narrative always remained intact, based on the rituals of family, traditions and modernity. Events such as weddings, religious ceremonies and other traditional rituals such as those performed at birth or death played an important role in the construction of the narrative with the family as a central theme. All helped to keep the family spirit alive while cementing bonds in the real world. The Indian movie narrative gave many pointers with respect to family life, social life and social capital as were played out in movies such as Shree 420, Awara, Guide, Talash, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun ( 1994, Who am I to You?),andDilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge where family traditions and values always triumphed. Local Indian movie fans were able to identify with many family concepts portrayed in Indian movies because of the commonality of origin and because they had re-created similar concepts in their settlement societies in Trinidad which had been passed on from one generation to the other.
One aspect of family life on the Indian silver screen that reflected local traditions was the issue of arranged marriages. Many local East Indians, particularly in the early days up to the 1970s, chose to arrange marriages for their children, and when they saw those arranged marriages on the silver screen they identified with them as another aspect of the commonality that existed between East Indians in Trinidad and Indians in India. Arranged marriages were very common in the East Indian community before the 1970s  but there was a view that arranged marriages did not last as long as love marriages. However, Ramnarine disagreed and cited her own arranged marriage that lasted almost fifty years until the death of her husband, as a case in point. Seeing arranged marriages depicted in Indian movies was a validation of the local tradition of arranged marriages. It gave such marriages a certain legitimacy, reinforcing their societal value and made it easier for parents to arrange marriages for their children in Trinidad. Parents, particularly fathers, considered it their duty to arrange marriages for their daughters because one of the reasons for early-arranged marriages, particularly for girls, was a fear of pregnancy out of wedlock.
Many family type Indian movies portrayed love as a major theme as seen in movies such as Beti Bete, Raakhi (1962, Protection), Karan Arjoon (1995, Karan and Arjoon),and Dadi Maa (1966, Grandmother) where love among siblings was a key component in the narrative. Movies such as those reinforced family ties and love through the promotion of festivals such as Raksha Bandhan and Divali.
Respect for elders in the society was an important factor of life ingrained in the East Indian community. Young people were expected to greet elders appropriately or they were likely to be punished immediately on the streets and the matter reported directly to their parents. Pandit Bhownath Maraj recollected an incident in the 1960s in which he passed an elder from his village without the appropriate greeting and upon his return home a few hours later the person had already lodged a complaint with his father who punished him for his transgression. He recalled that in reprimanding him his father had made mention of the values and the teachings from both the scriptures and Indian movies. This insistence on respect for elders was a basic tenet of East Indian society and any deviation from it was frowned upon.
Indian movies emphasized respect for elders, parents, pandits and others, through respectful titles and greetings. Many greetings and titles that were commonplace in the East Indian community in Trinidad were also seen in Indian movies. Greetings such as Guruji (Guru), Mataji (Mother), Pitaji (Father), Bhaiji (Brother), Bahenji (Sister), Beta (Son), Beti (Daughter), Kakaji (Uncle), Bhouji (Sister-in-Law), Bhaia (Elder Brother), Pandit Ji (Pandit) Mamoo (Uncle), and others such as Namasty (I bow to you) and Sitaram were very popular among East Indians in Trinidad. This filmi validation of commonplace East Indian greetings encouraged local East Indians, particularly the younger ones, to use them in everyday life and reinforced their value and place of such “Indian” greetings in the home and the community.
Dharma and Fatalism
The concept of fatalism depicted in Indian movies was rooted in Indian society and linked to karma and the Indian social system. The Indian film narrative generally touched it, played with it, toyed with it and used it at every twist and turn, in various settings, with great success. It was used to help push the narrative forward.
When the anti-hero went astray and sold his soul for a “mess of pottage” there was a significant loss of social capital as he was ostracized by his family and closest friends until he redeemed himself and returned to the dharmic course. This was clearly demonstrated, since within the ideal moral universe of the Indian movie there must be a return to morality, societal norms, traditions, and values, no matter what the cost. In Mother India, the mother shoots the beloved son after he commits a grave gender transgression against the marriage traditions of the society. In this setting, the anti-hero underwent several tests that revolved around integrity, honor, traditions, values, fair play and dharma which eventually led to his salvation even at the cost of his life. Thus, Sunil Dutt in Mother India attained moksha or salvation, at the hands of his mother, who represented in the widest sense, “the Mother India” in Indian traditions, values and the Puranic Literatures. In Aap Ki Kasam (I swear), the hero, Rajesh Khanna, thinking that his wife was cheating on him, allowed her to leave the matrimonial home after an argument. Later, realizing the enormity of his error he became an itinerant vagabond on the streets but gained salvation in the final conflict when he gave up his life to save a daughter whom he had neglected in terms of his dharmic and karmic duty.
