Indian Movies as A Medium for The Continuity of Indian Culture in The Caribbean


The British brought 543,861 Indian indentured immigrants to the Caribbean mainly from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and South India during the period 1838 – 1917, after the abolition of slavery   in 1838.  Four out of every five of these indentured immigrants decided to make the Caribbean  their new home. 

Until 1935, the East Indians in the Caribbean  were largely cutoff from India and their cultural and religious roots and therefore maintained minimal contacts with their ancestral roots.  Most of them lived in areas far removed from the towns on estates or what were called “Indian settlements”.

It was in the interest of the British to encourage the ex-indentured immigrants to stay in the Caribbean  when their period of indentureship had ended, as their labour was sorely needed.  Those who decided to stay in the Caribbean  were   given plots of land in lieu of the return passage to India.    It was perhaps this land ownership system that engendered in them a feeling of confidence and identity and, encouraged by their “ownership of a piece of the Caribbean ”, they began the task of building a society in their new land.


They sought to maintain their links with the motherland in several ways and practiced, from memory, almost in replicated form, many of the cultural, social, and religious practices they had brought from India.  They kept alive the memory of India among themselves through their songs, music, dances, dress, language, artifacts, and religious traditions.  Out of these and other concepts, they collectively created “an imagined India” that they passed on from one generation to the next.

According to Raviji (a social worker, and Religious leader 1944-), they were “starved of things Indian and kept alive the India of the memory” and to a large extent they sought to re-create as close as possible as far as the memory could assist, the India that they had left behind.[1]  But they longed for India, to see India, to make contact with India of the memory that had been passed on from one generation to the next.

Within the framework of the eclectic Caribbean society, the East Indians in the Caribbean  contextualized their presence within the context of the British Empire and the Caribbean society.  Most of the East Indians were part of the Caribbean society, yet they remained apart from it and lived in their settlements away from the rest of the society.  Nevertheless, they were influenced by their affiliation and close approximation to the larger society and their indirect participation in that society in many ways.  For the greater part, they were passive participants whose labour was needed to save the economy and for which they were originally brought to the island.  Largely therefore the only item of importance for the rest of the society as far as the East Indian were concerned was their labour.  Once they gave their labour to the planters, they were generally left alone during their “free time”. It was this left “aloneness”  that allowed the East Indians to develop their settlement societies as “a society within a society”  based mainly on memorial recollections of the India that they had left behind where they had been free to practice their religion and culture in the larger colonies such as Trinidad, and Guyana. However in the smaller colonies where the number of Indian indentured immigrants were lesser they did not have security in numbers and were therefore left to the ……………… of westernization forces.

Now every culture exists within larger structures that frame the individual and the group’s “worldviews.”.  Clark in her book In Search of Human Nature defines worldviews as “beliefs and assumptions by which an individual makes sense of experiences that are hidden deep within the language and traditions of the surrounding society”.[2] The shared values, customs, norms and institutions of the particular society comprise the worldviews that are communicated through myths, narratives, metaphors, and other aspects of society’s cultural life.

For the East Indians in the Caribbean that worldview was framed by the settlement societies that they lived in and the information they gathered from their affiliation with the wider society.  The broad cultural frame of the settlement society enclosed their shared values, customs, norms, institutions, and other aspects of their lives almost wholly to the exclusion of the rest of the society.  The broad settlement society’s Cultural frames therefore represented all aspects of their traditional, cultural, and religious life.


The cultural frame is a device used to help understand information about difficult or complex situations. This was the case with the East Indians   in the Caribbean where they found themselves living in a society that needed their labour, but rejected their presence, their traditional cultural patterns and to a large extent ostracized them.  They therefore lived in in their settlements in a “society within a society” but apart from the larger society.

Just as a picture frame defines what is and what is not included in the picture, the cultural frame defined for the East Indians in the Caribbean  what was important or not important within the context of their own society and the wider society within which they found themselves.

Cultural frames allow us to make sense of the East Indian’s presence in the Caribbean    in arriving at relevant conclusions about their cultural evolutionary processes in their “Society within a society” where they made a deliberate attempt to maintain and practice their traditional culture and religion. 

