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Caribbean Indian actors in cinematic movies
Posted: Thursday, May 18, 2006

Indian Arrival Day will be observed as a national holiday in Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday May 30, 2006.

By Dr. Kumar Mahabir
Trinidad and Tobago

Twenty-eight years after the screening of the first Hindi movie, Bala Joban [Sweet Youth] in Trinidad in the Caribbean, an immigrant law student in London made his debut in a British-made cinematic movie. Basdeo Panday became the first Caribbean Indian to be an actor on the big screen in Nine Hours to Rama (1963). Panday's part as the laundryman in Nine Hours to Rama was brief, but it was a speaking role that earned him notable credit among stars like Horst Buchholz, José Ferrer and Valerie Gearon. The movie about the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was nominated for the BAFTA Film Award in the Best British Cinematography Category in 1964.

Panday also acted in two other British cinematic movies: Man in the Middle (1964) and The Brigand of Kandahar (1965). The first two films were distributed worldwide by 20th Century Fox, and the third by Warner Brothers. All three films were set, in whole or in part, in India, with Panday being one of the few non-white actors to play a speaking role in these movies.

About five years after Panday appeared on film, another Trinidad Indian stage actor-turned-politician, made his debut on the cinema screen. Ralph Maraj appeared as the leading actor with Angela Seukaran in two movies released in the same year: The Right and the Wrong (1970) and The Caribbean Fox (1970). Both movies were the first-feature films to be produced in Trinidad and scored commercial successes at box offices at home and in other Caribbean islands. The Right and the Wrong won a Gold Medal at the Atlanta Film Festival for its excellent cinematography.

But it was really in Bim (1974) that Maraj excelled as a film actor in the title role of Bim/Bheem Singh. The story was based on the composite life of the notorious assassin, Boysie Singh, and aggressive trade unionist and Hindu leader, Bhadase Sagan Maraj. Film producer and critic, Dr. Bruce Paddington, states, " ... it was certainly one of the most important films to be produced in Trinidad and Tobago, and has become one of the classics of Caribbean cinema." At the United States Virgin Islands Film Festival in St Thomas in 1975, Bim won a gold medal special jury award as "a film of unusual merit."

The Caribbean Indian actor who has earned the honour of starring in the most Hollywood films is Errol Sitahal. He portrayed a business executive in the comedy Tommy Boy (1995) starring Chris Farley. Sitahal was also the mysterious Indian servant with a pet monkey in the movie A Little Princess (1995). The engaging family drama is ranked as one of the finest children's films in the 1990s. Sitahal appeared in another Hollywood blockbuster, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004). In this adult comedy, distributed by New Line Cinema, Sitahal was Kumar's stern father who is an Indian medical doctor.

Also making her extraordinary appearance as an actress on stage and cinema was Grace Maharaj. She starred in scores of stage performances, numerous television commercials, four television serials, and four full length movies: Bim (1974), Man from Africa/Girl from India (1982), Men of Gray 11: Flight of the Ibis (1996) and The Mystic Masseur (2001). In 1994, Maharaj received the prestigious Cacique Award in Trinidad for her long service in drama.

Other notable Trinidad Indian actors who have been featured in speaking roles in cinematic movies include Kenneth Boodhu in The Caribbean Fox, and Simon Bedasie in Bim, Operation Makonaima (1972), and Men of Gray 11 (1996). Hansley Ajodha and Devindra Dookie also acted in Men of Gray 11. Other performers like David Sammy, Patti-Anne Ali, Dinesh Maharaj, Keith Hazare Imambaksh and Anthony Harrypaulsingh have all appeared in minor roles in The Mystic Masseur (2001). Directed by Ismail Merchant and filmed on location in Trinidad, the movie is an adaptation of a novel by Caribbean Indian Nobel Prize laureate, V.S. Naipaul. The Guyanese comedian Habeeb Khan played a leading role in If Wishes Were Horses (1976), the only English-speaking musical film in the Caribbean.

The Caribbean has a fledging film industry and, consequently, prospects for acting in cinema are extremely limited. But opportunities abound in stage dramas, television movies, short documentaries and advertising commercials. It is important that Indians appear in the spotlight in numbers commensurate with their size in the population. It is also important to celebrate their achievements because they have struggled as ethnic minorities to achieve visibility and stardom on the silver screen. They exhibit certain collective cultural codes and social behaviour which their audiences can often recognize and identify (with). And it is heartening for a people to see themselves as stars on screen – even if is in fantasy.

Dr Kumar Mahabir, Ph.D. Anthropology, University of Florida
Chairman, Indo-Caribbean Cultural Council (ICC)

10 Swami Avenue, Don Miguel Road
San Juan, Trinidad and Tobago
West Indies

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