Locally, Indian movie fans, the majority of whom were Hindus, were able to identify with those dharmic principles and the laws of karma, because it was part of their religion. It was taught to them during their various religious ceremonies including Ramayan and Bhagwat yagnas and it was embedded in their everyday life. The law of karma is one of the basic teachings of Hinduism and when it was reflected in movies such as Mother India, East Indians in Trinidad were able to identify with it. Dharma was an inherent part of every Indian movie in that there was no resolution to conflicts in Indian movies if it did not fall within the realms of dharma. Local Indian movie fans were able to identify with those concepts because it was part of their life style. They lived the life of Sanatan Dharma (Eternal Life) and therefore, the concepts of karma and dharma as portrayed in Indian movies were reflective of their own life and living.
The Social Tranquilizer
This social tranquilizer  was used in Indian movies to suppress some fact or truth from reaching the light of day so that the status quo was maintained and life went on as usual in the ideal moral universe. Most times, however, it revolved around a taboo, or some tradition, or presumed upcoming societal pressure or shame. This concept of the social tranquilizer was seen in Ek Phool Do Mali (1969,One Flower, Two Gardeners), where the wealthy but childless widower, Balraj Sahani, married the pregnant Mumtaz, to save her and her family from shame and scandal after it was realized that her lover Sanjay, was dead. In Mai Chup Rahungi (1962, I Keep My Silence) when Meena Kumarie’s father was faced with his daughter’s pregnancy and no father was in sight, the social tranquilizer relocated them to another town and when the child was born, it was put up for adoption. The father told his daughter that the child was stillborn. In Julie, the social tranquilizer was again at work when the heroine became pregnant and was taken to a place far away (a convent) to have the baby and returned home later without the child.
Local Indian movie cinema fans were able to identify with those moralities, because it was also part of their life. They recognized those characters. They knew Mumtaz in Ek Phool Do Mali as they knew Meena Kumari in Mai Chup Rahungi and Julie in Julie, because they lived among them in the cane fields and their communities. They felt the same kind of shame when a daughter became pregnant outside of marriage. There was a commonality in the kind of social and cultural pressures they saw reflected on the Indian screen, and those that existed in their own settlement societies in Trinidad. This social tranquilizer acted as a release valve through which families were able to uphold their traditional value systems and dharmic principles despite complications that arose with non-compliance of societal norms and values by family members.
Gender Issues in Bollywood Films
In both Indian Puranic literature and society, the Indian woman was seen as a virtual symbol of purity, of Indian values, traditions and cultural continuity. Largely, Indian movies have sought to capture the essence of this Indian womanhood that mirrored the embodiment of Indian culture and exuded beauty, chastity, humility and innocence rooted in religion and tradition. Very seldom, was the heroine ever portrayed as a whore or a vapid woman. Even when she was projected as a “cultural prostitute” as in Pakeeza and Umrao Jaan (1981, Courtesan Dancer) she was aesthetically portrayed and did not lose the essence of Indian womanhood.
While it was true that the heroine very rarely actively pushed the narrative forward in the Indian movie, she was often the passive element of the plot around which the conflict centered. She helped push the narrative along because events such as kidnapping, marriage or a love triangle of which she was a passive component, embroiled her. Indian movie audiences in Trinidad, particularly the female audiences, were able to identify with the Indian filmi heroine on the silver screen as they shared many commonalities such as Indian traditionalism, dharmic principles and male expectations. Thus, when local East Indian women saw themselves and their plight mirrored on the Indian silver screen in Indian movies they identified with the woman as “seen but not heard.” Even though local female Indian movie fans disagreed with the portrayal of women in Indian movies they identified with the trials and tribulations of the heroine, her suffering, poverty, domination by males, forced arranged marriages and other features of Indian society as was seen in such movies as Mai Chup Rahungi, Mother India, and Aradhana. They saw commonalities between the filmi “India” and their own circumstances in their settlement societies in Trinidad. For many women locally, the heroine on the screen is often transposed into a goddess, hoisted on a pedestal, and emotionally joined as she went through her paces on the Indian silver screen. She became for those women, their spiritual and emotional mirror, seeing in her a reflection of their own common circumstances in the work fields and in their homes, where the fulfillment of their unspoken desires was forfeited and trampled upon in the male-dominated society in Trinidad. Therefore, for local East Indian women, the heroine on the Indian silver screen represented a celluloid realization of their silent dreams, their innermost thoughts, thereby becoming a kind of pressure relief valve in their own lives. In the final conflict in Indian movies, after all the trials and tribulations, as in fairy tales, there was always a happy conclusion where the female was saved from some evil and married the hero in a return to traditions and rituals.
Bollywood films have consistently sought to uphold male dominance in society (Indian male child syndrome) by reducing the contribution of the female to the forward push of the narratives. The female (heroine) was seen through the male objectification of her character in the narrative that was constructed to fit culturally feminine standing norms and perceptions of the society, while the male was generally egocentrically valorized and placed on a pedestal. In many Indian movies women seemed to have no other purpose in the narrative than to dance and sing since they very rarely contributed to the forward push of the narrative except in a passive kind of way.