They generally lived and practiced their culture and religion out of the glare of the rest of the population because they were at times ridiculed and made to feel unwelcome within the national framework because of their strange cultural patterns such as the language, the dress, and religion.  It was within this context therefore that they developed their own identity structures that framed their “settlement society”.  While their identity frames kept them apart from the rest of the society those cultural frames allowed them to make sense of the world in which they lived and in so doing contextualized their presence within the broader framework of the national landscape.  Their cultural frames gave them a distinct identity and in the process kept them apart   “framed”   away from the rest of the society.


Indian movies were initially produced for audiences in India and as such, their cultural frames [identity markers] reflected the local Indian landscape. Arguably  though, while  most of the early Indian film productions  were tradition-based and used  the religio — socio – cultural frames some of those   traditional identity cultural frames  ceased to be employed as identity markers  after the 1930s as the sound films  became more and more  popular.  However, certain basic identity symbols remained intact and continue to the present time as cultural frames within the Indian film industry.

Some of those included:

Language: early Indian films were produced in the Hindi from the Bombay studios.  Later films were produced in other Indian languages such as Telugu, Tamil, and Bengali.

Clothing: Indian movies sought to portray Indians wearing Indian clothing such as the Sari, Ghangri, Capra, dhoti, orhni, and kurta

Artifacts: Indian movies sought to portray Indian’s in the everyday way of life using, the Indian implements such as jaata, dhenki, while living in mud huts with thatched roofs.

Music and Songs: early Indian movies were silent movies but after Alam Ara (1931) music and songs became an integral part of Indian movies utilizing numerous folk based songs and filmi compositions.

Dances: Indian dances have been used in numerous films in various forms both classical and non-classical.

Musical instruments: musical instruments provided the basis for Indian music in Indian films and many of these instruments such as the tabla, harmonium, and sitar have been portrayed in various song and dance filmi sequences.

Make up and jewelry: Indian movies have tended to portray various aspects of the makeup and jewelry that reflect basic Indian standards with the use of Mehndi, bindi, bangles and other such frames.

Religion and religious texts: religion and religious texts have always provided crucial ingredients for Indian movies and have been reflective of the two major religions in India- Hinduism and Islam – and has included Christianity within its framework.

Other identity markers: other identity markers such as places in India for example the Himalayas, the Ganges, temples, mosques, the Taj Mahal and the uniqueness of the streets in India and the countryside landscapes also had identity markers within the Indian film industry.

To a large extent Indian movies, though a commercialized entity, inculcated within its celluloid body, a range of cultural and traditional frames that were taken from among the Indian people.  In addition, it created many commercially oriented cultural frames within its celluloid reels that, while it had no basis in actual Indian society cultural settings, it nonetheless created its own cultural celluloid engagements that was enormously appealing to the people and provided entertainment value for them.

Now these Indian traditional cultural frames and filmi created commercial cultural sheaths existed side by side and created a tremendous impact on the East Indians in the Caribbean .


The first Indian movie that came to the Caribbean  was Bala Joban in 1935.[3] This movie was an average ordinary Indian movie in India.  It is not even mentioned in the top movies of the decade of the 1930s in India.  But for the East Indians in the Caribbean  it was a classic case of destination country — India.[4] They came from every corner of the colony to the main city center in Port-of-Spain to see the film.  Reports indicate that they traveled by train, by bus, by carts by whatever means to view the first Indian movie in Port-of-Spain.  Every show was sold out.  When it was shown at the other cinemas, every show was sold out as the Indians came out in large numbers to see this first Indian motion picture in the Caribbean .[5]

As Indian movies continued to arrive, the Indo- Caribbeanians continued to support the exhibition of these films.  The exhibition of Indian movies became such a popular pastime for the East Indians in the Caribbean  that several new cinemas were established   in the rural communities for the main purpose of exhibiting Indian movies to the East Indians.  In addition, entrepreneurs took several of the Indian movies to many of the rural communities through the tent cinemas with remarkable success.[6]

With the exhibition of Indian movies in the Caribbean ,   destination “identity” India seemed to have been the operative concept among the production houses in India.  While the Indian movie Production Houses did not set out to create the concept of “Destination India” for overseas Indians or their descendants, and while the movies were entirely commercial productions, the “Destination Identity India” concept was nevertheless embedded within the Indian movies long before the term was coined and became fashionable in the Western film world.  The model seemed to have been ready-made for the East Indians in the Caribbean  as they were able to readily identify with the “Destination Identity India” concept embedded within the movies because of the fact that they both had common origins — India.  Many East Indians went to see those movies simply because they were Indian movies.[7]

