“Would you want to document an interesting journey?”
I have never separated ‘documentation’ from my films, I see one as an extension of the other. But this time I made a distinction. I would love to make a film about this journey, I answered.
What was this journey? Tejaswini Niranjana had completed the manuscript of her book Mobilizing India : Women, Music and Migration between India and Trinidad, a culmination of a more than a decade long research in the Caribbean. She was keen on extending her academic work into another realm, she wanted to initiate “a musical adventure inspired by her research”. Listening to Remo Fernandes’ music she felt she heard strains of the Trinidadian Calypso. Intrigued, she made contact with him and many exchanges later she asked him if he might be interested in collaborations with Caribbean musicians. He responded with enthusiasm. Tejaswini saw this project as “arising directly from my work on popular music in Trinidad. I argue that much of the interaction between musics of the world is mediated by metropolitan capitals…London, Paris, New York…Here is an attempt to take south-south collaboration into the realm of musical composition and performance.”
This was the journey Tejaswini asked me to document: Remo’s encounter with the music and musicians of Jamaica and Trinidad. But this journey had to resonate, I felt, with other journeys – of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers being shipped to Jamaica and Trinidad to work on the colonial sugar plantations in the mid nineteenth century. The world was on the move.
Around the time Tejaswini approached me, I came across a map. Entire peoples were being ferried across the seas to alien lands. The world map was criss-crossed with the routes of these ships. Now I was sure I wanted to make a film. Not a historical film on the journeys from the past. Not an ethnographic film on the music of Jamaica and Trinidad. Not a film on Remo’s journey and encounter with Caribbean music. It would be a road film. A travelogue through music. And the music held a multitude of stories. Each genre of music told a different tale – Reggae, Dancehall, Calypso, Chutney, Soca, Chutney Soca. And the possibility of making new music with Remo. Would musical conversations, across the globe, be possible today?
I have never pressed the record button on the camera when I visit a place for the first time. I need to soak up a place, form a relationship with people, only then do I begin to think about what film I am making and why. But this time it was going to be different. All I knew about the Caribbean before the shoot was through books, photographs and of course loads of music. We had no choice other than to begin shooting from the day we landed. In every way this was turning out to be a film that would force me into new territory. We were in Jamaica for a week and Trinidad for three weeks.
Jamaica remains a blur. There are concerts and events through the night, every night in Kingston. Music is everywhere. And music talks of the identity of being black, sexuality, violence, guns, of 400 years of slavery, of oppression, of the rastafari way of life. And above the music the DJ speaks – toasting. It’s layers and layers of music and political commentary. Events are not just big concerts – its also events organized at the local community square, often in depressed areas. Dozens of speakers – boom boxes as they are called – are stacked, one on top of the other. And as Stacey, a dancehall queen we interviewed says, dancehall change ya. Women transform – wigs, make up, clothes – they are no more higglers (vendors), dressmakers, hair dressers. Their sexuality is in your face – played out for the ubiquitous cameraman. As a spectator you are transfixed – not sure if you are a voyeur. That tension carried on, through the shoot and into the edit.
A visit to one of the cutting edge studios – Grafton Studios – resulted in an exciting jamming session with Remo. But collaborations were few and far between. Just when we began grappling with the dynamics of the music industry there, it was time to leave. I realized that I carried hours of footage that was already far more fractured and disparate than I had imagined. Armed with this anxiety we entered Trinidad.
Trinidad presents an air of familiarity – shop boards read ‘Rampersad Books’, you come across Calcutta street, the road map is marked by names like Barrackpore and Fyzabad. But that familiarity is skewed, without any ambiguity, because we came through Jamaica. To try and trace the story of the India diaspora through nostalgia for a lost India is specious and problem ridden. I had to look for the story of the Indian in the Caribbean through the prism of the African identity and culture. At a Hindu wedding function we were lulled into the known up until the time the women began dancing. Bhojpuri became an alien tongue as the women wined and moved their pelvis. Our only reference to this dancing was the women in dancehall we had seen in Jamaica.
The sound of Jamaican dancehall carries through into Rapso, a contemporary genre in Trinidad. The politics is as stated and in your face as it is in Jamaica. This is far removed from Calypso that uses irony, humour, satire. As our maxi taxi driver said, “when the Africans were slaves they could not tell the master to his face if he had bad habit”.
With Remo in the frame we began our encounters with the music and the musicians – Calypso legends: the Mighty Sparrow, David Rudder, Calypso Rose; Rapso stars: Ataklan and Three Canal; Soca sensation Denise Saucy Wow Belfon; Chutney Soca stars: Riki Jai and Drupatee Ramgoonai. Remo attempted musical conversations, collaborations. Denise Belfon’s hit song in the carnival that year was I am lookin’ for an Indian Man. Remo responded I am the Indian man…from India.
As a filmmaker I have a strong impulse towards the ethnographic. I try to build a narrative out of moments as they happen in front of me – I try and erase my presence and watch, record. In this film, Remo’s presence, The Indian man from India, upturned my film language. He was a character we had scripted into the scene, he did not belong, neither did we – there was no meaning in watching, recording. The tensions of first meetings, the uncertainties that journeys hold in store for the traveler, the expectations and disappointments, all this and more was what I was filming.
81 hours of footage in our baggage and we came home.
Two years, one baby and seven reject letters later I began editing the footage, alone. I had no funds to work with an editor, and I would not be able to ‘move on’ to any other project until this was done. So the edit began. Two years later the material looked more disparate, all the more scattered. A mass communication student who joined me as an intern got hooked on to the material and stayed on until the end of the film, helping me carve some meaning. We cut down all the material into sequences- little films in themselves- around people, places, concerts, events. Months later we had a cut- four and a half hours in length. It was tedious, to put it mildly.I went back to the original impetus to the film- a road film, a travelogue. An attempt at a single narrative, a fully explained context was flawed. And this was music. Months later, with sharp criticism and clear suggestions from dear friends, I had a film 112 minutes in length.
And then we went in for sound mixing. Any notion of ‘documentation’ that I held dear was abandoned. Mohandas VP ‘composed’ the sound track – wiper of a car, a gun shot , the whoosh of fire. He took on RV Ramani’s images and Suresh Rajamani’s sync sound and added another layer to the structure I had worked on. Paresh took the sharpness out of the criticism and brought it into the structure – a song left hanging in mid sentence – I have barely recovered from that- and it is my favourite moment in the film.
The journey through this film has been both tough and enriching, definitely far more perilous than even my first film, first films always being perilous!