There was a notion in Indian movies of a preconceived conceptualization of women as subordinate and insignificant where they were portrayed either as victims tied to domestic activities or simply the upholders of values and traditions. They were virtually invisible in the narrative and even when they were highlighted, great care seemed to be taken to construct a potent image in which they demonstrated helplessness, subservience and a lack of education, in as much as they were seen to be tradition-bound, family oriented, poor, sacrificial and victims of society. This filmi validation, reflected in Indian movies and held by many in Trinidad society, revolved around the belief that the role of women was to bear children and perform domestic tasks at home. The woman was simply a companion to her husband and existed to be seen and not heard yet in times of hardships, she was expected to endure most of the burden of adjustment silently.
Perhaps while Bollywood’s construction of gender was biased in favor of male dominance, the patriarch, and the male figures in Indian society, this portrayal was also reflective of East Indian society in Trinidad. Glaringly, the majority of Indian films pushed the narrative to the point where the triumphal figure was usually a male figure, such as in Zanjeer, while the female was there to applaud the hero’s efforts, sing his praises and cheer him on to success. In some movies, however, the mother figure quietly prayed for her son’s success or husband’s well- being. In a few movies, such as Seeta aur Geeta (1972, Seeta and Geeta),Mother India, Chalbaaz (1989, Trickster) and Pyaar Ka Sapna (1969, Dream of Love) and in movies with Fearless Nadia one saw the construction of the female in a leading role. Images of women in Indian movies, however, remained stereo- typical, particularly as it related to older women. For instance, the mother or the grandmother was always portrayed as rich, reading the Ramayan, or poor, doing menial work, even reduced to the point of selling their bodies to upper class males (Mother India and Taqdeer) as a sacrifice for the benefit of others, especially their children. Upper class women were generally portrayed as well-dressed, non-working women and living in comfort as was seen in Prem Nagar (1971, Village of Love).
Some Indian movies invite us to admire in a kind of tortuous weepy state, the sacrifice, and the suffering of women, who, in that superhuman sacrificial state rose to the near Devi (Goddess) status in the cause of others, whether as mother, sister or a child as seen in movies such as Mother India, Taqdeer (1967, Fate),Jeene Ki Raah, Beti Bete, Raja aur Rank, Dadi Maa, Mai Chup Rahungi and Mere Bhabi. Here the woman, while living was liberally apotheosized, and in an emotional manner, her character rose to Devi status as seen in Nargis in Mother India or Waheeda Rehaman in Mere Bhabi, and Nirupa Roy in Raja aur Rank. In Raja aur Rank, when Nirupa Roy was asked to perform a task of 108 parikramas (circumambulations) around the bed of her supposed ailing son, she does it even at the risk of the deeya in her hand burning her flesh.
Largely, Indian movies have sought to regularize the Indian woman’s place in society and have taken as a given women’s position in the moral fabric of both the filmi world and the everyday world. Many local East Indian women assume that East Indian women seemed to have accepted those roles in both the filmic narrative and the natural universe, so there were seldom any attempts at social protestations against some of the glaring exploitive and oppressive female representations in Indian movies.
It was a common understanding among the older generation of East Indian women in Trinidad that they had accepted that their roles in both family and social settings were to be “seen but not heard.” The same society that projected them as the embodiment of societal values, traditions and the transmitter of culture from one generation to the next diminished their roles in decisions at the panchayat and family levels. This was the quintessence of incongruity since despite their diminished roles as decision makers in the home and society, they were expected to maintain the moral balance in local East Indian society. As far back as the 1950s, many younger girls fought against the patriarchal domination by men, cut their hair short, and wore trousers both as a mark of protest and in keeping up with the changing times. When older women or men confronted them, they used the filmi presence of female film stars cutting their hair short and wearing trousers as validation for their actions. Lately however after the 1990s, “this seen but not heard concept” appears to be gradually changing as demonstrated in Indian movies such as Fashion (2008), Dushman (1998, Enemy), Kambhakkt Ishq (2009, Damned Love) and Break ke Baad.(2010, After the Break ). Women are dressed in the most modern styles, work competitively with men and are prepared to divorce their spouse for ill-treatment. They are consulted on most matters and are no longer prepared to stand by as props to the men in their lives.
Trinidad East Indian movie audiences knew very well the place of women in their settlement societies and the women, who comprised a substantial part of that audience, seldom ever questioned it. The men usually took the major decisions and the women just followed. When they saw their plight portrayed on the screen, they never discussed it in public. Seeing it on the Indian silver screen not only revealed the commonalities between both societies but also was a filmi validation that reinforced their situation in Trinidad. The fact that it existed in India, as reflected in Indian movies, only helped to encourage the negative situation to continue in Trinidad as women were taught to see their husbands as gods. The Rama Katha, with which they were quite familiar, always placed the husband in a godlike position with the wife in a subservient position and this was portrayed in many Indian movies. The patriarchally dominated images of women on the Indian silver screen, while they reinforced local East Indian men’s treatment of women as inferiors, were further validated by the teachings from local pandits at Ramayan and Bhagwat yagnas who preached that “a woman’s first god was her husband.” In many instances, the Indian movie was used as a social and religious yardstick to reinforce the patriarchal system operating in the local East Indian settings.
