Colour wheel

By Andre Bagoo

Coolie Pink and Green, directed by Patricia Mohammed (23 minutes)

Phagwah (Holi) in Trinidad, 2009

Dancers at a Phagwah (Holi) celebration in Trinidad, 2009. Photograph by Nicholas Laughlin

It starts with the image of a woman’s eyes. Then, slowly, dancing plumes of white and pink smoke. Then the woman again, dancing. An opening title tells us the history of the indentured East Indians who came to Trinidad in the nineteenth century. Two narrators — one a young Indo-Trinidadian woman, the other an older man — use sometimes rhyming verse to weave the central conflict that is the subject matter of Coolie Pink and Green: a conflict left unresolved at the end of this poetic short film by the Trinidadian scholar Patricia Mohammed.

Archival images quietly build a visual idea of nineteenth century East Indian life. “From their arrival, the rest of the society looked down on the indentured labourers,” the opening title explains. “Their clothes, jewellery, tastes, and customs were derided . . . Coolie became an adjective of scorn and contempt; the bright colours the Indians loved and wore as part of their culture and memory of India were ridiculed as ‘coolie colours.’”

Perhaps in a longer film all this information would have been more digestible if shown rather than told. But Mohammed has something else, beyond the idea of simple narrative, on her mind: the poetry of image.

Blood red and milk, the essence of pink.
Leaf green and gold, the enchantment of bling.
Like purple rain from an orange sky
into nylon pools wherever dry.
The colours of my soul, an unconscious stream,
rivers of beauty that flow through my dreams.

These are the first couplets (written by Mohammed and Nazma Muller) spoken by the female narrator (voiced by Gabrielle Hosein). They overlay images of streams, limbs, leaves, and paint being mixed. In reply, the older man (Franklyn St Juste, the excellent cinematographer who shot the film) warns:

Daughter, this is your inheritance,
a rich legacy created thousands of years ago.
Our people travelled with it as they crossed polluted seas.
Their prayers maintained faith.
The sounds kept alive the music.

This is the drama at the heart of the film, more so than any rage at the derogatory treatment of all things “coolie.” There is a tension between the imperative to preserve culture, on the one hand, and the living, breathing evolving lives of those who are called to practise it in completely new contexts, contexts with other imperatives. In other words: how do we keep inherited culture alive without letting it stifle our own evolution? How are certain religious practices, social mores, languages, and visual styles preserved when the original contexts for those cultural elements disappear?

There are related questions: should we preserve culture? Whose responsibility is this? Is change in a cultural practice really its demise? These are the issues the descendents of everyone brought to the Caribbean — not just Indo-Trinidadians — have to grapple with. As the old man tells the young woman:

You have to take the consequences when you mix up the race.
I am afraid others will not understand your taste.
They will not want you to pray with us,
your children will not look like us.

Approaching the day of her marriage — which has been arranged by her parents in the traditional way, even though she is in love with another, supposedly unsuitable, man — the young woman is caught up: “My wedding day draws nearer, / which pathway do I choose?” Her question accompanies the mesmerising image of a woman’s waist being draped in a red wedding sari. But then the image is reversed: the sari appears to unravel. Or is it just a tape being rewound? The image draws attention to the artifice of film in a way that places the spectacle of cinema parallel to the spectacle of the wedding.

Coolie Pink and Green has a neat solution to the conflict it presents. “All I ask is you remember what kept us going all these years,” the old man pleads. The young woman’s response is to point out that the chutney music of Adesh Samaroo is popular all over Trinidad, and she is a fan of the black soca star Shurwayne Winchester:

You see how chutney playing all over the country?
You hearing Adesh songs even in Laventille.
Why I must choose between Shurwayne and he?
Boy what to tell you? Is Trini I Trini!

The solution is a subjective choice: the torn subject embraces the geography of a new identity. I am not an Indian or an African, I am a Trinidadian in a new part of the world. I am therefore not compelled to serve the cultural practices of the past, or accept their divisive implications. This kind of simplistic rhetoric is common in Trinidad and Tobago’s pop culture (calypso, soca, television talk shows). It does not really neutralise or address any of the theoretical issues raised by cultural alienation. It is a band-aid covering the real problem.

The true stars of Coolie Pink and Green are St Juste’s cinematography and Michael Mooleedhar’s absolutely perfect editing. Witness how the dancer Michael Salickram enters the film. First he abruptly appears in full costume, standing in a park as he is about to start dancing. Then the film cuts away from this brief shot to show us a statue of Shiva. We return to Salickram, now in the full flux of his dancing. Statue becomes movement.

In the closing sequence, stills from passages that have appeared before are intercut with moving footage of dancers, to the tune of music by Shurwayne, who sings, it seems, at the behest of the woman narrator’s invocation. There is a visual complexity here reminding us that the great power of cinema is its poetry: its pure cinematography, focusing on the relationship between discrete images and groups of images, and rendering narrative secondary.


This review is part of a special section on recent Caribbean film, supported by the trinidad+tobago film festival 2010

The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2010

Andre Bagoo is a journalist and blogger working in Trinidad. In 2005 he was shortlisted for the Derek Walcott Writing Prize for his writing. He writes for Newsday and has published poems and book reviews in journals like the Boston Review and Draconian Switch.