By Jonathan Ali
Festival of Lights, directed by Shundell Prasad (120 minutes)
Melinda Shankar in Festival of Lights. Image courtesy the trinidad+tobago film festival
There are more people living in the Guyanese diaspora than there are in the country itself, it is often said. I’ve never come across any statistics to back up this assertion, but wouldn’t be all that surprised if it were true. Much of the modern history of Guyana is a depressing tale of flight: from spectacular economic mismanagement that made it one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, and from politically motivated ethnic rivalry that has pitted Afro- and Indo-Guyanese against each other in perpetual, often violent struggle.
Events in Guyana’s near past and their profound effects on one family are at the heart of Guyanese-American writer-director Shundell Prasad’s ambitious debut feature. Set both in Guyana and the United States, and spanning a period of nearly a decade and a half, Festival of Lights wrestles with complex themes of sacrifice, separation, and loss; the results are impressive, if somewhat muddled.
The film opens in Guyana in 1979. Vishnu Singh (the British actor Jimi Mistry), a sugar estate worker who has lost his job, is seeking to migrate to America with his young wife Meena (Ritu Singh Pande, from India) and their sprightly infant daughter, Reshma. The night before their interview at the US embassy, masked thugs break into a neighbouring family’s house, raping the wife and shooting the husband dead.
In the resulting heightened state of anxiety the Singhs travel to Georgetown. Things are tense in the city generally; a glimpsed-at newspaper headline proclaims the assassination of writer and activist Walter Rodney. All goes well with the interview — President Jimmy Carter smiles benevolently down from a photograph on the wall — until the immigration officer notices in Vishnu’s documentation that several years earlier he had been deported from Canada, for a reason not mentioned. His visa application is denied, though Meena and Reshma are free to go. A decision must be made immediately. “This is no place to live,” Vishnu declares, convincing a distraught Meena to take Reshma and leave the country.
Meena and Reshma travel to New York, where they are welcomed by Meena’s brother and his family. Meena gets a job as an office cleaner in the company where her sister-in-law works. The company is owned by Adam (Aidan Quinn), an Irish immigrant with a rags-to-riches story. He takes an interest in Meena, telling her that with ambition and hard work she will go far in America.
Jump ahead to 1993, and we see just how far Meena has got: she is now Adam’s glamorous wife, living in an elegant neighbourhood in Queens, far from where the Guyanese community reside. (The potentially engaging story of what Meena had to do in order to reach where she did is, sadly, only hinted at.) Reshma (played now by Melinda Shankar) is a gum-chewing, Salt-n-Pepa-listening high-schooler on the verge of entering college. Sullen and stroppy, she has a dysfunctional relationship with her mother, and is deeply resentful of Adam. Her thoughts centre on the absent Vishnu, whom she has been told has disappeared, and she secretly plans to return to Guyana to find him.
There is enough material here to carry the film satisfyingly on, but Prasad has other ideas. These largely involve taking the plot into more melodramatic and, at times, less convincing territory. Reshma, disobeying Meena’s orders, goes on an overnight school trip, and is raped by a boy she knows. Out of shame she keeps the assault hidden, but gets into a massive row with her mother over her defiance, which ends with Adam forcibly throwing her out of the house.
Reshma moves in to the home of Asha, a Guyanese classmate, and finds herself immersed in the diaspora community for the first time. This occasions a touching sequence: during colourful celebrations for Divali — the Hindu festival of the film’s title — at the local temple, a bhajan (devotional song) sung by Asha’s mother triggers in Reshma a flashback to Divali celebrations in Guyana with her parents. Across the city, celebrating Divali on her own, Meena’s thoughts latch on to the same memory.
Asha has a handsome older brother, Ravin (the Trinidadian Stephen Hadeed, Jr), and from the moment he first appears on screen in a head-on close-up, there’s no doubting his eventual role. He and Reshma get very close very quickly, and with his encouragement, Reshma passes an admissions interview to New York University. But then she faints and is taken to hospital, where the truth of her rape is revealed. In the aftermath, a tentative peace with Meena is reached.
Matters get even more complicated as Meena is forced to reveal to Reshma the truth about Vishnu, which harks back to his deportation from Canada. Reshma is galvanised into action; using her savings, she buys a plane ticket and secretly heads off to Guyana. Here the film shifts in tone again, detouring, as Reshma goes upriver through the rainforest to a high-security prison, rather implausibly and confusingly into action-thriller mode. By the end, however, we’re brought safely back to New York, for a final, moving reconciliation, and a wedding.
Festival of Lights is a considerable achievement. Prasad has crafted a serious and confident drama that is not afraid to tackle major questions of identity and belonging, yet remains at all times human-scale. Her refusal to visually romanticise contemporary Guyana is admirable; though the country is lovingly shot by director of photography Valentina Caniglia on 16-mm film, Prasad does not flinch from showing its poverty, and how tragically neglected and run-down it has become. (This is balanced a bit by a brief scene set in one of Georgetown’s beautifully maintained colonial-era wooden mansions.) She also has no qualms about showing the place to be riddled with corruption and brutality, which could conceivably have implications for getting the film screened there.
In this context, the film’s limitations, particularly when it comes to the acting, are easier to digest. The performances vary, to say nothing of attempts at the Guyanese accent. Jimi Mistry — last seen round these parts employing a cringe-making Trinidadian accent in the Merchant-Ivory production of The Mystic Masseur — is the chief offender. Ritu Singh Pande fares a little better, while Stephen Hadeed, Jr, circumvents the problem entirely by speaking with an American accent. (In the midst of all this, Aidan Quinn’s presence feels incongruous; his character, if not his performance, is the least convincing of all.)
The film’s emotional centre, however, is Reshma, and young Melinda Shankar, in her first lead role in a feature, excels. A first-generation Guyanese-Canadian known for her work on CBC Television’s popular teen drama series Degrassi High, Shankar gives a bravura performance that has been steadily gaining recognition on the film festival circuit. Hopefully, for this talented daughter of the diaspora, much more success is in store.
This review is part of a special section on recent Caribbean film, supported by the trinidad+tobago film festival 2011
Jonathan Ali is a freelance writer and the editorial director of the trinidad+tobago film festival.