Local East Indian women also made other tremendous sacrifices for their family. Some of those included living in mud huts, working on the sugar cane plantations and other agricultural places, facing a drunken husband, dealing with a wayward child, rearing children sometimes without their father, and doing all the household chores after a hard day’s work while the men sat idly. These were elements that they could identify with because they were part of their day-to-day life. Cooking for a large family or putting food on the table, even when there was barely enough for the family, was common to them; eating last after everyone else had eaten and scraping the last morsels for themselves were situations many local East Indian mothers lived with every day. Also “lepaying” the mud huts, the earthen floor and doing daily worship were aspects of shared commonality that existed between local East Indian women and their Indian counterparts reflected on the Indian silver screen.
Indian movies, recurringly, conflated Indian women and Indian motherhood, with the motherland, in a kind of symbolic, nationalist facade that projected her as a central generative force in Indian society as portrayed in movies such as Mother India, Mere Bhabi, Bhabi (Sister- in- law) and Mamta (Mother’s Affection). Even in the face of modernity, women in Indian films generally remained bound to Indian traditions and values in an unchanging narrative that seldom released them from the traditional mold as conceived within the ideal moral universe.
The Hindu marriage was another of the recurring gender themes in Indian movies that generally brought a sense of tradition, morality and sanity at the end of the narrative to give a fairytale ending to the movie. However, this same device, the Hindu wedding, was often used as a major thrust to push the narrative forward. The secret Hindu marriage performed before the fire in a hidden cave or temple, provided the encoding, at least in the eyes of the two participants, of a perfectly dharmic Hindu marriage, though unsanctified by family and society.
Often in the narrative, the male half of the union died or was lost and the woman was left to face society, especially when she was pregnant as was seen in movies such as Aradhana, Ek Phool Do Maliand Mai Chup Rahungi where the woman underwent a lifetime of penance for a moment’s romantic indiscretion while the male opposite was unaware of her crisis or was dead. In movies such as Aradhana and Meri Bhabi, the woman suffered undue humiliation and hardship just to be with her child, yet to the viewer, she emerged as a symbol of apotheosized Indian motherhood. There were numerous movies, where the woman suffered immensely, because of an indiscretion with a male companion while the male companion did not suffer in the same way and those sentiments had a commonality with local East Indian movie fans, particularly women, in Trinidad.
Hindu-Muslim Relations in Indian Films
Indian films have generally sought to encapsulate created images and narratives that present Hindus and Muslims in non-antagonistic situations steering clear of the framework of separatist tendencies. After the partition of India (1947), although those topics were lightly touched upon in films such as Shree 420, Nastik (1954, Atheist) and Awara the issues were generally taboo. This strategy of avoiding Hindu-Muslim conflict situations in Indian films also assisted maneuvering the scrutiny exercised by Indian Government censors and film reviewers. In addition, it strolled down a narrow path not left, not right, never extremist nor fundamentalist and therefore, within this centrist platform, ensured that Indian movies appealed to the widest film audience that consisted mainly of Hindus and Muslims. In Trinidad, however, this did not matter, as both Hindus and Muslims crowded the cinemas to see Indian movies.
One formula that had worked very well in the Indian film industry was the inclusion of Hindus, Muslims and Christians in the films, representing different religious communities of India. For instance in Amar, Akbar, Anthony (names of persons); Amar was a Hindu, Akbar a Muslim and Anthony a Christian, representing the three major religious divisions in India. This had a commonality with the Trinidad Indian movie fans who were able to identify with those principles since most local Indian movie fans were Hindus, Muslims or Christians. This religio-audience formula, while it pandered to the different religious communities in India, also created an inner feeling of satisfaction in local audience members of the particular local religious community in Trinidad. This was not unlike Hollywood movies where producers pandered to the mixed audience by including whites and African-Americans, and sometimes native American Indian in their movies. Of the minorities in India, only Muslims and Christians played any significant role in Indian movies and that augured well for Trinidad as similar audiences formed the basis for Indian movie viewing in Trinidad.
Films made before partition seemed to present Muslims in a different light compared to the post partition movies made in India. There seemed to have been a diminished role for Muslims in most post partition films. Producers were very careful not to ignite communal hatred or incite riots by highlighting anti-Muslim sentiments in their films. For these reasons, Muslims were generally portrayed in positive roles either as a good friend to a Hindu, as a good brother as in Amar Akbar Anthony or a benevolent saviour as in Dhool Ka Phool (1959, Withered Flower). There was always a positive and harmonious relationship between Hindu and Muslim characters and values in Indian films. Some Islamic related movies that were released in Trinidad in which religious, social or cultural themes were explored included Anarkali (1953, Pommegranate Bud), Mughal-E Azan, Taj Mahal (1963), Chaudavin Ka Chand (1960, Night of the Full Moon), Mere Mehaboob (1963, My True Love), Pakeeza, and Umrao Jaan.
