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Thursday, May 04, 2006

The making of Guiana 1838

In April of this year Guyana hosted a film crew led by Rohit Jagessar, the director and writer of a historical film about indentureship and slavery in British Guiana during the early 1800s. The film was partly shot on the Corentyne in the cane fields

Wednesday, August 4th 2004

"The arrival of Indians in British Guiana in 1838 and the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies in the 19th century is a story I always wanted to tell on the big screen, ever since as a young lad in Guyana, my late grandmother enthralled me with so many anecdotes.

"I remember visiting Uttar Pradesh and Calcutta in India seven years ago, and at the University of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh I met a handful of professors and students who had very little knowledge, if any, of Indian indentureship and about our peoples' journey to the British Caribbean/West Indies. Indeed it became clear that the episode of more than a million Indians being taken away from India during the 19th and 20th centuries is long forgotten by India and its billion plus people. And so my resolve was strengthened as I felt that this should not be forgotten.

"The process of making Guiana 1838 has been a long journey for me. First I had to decide what from this huge canvas of storytelling should be captured on film. The research was pretty intense and in the process I talked with people about this theme in the streets, at the markets, everywhere I went and every time I was given the opportunity. Some looked at me in disbelief when told of this human tragedy.

"During research for and development of the movie I travelled extensively through India, the United Kingdom, Guyana and Trinidad among other countries and visited the Bay of Bengal from where the first two ships - the Hesperus and the Whitby - set sail for the Caribbean in 1838.

"I would return to my hotel at nights and mentally visualise my screenplay. I would then write through the night and return to the field in the day with a few hours rest in between. It was clear in my mind right from the very beginning that I was making a feature film and not a documentary. My screenplay therefore had to lift the story to great heights. This in itself was challenging and at times I would start all over right from scratch and rework the characters over and over until I felt them right.

"Overall I stacked up over 50,000 pages of British parliamentary documents, historical data, maps, pictures and illustrations. Going through this massive pile of documents took years of effort and intense commitment. Indeed very early in the process I realised there was no easy way out and I had to put patience and dedication ahead of all else. I felt responsible to tell this story as true and clear as possible.

"The months and years it would take for me to complete my screenplay and shoot my film was not at all important. What was always foremost on my mind was telling the story in a crisp and straightforward manner with due consideration to storytelling licence while adding colour and grandeur to create cinematic magic.

"Looking back at the production of my film, there are a few moments in time where almost everything went haywire. I remember building huge sets a few years ago in India. Four days before shooting commenced for the Calcutta scenes, the rain started. It rained almost non-stop, day and night for many days.

"I remember standing there and watching the floods tear my sets apart. I decided to shift locations and shoot the Guyana portion before returning to India to continue from where I left off.

"I arrived in Guyana to scout locations but the then election disturbances also washed those plans away. I was left stranded with my production crew somewhere in between Calcutta and Guyana for many weeks and finally I had to return to the drawing board to rethink my entire production. "I must confess that I also explored Venezuela, Brazil and Barbados among other countries as set locations but Guyana still remained my foremost choice.

"Last year I finally arrived in Guyana to explore shooting and was faced with a totally different attitude to what I had been greeted with before the election disturbances caught me totally off guard. I visited the Ministry of Tourism and Commerce and was shunted to the Ministry of Culture. There, officials sat down to talk with me.

"Although I was determined to shoot a major part of my movie in Guyana there were many logistical elements that I wanted to be worked out well in advance before arriving in the country with my cast, crew and production equipment. "Among my concerns was security for my people and protection of the production equipment.

"Ministry of Culture officials made promises of full cooperation and smooth production. After I returned to the US my many emails and phone calls went unanswered and I was greeted with claims they were extremely busy painting the office of the ministry among other silly excuses. But I was resolved to find a way to make the movie happen without compromising my values and the safety of my cast, crew and production equipment.

"I remember it was a Saturday afternoon when I was in my office at my radio station and one of my programmers, Mr Farook Juman, noticed I was busy juggling phone calls between Venezuela and Brazil and Barbados. Juman sensed that I was terribly upset at the Guyana response and he immediately volunteered to travel to Guyana the very same night to see what could be worked out.

"Two days later my secretary told me there was a phone call from the President of Guyana. Still upset though I was, I picked up the phone out of respect for the President. He got straight to the point. Although I had never met him before, I sensed commitment and integrity. By the end of the call I sensed that things were going to be okay.

"Juman and I flew to Guyana a few weeks later to meet President Jagdeo. Immediately after the meeting I called my office in New York and green-lighted Guyana.

"We arrived in Guyana in early March of this year with 60 people and 15 tonnes of movie production equipment, a 40-foot trailer and crystal silent generators. Hundreds of locals pitched in and the production got off the ground. Guiana 1838 was now on stream and my commitment to shoot my movie was now a reality and I was happy being in Guyana for my shoot.

