In the early 1980s the history of Guyanese cinematography records the first attempt at a film set on the sugar plantations of British Guiana. That was a screenplay based on a novel Songs of the Sugarcanes by Sheik Sadeek, one of Guyana’s important playwrights. It depicts the evils of indentureship and its aftermath, and was also the first move at a film on Indian plantation life. Sadeek also has short stories on the same subject. The thing about this film is that it is technically bad and obviously an amateur attempt. But it takes its place in the history as a genuine and worthy effort.
The second of this kind was Guiana 1838, set at the beginning of indentureship itself and the first arrival of Indians in British Guiana. It is a historical film both documenting and fictionalising Indian arrival and the horrors of the plantation.
Brown Sugar Too Bitter For Me addresses the contemporary situation. It continues the production of local cinema by Mahadeo Shivraj and Neaz Subhan. The story begins with industrial unrest among the workers so prevalent on the estates today and continues with the struggles and the triumphs of a cane-cutter, the lead character played convincingly by Shivraj. While his first son could not write exams because of the financial difficulties that the family continuously finds itself in, the second (Michael Ignatius) becomes the hero of the village because of his academic successes. The melodrama continues with conflicts, weddings, celebrations and grief.
We have sketched out the history of film in the Caribbean and in Guyana in previous commentaries here, and made the point that decorated by a number of well-known successes, the Caribbean film is still a work in progress. Many short films, both creative and non-fiction, have been celebrated at several film festivals and there is a considerable corpus. The full-length feature documentary is another category marked by a few high-level successes. These include straight documentaries like Fire In Babylon (2011) about West Indies cricket when it swept all before it and terrorised the world. But it also includes documentaries so well crafted that they are works of art, such as Life And Debt (2003) about Jamaica’s battles with the IMF, and those that create a fictional plot out of the documentation of the terror of the dons and gunmen in Kingston’s ghetto life such as Gett-A Life (2011). (Both of those have punning titles).
However, making a success of cinema remains the big aim. The perennial classic of all time is still the outstanding Perry Henzell movie The Harder They Come (1972) with the great thematically fitting reggae soundtrack anchored on Jimmy Cliff’s resounding theme song. That is not the only one. Cool Runnings also made it. Suriname produced the very accomplished Wan Pipel (1976), while the lesser and farcical Girl from India – Man from Africa came out of Trinidad. But the Henzell masterpiece is the kind of high place the Caribbean cinema wants to get to. And it is in the cinema that the road is hardest to travel. The region still struggles to make a dent in the Hollywood dominated industry.
The most recent thrust in Guyana has been training in screen-writing and filmcraft resulting in the production of several short films. CineGuyana, the Theatre Guild and the Centre for Communication Studies at UG have been carrying this. The country has its own timeless documentaries such as Rupert Roopnaraine’s The Terror and the Time (1978), but still, the ambition is to make something of a cinema industry.
Mahadeo Shivraj’s Brown Sugar Too Bitter for Me is to be counted as another gain pointing in this direction. As said above, it is not perfect and has a number of shortfalls, but it is one to be taken seriously and is an achievement along that road.
It continues the quest, after A Jasmine for A Gardener (2012) to create a Guyanese Indian cinema and is still in the shadow of the overwhelming influence of Bollywood. The producers have made no pretences about this intention, even though in this latest work they made overtures towards ‘Guyanisation.’ The choreographed movement to accompany the songs was an improvement over Jasmine, but this element of the musical film remains an obvious imitation of Bollywood. The need to eventually move away from this was not lost on the director since Guyanese chutney songs were introduced. But in one or two cases the song does not fit. This is the case where ‘Guyanese Baboo’ is used in the soundtrack but with the words changed here and there to fit the context and occasion. The song itself is a misfit; it creates no illusion since it is obvious that the actor Michael Ignatius is not singing it; the change of words do not work and subtract from the film’s professionalism.
On the other hand, the excellent use of the song ‘Ow Mananger’ from an old chutney tradition suggests the way forward. Many Indian songs are taken straight from source, but the more indigenous chutney music works much better in most places where it is used. The suggestion is, for more originality in the creation of this film type, a soundtrack of chutney and traditional songs may be better employed. Otherwise write original songs for the soundtrack.
The transition from stage to camera and screen is yet incomplete here. The film, particularly in its earlier sections, is wordy. The story is told more in speech than in pictures, although the actors, many of them accustomed to the stage like Kijana Lewis, Sean Thompson, Mark Luke-Edwardes, Derek Gomes and Shameeza Husein, perform well for the camera and handle the different demands. It is the screenplay that needs to make the transition.
Where speech is concerned, though, the language is not always convincing. Too often it is not cane-cutters’ language in terms of the choice of words and the quality of estate language. It does not jar because the physical setting, the house, the yard, the landscape look authentic. While there is an industrial dispute early in the plot, all signs of it disappear and it plays no role in the way the plot develops or in the lives of the characters. If the film wants to treat this aspect of the cane-cutter’s existence, it requires deeper inclusion.
However, the film becomes much stronger in its later moments – achieving more and more audience empathy as it progresses. Shivraj in the lead is comfortable and carries the action credibly, advancing with the film. There is sadness at the end of what is overall a success story, emphasizing that there is some worth and character in a cane-cutter (the euphemistic term these days is the more politically correct ‘cane-harvester’). But this is further deference paid to the Bollywood formula in which there is always the very sad, moving sequence. This causes the grief in this film to be a bit prolonged and overplayed.
Beyond that, Brown Sugar Too Bitter for Me does become stronger after the first one third. The characterisation hardens, stereotypes like Moneylender become more interesting characters as made by both plot and actor. Neaz Subhan creates this role with protean flexibility from humour to villain to reformed man capable of human concern and delicacy. Ignatius can develop from pretending to be a schoolboy to be credible as the successful graduate he becomes. All the actors are able to help the elevation of the film to pathos at the end.
By that time the plot is more engaging, the indigenous music works better and the camera explores to play on interesting images and symbols. This is a low budget film. The restrictions imposed by the (assumed low) budget may be seen and felt as one views the conservative range of set and screenplay. But it is not cheap; it is rather carefully handled. Shivraj has taken a further bold step in creating a Guyanese movie. The other strides along this road will mean overcoming the demands of a local market that is perhaps too small and the hurdles in the way of the development of a local film industry.