In addition, many Muslim actors also took Hindu names as their screen names. Among the most notable were Yousef Khan (December 11, 1922- ) known as Dilip Kumar, Mumtaz Begum Jehan Dehlavi (February 14, 1933 – February 23, 1969), known as Madhubala and Fatima Rashid (June 1, 1929 – May 3, 1981) known as Nargis. Today many lead actors in Indian movies are Muslims.
Hindus, Muslims and Christians formed the backbone of the Indian movie audience in Trinidad without incident. Even after partition, there were no records of violent incidents here as had occurred in India as both Hindus and Muslims continued to patronize Indian movies without fail. The riots that took place in India during and after the partition did not spread to Trinidad, and Muslims and Hindus in the colony continued to live harmoniously. In a way, the Indian movie was a common bond, the common link between Hindus, Muslims and the motherland, India. In the settlement villages, Hindus and Muslims lived like brothers and sisters in Trinidad and always helped one another, whether it was a community project, a village wedding or a personal prayer at a home. In almost every area in Trinidad, Hindus, Muslims and Christians always joined in celebrations such as Ramayan yagnas and Hosay that were organized in the villages and towns and they were always supportive of one another.
When religious fellowship was enacted in the movies, locals were able to identify with it. Even after partition when many Muslim organizations in Trinidad began to look towards Pakistan, and later in the 1970s when oil became king and rose to international prominence, and local Muslim organizations looked towards Mecca for their sustenance, this did not in any way affect the relationships locally, between Muslims and Hindus, although there were undercurrents existing at the time. The presence of Muslims in Indian movies was always a satisfying sight for local Muslims, particularly in movies that portrayed aspects of Islamic culture. The first Indian movie of Islamic importance that came to Trinidad was Nur e Yaman (1935, Light of Yaman). It is noteworthy that Hindus as well as Muslims turned out in large numbers to see Islamic influenced Indian movies such as Pakeeza, Anarkali, Mughal – e -Azan andUmrao Jaan.
The Indian movie was the single greatest commonality among East Indians living in Trinidad. Muslims, Christians and Hindus were involved in the filmi spin-off cultural activities such as music, songs and dances, which contributed tremendously to the development of East Indian identity in Trinidad. They sang and played filmi music in Indian orchestras throughout the country and they were involved in Indian filmi dances.
Tabanca Songs and Indian Movies
Many Indian movies portrayed the hero at some point in the film going through a difficult time with his loved one or afflicted with a lifelong love. This relationship was socially thwarted because of social norms that had to do with conflicts that revolved around such issues as the caste system, wealth, values and family traditions. However, whatever the reason, the hero generally was in a sad state, listless, homeless and drunk and generally no good to anyone including himself. The tabanca-afflicted hero led a life that tended towards social self-destruction within the ideal moral universe. He was found in films such as Devdas, Prem Rog (1982, Lovesick),Guide, Aap Ki Kasamand Mai Chup Rahungi.
In Devdas, the hero self-destructed using alcohol as his main prop while in Guide the hero pursued a married woman and contracted a bout of tabanca but then used alcohol as his prop. He reversed the self-destruction by becoming a saint at the end of the movie. In Aap Ki Kasam, Rajesh Khanna, after doubting his wife’s fidelity, self-destructed in his tabanca and became a vagrant for life while in Mai Chup Rahungi, Sunil Dutt turned to the bottle and followed a path of self-destruction in his tabanca mood.
Tabanca was something with which local audiences could readily identify so when they saw their idols such as Dev Anand in Guide, Rajesh Khanna in Prem Nagar or Sunil Dutt in Mai Chup Rahungi, on the screen in a tabanca mood they identified with those characters because many of them or someone they invariably knew had gone through similar tabanca experiences in their lives. Whether they had lost a loved one or they had loved and lost, or it had happened to someone close to them, most local Indian movie fans were able to identify with the tabanca sentiments on the screen. Largely, Indian movies mirrored the local tabanca lives of many Trinidad Indian movie fans and some used it as a validation of their “rum drinking” lifestyles. Despite that, some of the most beautiful and melodic songs from Indian movies were the tabanca songs by playback singers such as Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh in movies such as Guide, Mai Chup Rahungi, Beti Bete and Prem Nagar. When Dev Anand sang Din dhal jaye hai (The Day Has Passed)in Guide or Sunil Dutt sang Mai kaun hoon, mai kahan hoon (Who am I? Where am I?)in Mai Chup Rahungi, it evoked within the heart of the viewer, and later the listener, (after the movie had passed from the cinema) “a sentiment filled with emotions and a tinge of sadness that words cannot express.”
Local fans, especially those going through a tabanca spell, were known to play or sing tabanca songs repeatedly, while holding a bottle of rum in the hands, imitating what they saw in the movies, all the while drinking themselves into a stupor. Many repeatedly went back to the cinema to see Indian movies because of the tabanca songs. However, “Rum songs” in Indian movies sent a negative subliminal values message to the youths in Trinidad that “it was normal for men to solve their problems by drinking alcohol.” There were many cases where young men turned to the bottle as a panacea for their problems and used the filmi validation for their actions. Indian movies have influenced many fans in this class of movie to such an extent that they took the “Tabanca-Rum-fantasy” created in the movies literally and made it part of their own lives, reliving the fantasy that they saw in the movies, making it a reality in their own lives. Many local singers have taken Indian film songs and reworked them into local “chutney rum songs” using filmi melodies overlaid with English lyrics in which rum drinking and drunkenness were glorified.
