Today New Yorkers put down their devices and took to the walls to resist on post its!
What I saw today blew my mind out of its darkest corners: droves of millenials descending upon 5 avenue and 34th out of nowhere walking in-between cars and buses, almost on top of cars, causing them to come to an abrupt halt, tourists on tourist buses standing in support yet shock, police lagging behind and not interfering one bit. Millenials, for the first time with no devices stuck to their faces, looking up, heads held high chanting “fuck donald trump”, “don’t grab my pussy”, “love trumps hate”, “women’s rights are human rights”, “not my président” as they marched up to trump towers with these brazen words of freedom as their weapons. Marching up the avenue of the state to which trump belongs, trump’s home where he is most scorned and disliked. It was moment of reckoning for my somber mood since this morning’s bad news. A sense of pride swelling up inside as I joined them.
But the opposite occurred in my daughter’s school. Young voices silenced, tears speaking where voices should’ve been singing. Kids spilling tears all day today instead of preparing for their future for fear their parents get deported. The principal had to send letters to parents urging them to get counseling and at the same time apologizing “Hollande style” for not being able to chose who the president is.
What a world we live in! What’s become of this great free nation we call ‘America’? Barely one day old and so many tears, discontentment and demonstrations across the country – NY, Oregon, LA etc – from the young and old alike on the streets and classrooms of our nation.
Which president, in the history of this country that leads the world in freedom, and by example, has ever been so disliked that hate has preceded even before his rule begins?
Alas! Words fail!
Bazodee is a musical saga of love, which tells the story of Anita Panchourie, a young Trinidadian woman, who is about to be married to Bharat Kumar, a London educated man from a wealthy Indian family. But their marriage plans sour when she’s captured on social media “wining” [gyrating] on a calypsonian, Lee de Leon. Their budding feelings for each other make them both ‘bazodee’, thus the movie’s name.
‘Bazodee‘ is both a state of being [noun] and how you are [adjective]: you can become bazodee or go bazodee over someone or something [in love or in anger] and you can have bazodee, like a malady. the term comes from créole ‘bazourdi’, which comes from the french ‘abasourdi’ or the english stunned or dumbstruck. And by the time it reached Trinidad it became bazodee. The film Bazodee now playing at AMC and Pavilion theatres in NY, describes all of these feelings.
The story of Bazodee is much the same as any Hindi movie: a women or man torn between duty and desire- duty to please parents, and desire to follow one’s heart. It also has the father who falls into patriarchal rage when he finds out his dutiful daughter has an affair with a calypsonian. It follows the same Bollywood formula of song and dance, which helps develop the narrative in Hindi cinema – but the movie debunks Bollywood in many ways:
1. The film tells a woman’s story, not a man’s: Anita is the heroine and it is Lee who revolves around her, as well as the many other male characters: Bharat ; the father ; Nikhil and the other male characters dependent on Lee who’s dependent on Anita. In India’s film industry, aside from Priyanka Chopra and perhaps Madhuri Dixit once upon time [1990s] – roles are written for male stars, and women are created around the male leads. Perera was intrigued by playing in a leading, non stereotypical, and complex role as it is not often that you see an Asian female in the lead role from India or the Caribbean. Other than that Bollywood is very much a male dominated industry. Interestingly enough, when Indians came to Trinidad in 1834, it was the women who perpetuated and sustained Indian culture in the new island, via tan singing which evolved into chutney, which evolved into so many genres, and finally there is chutney soca, which we see Anita and Lee perform in Bazodee. Anita falls in love with a Trinidadian man of non-indian descent, and not the rich Indian à la Bollywood.
2. Anita’s the darkie – the untouchable – and both Bharat and Lee are the ones who are “wheatish” and “fair” – qualities that Indian parents always ask for in brides-to-be in their many-tentacled matrimonial sites and in Bollyworld. And if the actress is dark she’s lightened up to look wheatish or fair onscreen. But Anita is ‘dark and lovely’, as Nandita Das would say; she’s smooth-skinned, like dark chocolate with chipotle. Anita is the proud Nina Davuluri of Triniwood.