To a people who were starved of things Indian, who pined for India, who had created an imagined India and who sought to re-create among themselves the India that they had left behind, the coming of this new Indian spectacle in 1935 was like “India coming to them in the Caribbean “[8] or “a slice of India”[9] coming to them in the Caribbean .  That slice of India contained within it “Destination identity India” that fulfilled many of the longings which they harbored over the years and which was transmitted from one generation to the next.  For example, the people in the movie were just like them, wore clothing and jewelry with which they were familiar, spoke Hindi that was their link language with India, sang in Hindi language, and used Indian musical instruments such as tabla, sitar with which they were familiar.


The cultural frames in existence in the Caribbean  were quite familiar, even similar, to those in existence in India because the East Indians in the Caribbean  were descendants of Indian indentured immigrants even though the East Indians in the Caribbean  lived in a heterogeneous society and their ancestors in India lived in a homogenous society.  However, since the East Indians in the Caribbean  generally lived in settlement societies far removed from the established Western order, many of their religious, cultural, and social practices were kept almost intact.

As Indian movies continued to arrive in the Caribbean , East Indians drew parallels between their local cultural frames and cultural frames of India that they saw in the movies.  For example when they saw frames such as the jaata (stone mill), dhenki (rice thrasher), goblet (clay vessel) and chulha (fireside) in the films they were able to relate those frames to   similar ones that existed in their own homes or   in their villages.  When they saw   arranged marriages, the panchayat system, gender issues such as the woman’s place in society(seen but not heard)and caste system issues in the films they were able to relate those events to similar ones in their own local society in the Caribbean , reinforcing them in the process.  They used the films to reinforce  many   identity links with India and the  images of “destination India” that were embedded in the Indian movies served as a mirror of cultural frames, contexts, value systems  and places in India which they found similar to their own cultural configurations  in the Caribbean .

However there was a disconnect with the newer cultural constructions such as the filmi songs and dances in the Indian films which did not generally reflect the  state of Indian society in India, but was more or less a commercial entity that romanticized many aspects of Indian life.  Despite that disconnect the East Indians in the Caribbean were able to link their own identity in the Caribbean  to Indian identity positions in India through the films by connecting other aspects of their identity structures.

There was an amazing similarity between the cultural frames that existed among the East Indian indentured immigrants in the Caribbean and those that existed in the Indian movies for example Hindi was common to both cultural frames.  In addition they wore Indian clothing,  used similar  artifacts,  jewelry,  played similar musical instruments , used similar religious texts  and practiced similar religions  to those cultural frames that they encountered in the Indian Movies.

Because of those similarities in “cultural frames” between the East Indians in the Caribbean and the Indian films, the Indian movies were readily accepted by the East Indians in the Caribbean  as a socio- religio- cultural identity link with India.

The Indian movies acted as a connector between the cultural frames that existed among the East Indians in the Caribbean and the cultural frames of India.  To the East Indian in the Caribbean, the Indian movie represented India and served as a “surrogate” replacement for the Indian identity cultural frames that were in existence in the Indian subcontinent at the time.  

This act of linking their traditional cultural frames to those seen in the Indian movies, while it gave meaning and identity to their existence, it also complicated the very processes because the East Indians in the Caribbean  did not consciously distinguish between the genuine traditional cultural frames that were in existence in India and those that were created in the films for entertainment purposes.  The result was that the new filmi cultural frames such as the songs, music, and dances that were not present in their local “cultural settings” were taken from the celluloid world and made part of their “new cultural frames”. 