Names and Naming
Generally, Hindus visited the family pundit at the birth of a child to select an astrologically correct name for the child but invariably because of the popularity of Indian movies and Indian film stars in Trinidad many people gave their newborn filmi related names that referenced the stars or the names of Indian movies. This practice of naming children after the stars in Indian movies has existed in the East Indian community from as early as Bala Joban. Jhagroo recalled children in her district were named Pandu after the character by that name in Bala Joban. Many people were so fascinated by some of the stars in Indian movies that they named their children after them. In Hindu homes even though they used the names given by the pandit known as the Rasi name (secret name) they also appended movie star names as calling names for their children because it was not proper to call their children in public by their Rasi names. Names such as Asha, Raj, Dev, Dev Anand, Sabita, Mumtaz, Dharmendra, Rajendra, Ashok, Mala, Hema and Premnath were some of the names of Indian movie stars that were given to local children. For example, John Jagroopsingh indicated that one of his daughters was named Mala after Mala Sinha.
It should be noted that this was not the only impact in terms of names that were drawn from Indian movies shown in Trinidad. People also named their children after characters in Indian movies. For example Sarjoo, recalled that a fellow villager was so taken with a character in an Indian movie that he named his son Ujala which was also the title of the movie. Thousands of parents in Trinidad named their children after stars or characters portrayed in Indian movies. There were other ways as well, in which the names of film stars were tagged on to local people. Every so often, a person was so fascinated by a particular film star that he or she usually spoke of that particular star, male or female, in all conversations about Indian movies. Partap Sitahal stated that in his village, a Rajesh Khanna fan, because of the latter’s idolization of Rajesh Khanna and his efforts to dress like Rajesh Khanna was nick- named Rajesh by his friends. The Rajesh Khanna fan was proud of that achievement. Sandra Sookdeo also pointed out that in her village that was a common occurrence where boys and girls were sometimes named after filmi stars that parents cherished. Gayatri Mahabirsingh was a case in point as she was nicknamed Vijantimala after the female Indian screen star whom she emulated.
The filmi names of character role stars were also used to name people who behaved in similar fashion. For example, people who did not find favor with others, who were known felons, or who were known to be rowdy or skirt chasers were tagged with the movie names of characters from Indian movies such as Pran. A quarrelsome mother-in-law, who was always finding fault with her daughter- in-law was usually given the pseudo-screen name of Lalita, in reference to the screen star, Lalita Pawar who often times acted the screen role of the wicked mother-in-law. This had a positive effect on the individual because soon her “bad habits” were put to rest since she did not like the name tag that was given to her. In other cases, suspected womanizers or girl molesters in the village were nicknamed Pran after the character role that Pran played in many movies. No one liked to be called Pran or other unbecoming names. That “kind of picong or gossip played a major role in keeping certain unworthy characters in check in the village.” In other cases, people were called Bharat, Manoj or Mr. Patriotic because of regular references to Manoj Kumar who acted in several patriotic roles in movies such as UpkarandPurab Aur Paschim and in which he took the name Bharat. Jagroopsingh recalled that after they had seen the movie Junglee in the early 1960s one villager was actually nicknamed Junglee after the movie because of his constant references to the movie and the songs from the movie. Until his death, the name Junglee remained with him. In addition, many local Indian orchestras such as Junglee Merrymakers, Dil-E-Nadaan Indian Orchestra and Hum Hindustani Indian Orchestra took their names from Indian movies. The appropriation of names from Indian movies was a common occurrence in many villages throughout the country where Indian films influenced naming styles among East Indians in the naming of villages, roads, people, orchestras and animals such as horses.
This was perhaps the local effort at not only identifying with Indian movies but also indigenizing aspects of them that kept them alive among the people. Years later, the Indian orchestra would still be called by its movie name; the old lady would still be referred to as Lalita or the young man might still be referred to as Rajesh, long after the screen referents were no longer in the public’s eye. This was a kind of legitimization of one aspect of the impact of Indian movies among the people. It spawned the creation of local folklore connected to Indian movies and India, and gave East Indians a sense of Indianness. However, the influence of films in the naming of people and groups was not confined to Indian movies as many local Carnival bands and steel pan orchestras such as Casablanca and Quo Vadis took their names from English movies.