3. Anita’s the one who has a fling with another man, and we know this since the story is being told from her eyes. She gets what she wants and whom she wants. While that may happen in Bollywood especially these days when some roles being written for ‘strong’ women, these same roles are usually re-inscribed into patriarchy at the end of the film. The difference between Bazodee and a Bollywood film is that the man whom Anita chooses is NOT Indian, and he’s neither black nor ‘red’ nor ‘coco pagnol’ [local Spanish], and on top of all that he’s a Rastafarian. India won’t accept interracial relationships easily, only white: they already have huge problems with untouchables and dalits, usually dark of skin, like Anita. And certainly not a darkie and non-indian as we see in Bazodee. Anita rejects riches, religion, caste and chooses a Dougla [Black and Indian mix] who’s not rich, not of the same caste nor race as her. But that’s the cosmopolitan society in Trinidad – one which produces a whole lot of in-between folks like Lee, and then some: black Chinese, ‘Reds’, Douglas etc. That won’t happen in India or Bollywood – a quick look at this video and you will see Indians, Blacks and in-between folks dancing together.
- The sorority in the film is also non-Bollywood. She is surrounded by Poorvi whom she looks out for, and Lalima, who looks out for her. They protect each other and stand by each other even when Poorvi moves to London and Anita stays back in Trinidad when her wedding is canceled
- This ‘mixing’ – the chutney flavor [which Bollywood calls ‘masala’ in food and films] of the movie – is also reflected in the music, which the movie brings out crystal clearly with chutney-soca makeovers like Bollywood’s app jaisa koi mere beautifully rendered by Lee, a non-Indian and Anita, who both sing in both Hindi and Trinidadian dialect in the same breath, and in fact it is the music that draws them together. She ‘feels’ his music. It’s as though he was born out of her song if we follow the plot chronologically, the same way Ruby Sparks was born out of a novelist’s pen. The movie opens on Anita signing so beautifully ‘I forget” without music in her room while getting ready to go fetch her fiancé at the airport. Then the next scene jumps to the airport where Lee is languidly humming the same tune on his ukelele. He’s in dire need of inspiration, and Anita brings him back to life, but on her terms. Their relationship is born- not from caste or class or educational level [again à la Bollywood]- but from love of song and music. The chutney we hear in Lee’s songs has Indian, English and local dialects and flavors, with a calypso beat. If Indians didn’t participate in carnival before, today, it is often Indians who are the best panmen, and blacks beat dhols in tassa groups as good as any Indian, and both the Indian and African diasporas dance and celebrate side by side the rich culture in Trinidad & Tobago. The video at the end shows all the mixings in Machel’s performance of “I forget”
- Acculturation and transculturation in the Indian diaspora of Trinidad to which we are privy in the movie is exactly the way I saw it growing up. Trinidadians celebrate each other’s holy days – Christmas, Eid, Diwali, and Easter. Coming from a Hindu family, my Hindu mother made the same foods the Muslims and Christians made to observe their holy days. A brief history of Trinidad explains its cosmopolitan nature: according to a panel on east indians in the Caribbean [https://youtu.be/oxFrQd6lVzA]. French, Spanish, Portuguese and British came to Trinidad. Africans came in late 18 century with their British masters, Chinese came in 1806 from the Guangdong province, especially the Hakka people, and Indians in 1845, after slavery was abolished in 1838, and as indentured laborers [1845- 1917]. The Indians came first from Calcutta then Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Oudh, Chennai, West Bengal, Punjab etc …The women were Dalits mostly, and intermixing was prevented by Brits to keep blacks and Indians separate. But if slavery separated families then, now they all intermixed and married producing all kinds of mixes. The engagement party and the end of the film in the beach scene very much exemplify this mixing of people and music and the Trini spirit.