 This “slice of India”[Indian movies] which to them represented India and which they mistook for the real “Indian cultural frames”  also became the catalyst for many evolutionary cultural changes  that subsequently occurred  within the cultural frames  that existed  in the East Indian community at the time  in the Caribbean  .  This was   because they  initially  saw Indian movies  as representative  of the Indian cultural frames  existent in India  but the reality was   that   the movies were commercial entertainment entities  that were exported from India  which  contained  aspects  of Indian cultural frames  that were  most times viewed in isolation ,  and taken out of context  from its original moorings.  For example, Sandra Sookdeo, a Trinidadian Kathak dancer trained in India, argued that folk songs that were portrayed in Indian movies were not representative of the folk culture in India yet the East Indians in the Caribbean took those folk songs to represent the original folk culture of India.  Those filmi folk songs she argued, while their portrayal did in fact have some basis in the original folk culture it was nevertheless adulterated and presented for entertainment purposes in the commercialized Indian cinema.[10]  The same was also true of Classical dance sequences in those films.  In addition the playback songs by singers such as Saigal, Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar which were  composed for the movies, were commercial entities in themselves   and did not ,  for the most part ,  reflect   existing cultural frames within the Indian society.  They were cultural frames that existed in an “imagined celluloid Indian cultural frame “in an “imagined India” of the commercialized filmi world that the East Indians in the Caribbean internalized as “Indian cultural frames” in their own society.

For a people who were essentially cut off from their roots for almost 90 years to the time when the first Indian movie came to the Caribbean, the Indian movies seemed to them a plausible surrogate link with India and things Indian.  Within that context, therefore they mimicked many of the commercialized filmi modes such as songs and dances.  Numerous filmi singing competitions were held on the island and referred to for example as “The Mohammed Rafi Imitation Singing Contest” or “The Mukesh Imitation Singing Contest”[11] so that the local East Indians in the Caribbean  were in fact imitating the received traditions from the Indian movies in various ways .This mimicry of the commercialized filmi expressions would later translate itself into new identity patterns in the East Indian society in the Caribbean .

 Those “imagined celluloid Indian cultural frames “that existed only in the filmi world provided  cultural fodder for,  and was the source  of  many cultural changes  that evolved within the  evolving cultural  milieu that existed among the East Indians in the Caribbean  .  Taking the example  of the  songs  rendered by the playback singers in the movies , while there were certain  linkages  with prevailing  cultural frames among the East Indians in the Caribbean  such as the music [tabla, sitar, harmonium] it did not fit into any of the genres  that were in existence within their evolving music at the time.  This music was catchy, rhythmic and melodic and appealed to the majority of people compared to the classical and folksongs to which they were accustomed.  It was a new genre of music, filmi music, that had a popular appeal among the people, but this did not fit into existing cultural frames and therefore created cultural frames of its own in the society.  In short time these new filmi musical cultural frames  largely replaced the classical  and folksongs that had hitherto been the mainstay   of cultural programming  at  public functions such as “cooking nights” and wedding nights ,  family gatherings   and other public shows.[12]  In addition, after 1938, scores of local Indian orchestras   sprung up throughout the country and created new modes of rendition within which these playback filmi songs were incorporated.  Those renditions that incorporated the filmi playback songs were further expanded in the 1940s when the “Mike Men” appeared on the scene and played East Indian filmi songs throughout the country at most East Indian functions.[13]Largely after the 1940s, the Mike men became a staple compliment to most East Indian functions and were a major factor in the spread and institutionalization of these filmi songs as part of the social fabric of the East Indians in the Caribbean .  From 1947 when Indian Radio programmes commenced in the Caribbean, and after 1993, when Indian formatted radio stations became a reality in the country, the majority offerings in their programming over the years were filmi songs.  At present, there are seven Indian formatted radio stations in the country, and they all play Indian film songs most of the time.

Other areas such as filmi dress, filmi make up, filmi jewelry, filmi decorations and artifacts soon became embedded as parts of the new cultural identity frames of the East Indians.  In terms of dress, the influence was seen in a shift to the wearing of the Sari, Kurta, and Shalwar at East Indian functions.  Nasaloo Ramaya points out that before Indian movies came very few East Indians were seen wearing these outfits but after the advent of Indian movies these outfits became very popular in the Caribbean .[14] In addition, East Indians sought to purchase, either locally or in foreign markets, styles of clothing they had seen in Indian movies.  Sandra Sookdeo argued that in terms of makeup and jewelry many East Indians copied hairstyles and facial makeup from the Indian movies.  She pointed out that many East Indians purchased and adorned themselves with identical jewelry and clothing outfits that were seen in Indian movies such as Doli, Ham Aap Ke Hai Kaun, and Bhagbaan.[15]  Mrs. Sarjoo, one of the few surviving persons who had seen the first Indian movie shown in the Caribbean , argued that it had become fashionable even into the late 1940s for Indo Caribbean women to wear the large Bala Joban earrings, which they had seen in the Bala Joban movie in the Caribbean  in 1935.[16]

The East Indians in the Caribbean saw the Indian movie as a link between themselves and India.  To them it was their only real cultural link with India until Indian artistes such as Hemant Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar began visiting the Caribbean in the mid-1960s.