Some Local Cinema Stories
There are stories told in many parts of the country of the special efforts people made to get to the cinema to see Indian movies. Sagar Sookraj recalled that to see an Indian movie in the 1950s and 1960s he walked with a group of young people in his area, from Cunupia to the cinema in Chaguanas and back because of the lack of transportation. Although the distance was far and the return journey was in the night, the walk, especially the return journey, was a most enjoyable experience, particularly during the moonlight. The group comprised both boys and girls and this made the experience more palatable. Many others recalled similar experiences of walking back home from the cinema at night, enjoying the experience of talking, laughing and actually having fun on the way back home. However, they all confided that there were times when certain events conspired to put a damper on their fun such as when rain fell on the homeward journey and with no building in sight, they used banana leaves for shelter. Sometimes fear was a concern as Ashram B. Maharaj related that in the area where he lived, there was a cemetery on the way home and there were times when he was frightened to pass that way. One night after cinema while walking home the rain fell as he reached in close proximity to the cemetery. Since there was no place else to shelter he was forced to shelter in the cemetery even though he “was mortally afraid of the spirits.”
Pandit Balroop Maharaj recalled that there were many people from his area, who, in the late 1940s went to see movies and hired one of the three motor cars available in the Cumuto area where he lived. Pertab Mathura who owned one such car charged a small fee to take people to and from the cinema. John Jagroopsingh, an avid cinema fan of the fifties and sixties, related stories in which he and a group of friends from the village had graduated from walking, to riding bicycles and by the 1960s had a motor car as their main means of transport to attend Indian movies. He owned a Hillman motor car, which comfortably seated four persons and the driver. Although it was a small vehicle, which they appropriated for cinema use, as many as twelve to fifteen young men was transported in that vehicle to the cinema to see Indian movies. Onlookers at the cinema, on many occasions, seeing the number of people emerging from the car, jokingly inquired if “the vehicle was indeed a bus.” They went to Arima, Tunapuna, Sangre Grande, and even Astor Cinema in Port of Spain, the car filled to capacity, to the weekend night shows. The managers at the cinemas also did their public relations to encourage patrons to attend the cinema and the transport men benefited from this arrangement. Whenever Jagroopsingh took his “cinema trip” to the Princess Cinema in Arima, he always received a free ticket from the Manager to see the Indian movie being shown at the time. This was enough encouragement to keep taking his trip to the cinema each week. Others such as Ramnath, Sitahal, Ramaya and Mahabirsingh told similar stories of getting to and from the cinema, particularly the night shows.
There were those who made going to the cinema into a “lime.” Waquab Emamdee and friends of Vega de Oropouche, in the late 1960s went to the Astor and De Luxe Cinemas in Port of Spain to view new releases of Indian movies. They wanted to be among the first to see the new releases because they found that most Indian films “took too long” to reach Sangre Grande after their release in Port of Spain. As a result, Emamdee and his friends organized the trip into a lime to Port of Spain to see Indian movies. Sometimes they went to the late show, for by then Astor had started releasing its new Indian movies in a late show on a weekend. Emamdee recalled that period of Indian movies as one of the most wonderful for his age group in this country. He suggested that some of the best Indian movies ever produced were shown during that time and he enjoyed watching every one of them.
Another group that made going to Indian movies a lime was “the boys from Brazil Village.” They made their visit to the Astor Cinema in Port of Spain into a lime as they too attended the weekend shows, particularly the new releases of Indian movies. New releases at the Astor Cinema began showing on Thursdays but they went on Saturday nights, because that was most convenient for them. They hired a panel van driven by a fellow villager, a person of Spanish descent, one Garcia, who willingly transported them from Brazil to the Astor Cinema in Port of Spain for the 8:30 p.m. show in the 1960s for the price of one dollar. Garcia did not stay to watch the movies, but limed around the city and waited for the show to end. That one dollar transportation fee from Brazil to Port of Spain, a distance of twenty miles was considered a “steal of a deal in those days” to see an Indian movie in the city as “the boys” could boast of seeing the Indian movie before anyone else from the village.
While there were many stories about people attending the evening and night shows there were equally fascinating stories about people who attended the day shows. Entire families from Biche, Plum Mitan and surrounding areas went to Sangre Grande early on Saturday mornings and spent the morning in town transacting business as that was the most convenient time for such matters to be handled since Saturday was a normal working day for government employees. The parents conducted their Saturday business, which also included some “Saturday shopping” with the children and then waited for the matinee show at 12:30 p.m. This was a regular feature of rural life in areas such as Sangre Grande, Penal, Princes Town, Chaguanas and Rio Claro where the Saturday Indian matinee cinema show formed the nucleus of plans for many East Indian families.
There were also some individual local Indian cinema stories that stood out such as one about a young man from Brazil Village, whom the residents called Gabs (Gabriel Gangadeen) who loved Indian movies so much that he spent almost all his “working money” on Indian movies. Gabs went to movies in Arima, Tunapuna, Sangre Grande, Chaguanas, Cunupia or Penal, regardless of time, 8:30 p.m. or the late shows. He regularly walked home from Arima, the last point of transport to his home, after the show, alone, whether it was a rainy dark night or a moonlit night. He was well known in the village for his love of Indian movies and the extent of his travels to see them. Partap Sitahal recalled an incident involving this young man, then in his early twenties, during the “gas strike” in the early 1970s. Transportation then was extremely difficult yet Gabs, managed to travel to the cinema of his choice in Arima or Tunapuna to see Indian movies. Sitahal recalled going to the Monarch cinema in Tunapuna with his car during the gas strike and encountering Gabs at the cinema. Sadly, a few years ago, he died in an unfortunate accident at his workplace. Gabs was not alone in his undying love for Indian movies. There were thousands like him, from the earliest days of Indian movies, to the present, all over the country, gracing the Indian Cinema halls, week after week, their stories unheard, untold.