"I remember looking up from the sets one day, a little before lunch, and seeing the most amazing thing. People from places as far as Israel and India were working, living, discussing and mixing with our locals. This brought a smile to my lips.

"But it wasn't all smooth sailing. Intense heat and rain are the two things that probably challenged me the most. I remember shooting in the sugar cane fields deep inside the Corentyne backlands in Guyana with my cast and crew for many days at a stretch. The heat was so intense that we felt it burning right from under our feet to the top of our heads. The ash from burnt cane also did us in pretty badly.

"Three things a filmmaker finds most difficult working with are animals, fire and water. It is extremely difficult to predict the movement of these things and I had all three of these to deal with during the production of my movie.

"I remember shooting a scene where the Overseer for the plantation had to confront Kumar Gaurav's character, Laxman, the "Coolie" brought in from Calcutta to British Guiana in 1838. I had spent around two hours working out the shot-by-shot sequence with Bunty [Gaurav], British actor Rufus Graham who plays the Overseer and with my crew.

"The scene required the Overseer to storm out of a hut, confront Laxman and proceed to a nearby post to untie his horse and ride off. Normally this would seem quite simple but not on this night. As the Overseer would untie the horse to ride off, the horse would track backwards instead of moving forward. Now we tried everything possible to get the horse to go along with our plan but came up with just a stubborn animal. I remember calling re-takes after re-takes but the horse just refused to budge. I wanted a great deal of intensity in this scene and for me to accomplish this, the horse just had to move briskly and at the Overseer's command. Finally it did but then it stopped in the middle of the scene and urinated. I left my screen and walked over to the post to everyone's laughter. I mean how does someone direct a horse? Finally, I had my cinematographer show me the play by play of the footage and realised what we were doing wrong. Rufus was untying the rope from the post and yanking at the horse to bring out the intensity of the scene whereas he should have yanked the rope from the post and the horse would naturally move forward. While editing my film, I was careful to save the blooper footage from this scene. I think audiences will get quite a kick from watching it some time down the road.

"My experience shooting in Guyana was a wonderful one. I enjoyed working in Guyana a lot and my foreign cast and crew found the entire Guyana experience enjoyable too. The foreign and local actors hit it off quite well right from the beginning and we remained a team from start to finish. Henry Rodney who plays a Maroon in my film was very helpful to me in suggesting wonderfully talented local actors and actresses. Neville Williams who plays Amie, a freed slave and Brenda Peters who plays his wife Mafua were always kind and caring.

"We all had our minor ups and downs but once the cameras were on we were a team and we stuck together through thick and thin. I also enjoyed employing locals to help out in the technical aspects of filmmaking. They were eager to learn and it took them very little time to understand the process. They helped out in all departments with my foreign crew guiding them through it all.

"I was happy to see hundreds of locals getting extra work, restaurants and businesses opening until late nights to accommodate us and they were making extra money from us being there. I also kept the local sawmills busy with some 100,000 bm of wood I used up to recreate sets to depict 19th century British Guiana. They also managed to move a lot of their old inventory as I used a lot of old logs from them in order for my sets to look old and beaten down. In recreating the 'Black' settlement where the freed slaves set up housing after abolition of slavery, I used special wood and barks.

"In recreating the Hesperus, one of the first two ships that sailed from Calcutta to British Guiana with Indians in 1838, I used up some 10,000 bm of wood.

"My shooting schedule was finally complete and the day came when we had to pack up and leave for the US. Guyana's history was now on film by name of Guiana 1838 and will be treasured until the end of time. It is a movie for all Guyanese and about all Guyanese and represents the true spirit of Guyana, its people and its history from 1640 to 1843.

"The day we left the villages, we came to realise even more just how special our stay really was. That morning I remember thinking I will not be seeing the neighbours at different times of the day and night any longer. My shooting schedule had varied in 12-hour shifts and sometimes ran late at nights. Many nights when we would be returning from the Corentyne back lands, the neighbours would still be up waiting for us. Guyanese are special people and I will always remember and cherish memories of Guyana and its people. I made lots of new friends while shooting my film in Guyana. Mr Subi Rampertab, the Admin for Plantation Skeldon stands out as one of them. He is a true Ambassador of Guyana and his kindness to all of us will always be remembered.

"Guiana 1838 is now a major motion picture and will have its New York Red Carpet Premiere Weekend on September 24, 25 and 26 at the famous United Artists Crossbay theatres on Liberty Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. The demand for tickets from the community here in New York is amazing. Families are ordering tickets in lots of 10 and 20 to ensure being among the first to see the movie. Thirteen shows are scheduled and 8,850 tickets are available for the opening."