- The crew and cast are very multicultural, much like the island people of Trinidad and Tobago, and a cast that is not found in a Bollywood production. Starting with the script by the Bajan Claire Ince and produced by Ancil Mckain/Tobagonian, Steven Brown/ American [Dazed and Confused 1993, Grosse Pointe Bank 1997 and Wild Things 1998], Susana Bohnet of Cinemedia/Germany which funds and acquires rights for US films [What Women Want – Nancy Meyers 2000], and Lorraine O’Connor/Trinidadian and cultural activist/producer/promoter of Triniadad & Tobago culture. Ince and McKain both wanted the film to be global, and got Todd Kessler on board – the 7 time Emmy nominated American of the Game of Thrones, Blue’s Clues fame, and whose artistic work Malcolm Gladwell describes as ‘visionary and new world’ in Tipping Point [http://m.imdb.com/name/nm1383079/bio?ref_=m_mn_ov_bio]. Kessler called the movie “Triniwood”, a much more real and less glossy style than Bollywood. The cinematographer is Imre Juhasz/Hungarian, whose work from 1998 to the present number 37 short, TV and feature films according to IMDB. The actors also come from everywhere:
- the lead role is essayed by a female: Natalie Perera, a British born, Sri Lankan girl in the role of Anita
- Staz Nair is Russian/Indian living in London who is Qhono in Game of Thrones; he plays Bharat, Anita’s fiancé
- Machel Montano who needs no introduction in the Caribbean. Suffice it to say however, that he’s THE soca warrior in the mecca of soca, Trinidad & Tobago, and plays Lee
- Anita’s father is Kabir Bedi, who also needs no introduction in India [list too long to mention here] and even America [Octupussy] and plays Ram
- Cindy Daniel is Trinidadian, of mixed heritage plays Lalima
- Teneille Newallo, Trinidadian, but also of mixed heritage, is Anita’s cousin and confidante, Poorvi Panchouri
- Valmike Rampersad as Nikhil – the bad guy – who was born in Trinidad, but lives in the UK, and whose parents still live in Trinidad.
Bazodee is not about race, but races are needed to explain how Trinidad got to its acculturation and transculturation. Living in the USA, race makes you hyerpaware of who you are. Had I not left Trinidad race wouldn’t have been what it is now, but in America, you never walk that road [race] twice if you’ve walked it, and been stung or shot for being a different race. Bazodee is about races, but much more than race – the positive side of race. It is about living, and letting live as different races, creeds and classes come together which Montano calls ‘douglarization’ in an interview – and which is epitomized in Lalima’s make-up: she’s Indian, African, Venezuelan and Other. As the national anthem of Trinidad & Tobago says: “let every creed and race find an equal place, and may God bless our nation”.
In Satyamev Jayate we learn – for those of us who didn’t know, including me – that finding out the sex of your child is illegal in all of India. I know that girls are not favored over boys in some parts of India, but I didn’t know that sex determination technologies are illegal: cell-free fetal DNA testing, chorionic villus sampling, amniocentesis or ultrasonography . In other countries, we take for granted and have the option to know the sex of our baby to prepare for his or her arrival: clothes, friends’ and family’s gifts via baby shower etc. And in Trinidad, with a 50 percent majority Indo-Muslim population – from India – that isn’t practiced; there is no law banning knowing the sex of your child. Whether it is a girl or boy the child is welcomed, and parents joke often that ‘once the child has 10 toes, and 10 fingers’ they are happy. That is not to say that boys aren’t shown or given more attention, but girls aren’t killed off or regretted. Nor are daughters walking price tags if they live. It comes as a big surprise then that in this 21st century, this IS a law elsewhere.
Why would there a need for such law?
In rural parts of India – Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu, Kashmir etc [Child Sex Ratio in India], female foeticide had become a huge problem. That’s not to say that in other urban parts of India or its diasporas that sons aren’t preferred over daughters nor that it was/is not a problem. But female foeticide had to be banned in 1994 in India. The Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act law was only passed 22 years ago, but men and women had been killing fetuses in parts of India forever upon discovering that the child was a girl. Matrubhoomi: Nation without Women [Manish Jha, 2003] is a stark exploration of this phenomenon. In the film, female infanticide causes an entire village to be without females, and one father, brave enough to not kill his daughter – Kalki – raises her in hiding, learns to disguise her as a boy until she reaches puberty and can’t look like a boy anymore. But Kalki is discovered and married off for money to a young man who shares her with all of his brothers and single father – the subtext of the the film is Draupadi and the 5 Pandava brothers story in the Mahabharata, which is sacred for Hindus, but which the director also asks us to reflect on. The entire village in the film lusts after Kalki, and rapes her. It is brutally visual, and at times so repugnant that you must turn away from the screen, like a Gaspar Noe’s film with 15 minutes of brutal rape [Irreversible, 2002]. The sexual exploitation and subjugation of Kalki are far from entertaining, and forces us to watch unflinchingly at this barbaric socio-cultural gender discrimination. I cannot include a trailer, for the reality of this problem and the scenes of this film are too visually sickening: there isn’t one single redeeming moment in the film, and no saving grace for girls raped or killed off just because of their gender.