Another unusual story concerned a group of boys from the same village as Gabs, who were regulars at the Princess Cinema in Arima. In late 1969 in the run-up to the release of Talash, having seen the preview of the movie at that cinema, those patrons returned to the cinema and bought tickets for English shows to see the preview of Talash. Once the preview of Talash was over, they left the cinema and returned the next day performing the same ritual. This ritual went on for two weeks before the release of the movie at the cinema.
Many local Indian movie fans made strenuous efforts to be the first to view an Indian movie because it was something “to brag” (boast) about among friends. They traveled long distances to see the movie on its release in Port of Spain and went back to the village to boast about seeing the movie before the others from the village. In addition, there were stories of young men and women trying to outdo each other for the pleasure of boasting to friends that they had seen a movie “more times” than the others had. Sitahal related that he went to see the movie Shehzada at the Princess Cinema in Arima in the 1970s on six consecutive days and on each day he encountered a friend from his village who wanted to be the one to boast of having seen the movie most times but they were joint winners in that friendly clash.
Local East Indians accepted Trinidad as their homeland but looked to India as the ancestral motherland. They saw their cultural and religious lives reflected on the silver screen in numerous Indian movies and while they identified with those sentiments, it also helped to reinforce their traditions within the context of Trinidad society.
Indian movies came to Trinidad at a time when East Indians were struggling to find their cultural and religious spaces in the land. It was a time when they struggled against numerous odds to preserve and uphold their traditions, values and way of life. The West and western ways were anathema to their way of life so they consciously persevered against it in order to preserve their traditions even though many of their cultural practices were already on the wane.
One of the dangers
that faced East Indians in Trinidad as they heartily consumed Indian movies was
that they were in danger of losing themselves. There was always the fear that
what they stood for culturally and religiously could be lost to emanations from
Indian movies because Indian movies often portrayed western ideas and fashions
that were likely to be copied by young people. However, they were able to fall
back on their traditions and religious values, which partially acted as a
buffer against some of the negative impact of Indian films and modernity.
Largely however, East Indians were able to compare their cultural and religious
settings in Trinidad with what they saw in Indian movies and much of what they
saw in Indian movies reinforced or validated many of their practices in
. Indrani Ramnarine.
. India had led the way to independence in 1947 and Trinidad followed in 1962.
. R. Ramnath.
. Partap Sitahal and Stephen Kangal.
. Mungal Patasar.
. Partap Sitahal.
. D. Mahabirsingh.
. Dipchand Maharaj.
. R. Chadee.
. Many East Indians who appeared before the court in those days could not speak English. It was easier therefore to allow the Panchayat to arrive at a decision and the decision presented to the court by a lawyer who indicated the authenticity of the decision and the acceptance by both parties.
. Dipchand Maharaj.
. Raksha Bandhan (the bond of protection), is a Hindu festival which celebrates the relationship between brothers and sisters. The central ceremony involves the tying of a rakhi (sacred thread) by a sister on her brother’s wrist. This symbolizes the sister’s love and prayers for her brother’s well-being. The brother in return offers a gift to his sister and vows to look after her. The brother and sister traditionally feed one another sweets.
. The social tranquilizer is a device used to reduce stress, tension or shame arising from the non-compliance to social norms and values in society.
. Indrani Ramnarine.
. Follow-up telephone Interview with Indrani Ramnarine.18/08/10.
. Fearless Nadia was born Mary Evans in Perth, Australia. She accompanied her family to India as a child and began her film career in the 1930s in Hindi films in India. She was best known for portraying the masked, cloaked adventuress “Hunterwali” (A.K.A. “The Lady Hunter”) in 1935.
. D. Mahabirsingh.
. Indrani Ramnarine.
. Follow-up telephone Interview with Partap Sitahal.28/12/09.
. Surujrattan Rambachan.
. Indrani Ramnarine and Gosine.
. Rasi names were religious names given to children that were to be used later during consultations with pandits for sickness, health, marriage and other Sanskars. They were not everyday ‘calling’ names.
. Some of these included Sandra Sookdeo, Ashram B. Maharaj, Partap Sitahal, John Jagroopsingh, Kangal and Bhownath Maraj to name a few.
. Ashram B. Maharaj.
. Telephone interview with Waquab Emamdee 17/08/08.
. Saturday a.m. session was a normal working session for government employees up to the 1970s so many people from the rural areas usually went to the town areas to transact business on Saturdays. In the 1970s, the government introduced a five-day workweek that eliminated the Saturday workday.
. Interview with Mahase Sinanan who was part of the group mentioned in the story. 19/3/09.