It was one thing for Indian movies to be shown in the Caribbean and for the East Indians to gravitate towards them but what was amazing was the resulting cultural frame linkages that were created involving the Indian movies, East Indians and India.

This triangulation of these cultural frames and their spinoffs became the catalyst in the evolution of a new identity for East Indians in the Caribbean.  The identity with the earlier traditional cultural frames changed drastically with the influence of the Indian filmi cultural frames after 1935.  The changes were more predominant in certain areas such as songs, music, dances, dress, and religion.

What in effect happened was that while many of the prevailing cultural frames among the East Indians were mirrored on the Indian silver screen through the Indian movies many other aspects of the commercialized filmi cultural frames were in fact transplanted over time into the Caribbean  East Indian society.  So that while on the one hand Indian movies mirrored aspects of the Caribbean  East Indian cultural frames that were prevalent in the society and were seen as identity markers, new cultural frames from the movies eventually evolved in the  Caribbean  East Indian society through the process of mimicry in terms of what they took from the movies and infused into their society.  Those reflections of new cultural frames from the commercial filmi firmament in the Caribbean  East Indian society through their mimicry of the filmi songs eventually led to the creation of new cultural images among East Indians to the point where those new local filmi outputs became new identity markers for the  Caribbean  East Indian community.

That was perhaps a response to the fact that they saw the Indian movies   as representing a “slice of India” that was brought to the East Indians here in the Caribbean.  It presented images of India, an imagined India that had lived in their collective memory and which was passed on from one generation to the next.  Largely therefore, they did not discriminate between the traditional cultural frames and the commercialized filmi ones that came with the Indian movies and as such used both sets of cultural offerings in their society and in the process created new identity markers with those cultural settings, particularly the commercialized filmi cultural structures.  What they saw in the Indian movies therefore reminded them largely of their own “Indian” traditions here in the Caribbean.  Those identity markers were further reinforced when they saw them in the Indian movies and had the effect of creating tremendous linkages between themselves and India.

Those new identity markers that were largely influenced by the commercial filmi cultural frames became new ways by which East Indians were identified in the country over the last 75 years, moreso after the 1970s.


By the 1970s, there were many noticeable changes in the East Indian identity symbols in the Caribbean.  Largely, the period between 1935 and 1970 can be ascribed as the new consolidation period when many facets of the evolving East Indian cultural identity frames that are still prevalent today   were crystallized. 

In terms of their songs and music many began to sing the new fast paced and catchy filmi melodies that came from the movies and to a large extent several of the older traditional songs such as classical singing, hori, and wedding songs were gradually pushed into the background as “the new music” became the mainstay of Indian cultural programming.  In addition, the Indian Orchestras and the “Mike Men” assisted in the spread of these filmi songs among the people.

Hundreds of Indian orchestras sprang up throughout the country providing a new kind of entertainment, largely displacing many of the dance dramas, classical singing, and other events that were normally found in the Wedding night or the cooking night or at East Indian functions.  The majority of songs performed by singers that accompanied the Indian orchestras were film songs, which were hugely popular with audiences.  These songs continue to be played on a 24/7 basis by most of the seven Indian formatted radio stations in the country today.

Many Western instruments found their way into the Indian orchestras in the Caribbean and replaced most of the traditional instruments that were found in musical groups that existed before Bala Joban.  The harmonium was eventually replaced with the synthesizer while guitars replaced the mandolin, sitar, and other stringed instruments.  The Bongo Drums and the trap-sets replaced the dholak or hand drum.

Religious Film songs (Bhajans) had also infiltrated many religious occasions such as Ramayan and Bhagwat Yaagnas, pujas and Festivals such as Phagwa, Divali, and Ramleela where filmi bhajans became the order of the day.  In the case of Public Divali celebrations, other non-religious filmi songs were often heard at these functions, sometimes forming the bulk of the orchestral entertainment.