Nine years later, in 2012 Aamir Khan brought to light this issue of female foeticide in Satyamev Jayate because it has not disappeared with a 1994 law. This episode informed us of the reality of the act of pre-natal gender detection followed by foeticide cutting across class and cities, and we saw how mothers today, who want to keep their female child alive face torture and abuse at the hands of their families and others [http://www.satyamevjayate.in/mumkinhai.aspx?uid=E0RIV4]. We also see how doctors blatantly flout the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Determination Techniques (PCPNDT) Act for monetary gains [http://www.satyamevjayate.in/mumkinhai.aspx?uid=E0RIV4].
In 2014, a short film Anamika: a short film dedicated to Women [Mahesh Madhu, 2014] shows the husband wanting a girl, but his wife, Anamika doesn’t. But she doesn’t want a girl for a very different reason. A reason that probably wasn’t considered at all into the making or enacting of the Prohibition of sex-selection law in 1994.
Anamika might not have been killed off as a foetus, but lived only to be raped as a child. She reaches adulthood and is having a baby, but wants to have a boy like a lot of first time traditional mothers in India and other traditional male dominated societies. But she only wants a boy because she thinks that uncles can’t rape boys; they can only rape girls. We see this not only in this film and Matrubhoomi, but also in Monsoon Wedding [Mira Nair, 2001]. And like Anamika, Ria in Monsoon Wedding grows up also keeping the silence of her rape, also by a close uncle. And although Naseeruddin Shah saves the film and day by cutting ties with his molester-brother over this sexual abuse scandal, a woman in the wedding party wonders why the scuttle over such a “small” matter [as sexual abuse]. Thankfully, this is a powerful subplot among all the festivities taking place in the film. But what is salient in the two films and in the two girls is that neither Ria nor Anamika told anyone they were raped as girls, because of women like this woman at the party. Sexual abuse is a shame only for the girl abused, and never for the males who rape. No one would believe the girls if they spoke, including doctors, police and often even their own families. Anamika – powerless then to do anything – does the only thing she could do-she wants to stop that cycle of silence and rape, because she believes that having a girl would repeat history, and the cycle of rape would continue. But, Anamika is trapped by laws: the anti-abortion laws set in place in 1971, and the Prohibition of sex-selection law in 1994. The film shows this ‘hopeless trap’ in which she finds herself not because the film’s intention is to break the law, or is advocating foeticide as in Matrubhoomi, but the real intent is for Anamika to prepare mentally like we do in the US, except that it will take more than a village to protect this girl from sexual predators.
Sex-selective abortion and rape are huge problems and a big crime, both of which we must fight with images and words since laws fail. Dowries drain families of monies they don’t have to marry their daughters so they prize sons instead. But even educated families would abort girls if they could according to one study of an Indian health care group Mamta Health Institute for Mother and Child[Little India Vanishing Land of the Girl July 2006]. And even though a law had already been passed some couples would pay $450.00 to find out the sex of their child, and others would stay inside the house to hide their pregnancies until they knew it was a boy [Little India Vanishing Land of the Girl July 2006]. The sex selection was so uneven in Punjab that the government pays families $11.20 a month for a girl in school [Little India Vanishing Land of the Girl July 2006] to encourage them not to get rid of girls but also to educate them. By taking initiative to make shorts on Pocket Films and Youtube etc young women and men are opening up dialogue to raise awareness because cinema – and social media – is an extremely powerful medium. Films can help change the way we see and look at something by evoking anger, rage, antipathy, disgust, revulsion, driving us to tears and the desire to act and do more than just view passively. Both self-made and commercial directors know that they have to become agents of change before Mother India ends up a mother to only sons, and not daughters, as Aamir Khan rightly suggests. They must continue making shorts, films and using social media because they know that cinema is a temple of desire, and by the same token, it can also provoke desire in people to act, to against women’s silence, against women’s abuse, and for women’s human rights. They know that if women are denied speech their experience cannot be known, their questions cannot be asked nor answered, and they cannot influence the course of their lives, nor of history.
La Guardia Community College hosted its 2nd Amazigh/Berber film festival a few days ago, where brilliant shorts and feature films were shown. The goal of the festival was to ‘break borders’. The discussions were lively and border breaking, all expect for the Daughter of Keltoum [Mehdi Charef, Algeria, 2001], a film I had already seen, and which didn’t trouble me, as I have seen many like those. But on the last day of the film festival, its impact on some left me troubled but wanting more, both during and after the Q&A.