Sunday Stabroek also had an exclusive e-interview with the star of Guiana 1838, Kumar Gaurav who chatted with us from his home in Mumbai.

SS: Hello Kumar, greetings from Guyana and thanks so much for finding the time to talk with Sunday Stabroek. As you know, you had many fans in Guyana before coming here for the film Guiana 1838 and have made many more since. How would you describe your time here?

Gaurav: My trip to Guyana was a fascinating one. On my arrival in Georgetown I was honoured to meet President Bharrat Jagdeo. He came across as a dynamic and progressive person. It was a pleasure having a cup of coffee with him. My drive from Georgetown to Corentyne Berbice was fascinating as it was my first time in the country. I was amazed at the little towns all throughout my drive. The shooting of Guiana 1838 was a great experience. Living in the Skeldon Estate with my host Subi Rampertab was memorable and very comfortable. I had good interaction with the local Guyanese throughout my stay. I found the people very warm, hospitable and loving. I will have fondest memories of Guyana, its people and would love to come back there some day.

SS: The trailer for the film looks fantastic. How much of the film have you seen and what are your thoughts?

Gaurav: As you rightly said the trailer looks fantastic which is just the tip of the iceberg... so I am sure you can imagine what the rest of the film would look like. It is an international film inspired by the history of British Guiana and I am sure people will love to see this movie and see a story which has never been told before...

SS How would you describe your character Laxman?

Gaurav: Laxman is a simple man from India who is looking for his future and embarks upon a journey to the promised land Guiana in search of his fortune and identity. It's a story about his trials and triumphs and his life coming full circle. Laxman discovers friendship, bonding and love with his people, wins new friends and overcomes his detractors.

SS: What was the difference between this role and the traditional Bollywood parts you have previously played?

Gaurav: As I mentioned before this is an international movie targeted to audiences worldwide and has a universal appeal unlike Bollywood films which have characters which are more fictional and are part of escapist cinema. Unlike Bollywood films, this movie does not have the songs and the dance sequences

SS: What do you think the message is for Guyanese and for the audience in general?

Gaurav: It is a film which is based on history and dramatised for cinema. I think this film will show people how the first Indians who came to Guiana in 1838 on the Hesperus, their journey, their hardship, their struggle for survival and their ultimate ability to overcome their bondage. Personally there would be a lot of identification for Indians in the West Indies and even the British will identify with the colonial rule and the Africans in the West Indies can identify with their ancestors' bondage under slavery.

SS: There was a bit of a scare when you were almost crushed by a cane punt. Care to elaborate?

Gaurav: It was an unfortunate incident. But in film making it's all a part of the risk we take... thankfully everything went off well and I am back here safe and sound, talking to Sunday Stabroek!

SS: How was it working with the director, Rohit Jagessar?

Gaurav: When I read the script of Guiana 1838 I was impressed with Rohit 'the writer' and took on the project after finishing production on another film. I found Rohit to be a sensitive and passionate filmmaker with an eye for detail. His ability to create the past and the characters was terrific. I would definitely like to work with Rohit again... Need I say more about Rohit Jagessar 'the director'?

SS: Most people know you from your role in Love Story. One fan asks if you are going to make a sequel. Any plans and how would you rank Guiana 1838 in your body of work?

Gaurav: Love Story was my first film and thanks to my fans and the audiences who made it a runaway success. I don't think I would ever make a sequel to Love Story because as an actor I have grown and as a person I have also grown from my Love Story days. Now I would like to play more experienced and mature characters. I leave the love stories to the new generation. I would like the audiences to see Guiana 1838 and form an opinion for themselves about my work.

SS: You have had a bit of a lean period in recent years. How do you assess your career to date and are you worried about the chatter that you are past your prime?

Gaurav: As far as my lean period I was choosy in the films I took since I wanted to do different roles from my lover boy roles... I only took on films that excited me and made me grow as an actor. Personally I do not think I have passed my prime. In fact, I think right now I am in my prime.

SS: The emphasis in Bollywood is on youth. What can you bring to parts that will attract audiences?

Gaurav: As I said this is an international film and not a Bollywood one. I am looking at the whole world as an audience and reaching out to barriers beyond the Bollywood. Bollywood is going through a bubble gum phase, but an actor will always survive if he is good and audiences I think in Bollywood are also now ready for a change.

SS: What are you working on now?

Gaurav: Right now we are in the process of negotiations for a few projects and next year I start with my own productions.

SS: Thank you Kumar and we wish you all the best with your career and the movie Guiana 1838.

If you would like to see the trailer for the film it can be viewed at

Link Posted by jebratt :: Thursday, May 04, 2006 :: 0 comments

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