Individual and group filmi dances largely replaced the dance dramas of the earlier days that were gradually pushed aside and relegated to special East Indian occasions.  Those dances were generally choreographed locally using the film songs as backup music.

Dress styles, including sari, shalwar, and kurta, make up, jewelry and hairstyles were greatly influenced by what people saw in the Indian movies.  For example where before very few people wore a Sari or a kurta before Bala Joban,   by the 1970s these had become commonplace among East Indians attending Indian weddings, religious functions and other East Indian related events.  The wearing of the filmi influenced bindi also became commonplace as local and Indian traders sought to provide items for local consumption as was the case for Mehndi.  In addition, in many cases decorations for weddings and other occasions were copied or largely influenced by what people saw in the Indian films.

In sum, the local East Indians linked the cultural frames that they saw in the Indian movies to their traditional local cultural and religious experiences in the settlement societies and in addition created new terms of reference out of what they saw in the Indian movies.  Many of those expressions not only reinforced their identity but also became new identity markers for them in the Caribbean.

The creation of this new identity therefore saw many  aspects of the older norms such as folk songs, Classical Singing, dances  and other  cultural practices   pushed into the background and  replaced by filmi motivated behaviors such catchy filmi music, songs, dances and the wearing of the sari, shalwar and Kurta along with other aspects of the Indian filmi paraphernalia.  Many of those today remain as major pillars of Indian Identity in the Caribbean.


Indian movies have influenced almost every aspect of East Indian life in the Caribbean and have played a key role in keeping Indian culture alive in the country.  It became a new identity symbol for the East Indian community and for many East Indians in the Caribbean going to see an Indian movie was an identity marker in itself.

In the process, Indian movies became an intrinsic part of the East Indian community’s life in the Caribbean and later functioned as an agent of reinforcement and of change for many of their social, cultural, and religious practices.  It changed many of their identity cultural markers from mainly traditional cultural frames to filmi influenced cultural frames in terms of their songs, music, dances and dress over the last seventy-five years.


[1]Interview with Raviji (1944–) (Hindu thinker, social worker, and Religious leader). 

[2] Clark, Mary E.  In Search of Human Nature.  London: Routledge, .5 Print

[3] The story of how Ranjit Kumar brought the first Indian Movie to Trinidad is told in his autobiography: Ranjit Kumar: Thoughts and Memories of Ranjit Kumar. Inprint Caribbean ltd. 1981

[4]Destination country is a concept used by many countries to promote physical and cultural aspects of the country through films.  For example, “Lord of the rings” used the setting of New Zealand   as a tourist destination setting.  Other movies such as Destination Tokyo and Slumdog Millionaire have used similar devices to create positive country awareness among viewers from other countries.  In some cases, the concept is also used for internal awareness of country destination and this is especially applicable to large countries such as USA, Australia, and India.

[5] Trinidad Guardian.5/12/1935

[6] The tent cinema was a mobile cinema, powered by a portable diesel engine, which was taken to the countryside to enable rural communities to access the movies.

[7] Interview with Kenneth Lalla (1926–) 28/07/08.

[8] Interview with Pt. Balroop Maharaj (1918- )18/08/09

[9] Interview with Narsaloo Ramaya (1920–) 05/05/08

[10] Interview with Sandra Sookdeo.  (1954- ) 31/03/10.

[11] Filmindia.1966.

[12]Cooking Night.  The “cooking night” was usually the night before a Hindu Wedding when friends and relatives   were invited to the home of the Bride and/or groom.  Performances were arranged with Dance groups or Orchestras or other performers. Food was cooked and served to all.

[13] Mike Men.  The Mike Men were a group of music enthusiasts who played songs on a Public Address system consisting of a turntable amplified through a pair of funnels.  The funnels were usually placed atop a motor car or hooked unto the tent at the wedding.  They also made announcements for various occasions.

[14] Interview with Narsaloo Ramaya (1920–) 05/05/08

[15] Interview with Sandra Sookdeo.  (1954- ) 31/03/10.

[16] Interview with Sarjoo Jhagroo (1923–)09/08/08


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