Daughter of Keltoum is the story of 19-year-old Rallia, a Swiss-bred, Algerian-born girl who comes back to trace her roots, but who really is in search of her mother, Keltoum, and not father. She wants to ask her mother why she abandoned her. Her mother’s family lives in a desert of high mountains: a punishment for those whom God doesn’t love according to Nedjma, her aunt. Nedjma tells Rallia that God loves her, because she doesn’t have to climb the hard mountains for food, water, or to catch the bus to go elsewhere. The trek for water is in fact relentless and often overwhelming with the threat of a drought always looming near. Rallia participates in family life while waiting for Keltoum to visit the family, which she does on Fridays. Keltoum works in a luxury hotel in El Kantara, a town with a luxurious hotel. But after weeks of waiting, Rallia decides to go look for Keltoum, and Nedjma follows her along to protect her. But during her journey to El Kantara, we are privy to the many injustices that exist in Algeria, against women. This includes a woman who’s repudiated by her husband: he is on horseback and she on foot, tied with rope like a donkey walking behind him in the hot desert roads. This woman is killed because she recognizes a revolutionary who wanted to [further] silence her so he would not be caught. Rallia meets another westernized girl like herself, who is looking for her father and who is battered for not wearing a veil. Rallia must wear a veil otherwise she, too would meet that fate. Then they hitch a ride from a truck driver who wants to rape Rallia, but Nedjma offers herself instead. After this treacherous journey to get to El Kantara, they finally meet Keltoum, but Rallia discovers she was not abandoned, but sold to buy a donkey to fetch water for the family. The donkey was the only means of survival for the family. She also discovers that it is Nedjma who is her mother, the “Mad Woman” of the village as she’s [not] affectionately known, and who lost it when they took away her child – Rallia – from her. The family made Nedjma sleep with a white soldier and she had Rallia, who looks mostly white. In fact, Rallia is an international model, but incomplete because she has no roots.
At the Q & A, an American man, shocked at what he saw against women, asked if what we see is true. Two Algerian women and one Algerian answered this question saying that what we see in the movie doesn’t exist, that women aren’t treated like that because they’ve never seen that.
Does that mean the abuse of women, poverty, the rage of a young woman “abandoned” by her birth mother, rape of Berber women by men, women repudiation do not exist because they haven’t seen it where they come from? Is it possible that they come from a place in Algeria like the luxury hotel in El Kantara where that may not be seen, since it caters to a western crowd? Maybe they don’t know about research done on inhumanity against women? Maybe they deny that what we see in the film exists because to exoticize Algeria now that they live in the US, à la “Algerias of the mind” [like Rushdie’s ‘Indias of the minds’]? Or do they see from the “male gaze” that doesn’t acknowledge women’s inhumane treatment? Maybe they’ve been conditioned to not see it or find anything wrong with it? But even if someone is blind, does that mean their reflection doesn’t exist in a mirror?
My Algerian friend says that mistreatment against women exists, and in fact her family calls the hijab “cache misère” as it covers up many injustices against women. Her family migrated to USA to end future misery for their daughter. Film studies also believe such injustices against women exist. The lack of women directors – compared to their neighbors Tunisia and Morocco – would certainly point to some problem and lack of freedom for women to make movies on women when Morocco and Tunisian female directors are doing it. Mehdi Charef made the film because he wanted to highlight the injustices against women in Algeria, as few filmmakers were doing it.
The reasons why Algerian women aren’t following up or making films like we see in Tunisian and Morocco need to be opened up. We need to explore the unanswered questions some had at the close of the film with regard to the freedom of women and the freedom to make films on women, to allow them to tell their stories, to bring them to center screen, like Charef did in Daughter of Keltoum, and like other women filmmakers form the Maghreb are doing since the late 1970s, and which Algerian author and filmmaker Assia Djebar was doing from the USA and France, as an academic; it is possible she couldn’t do it in Algeria.
There is a reason why borders remain unbreakable for Algerian women in a country that was ruled for more than 170 years by the french and which left it in political, economic, psychological and gender shambles. When we hear women and men in the audience who represent “all Algerian women” telling us that women are not mistreated, raped, spat upon, repudiated etc. and when others are writing and speaking in other countries about this, including America, we need to ask more questions. Denying eyes and ears that look at border-breaking films which we present in american auditoriums and theaters to start a conversation and awareness on human rights may be a hindrance to that very conversation and awareness, as well as a hindrance to women of Algerian descent to come forward and make [more] films on women.