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Bim at 45: Production far from perfect but Andre Tanker’s music scores big

“Revisiting Bim four and a half decades later, thanks to the 40th Anniversary Film and Music Pack, I find the film’s imperfections all the more endearing, its shortcomings charming. Perfection in any home-grown Trinidad film product back then would have been out of sync with place and context; it remains elusive even today.

“But today, those ‘imperfections’ can be contemplated with even greater fondness as qualities that help to make Bim all the more abiding.”

The author of this three-part series to mark the 45th anniversary of the production of Bim, “T&T’s best ever film,”  is Owen Thompson, a Trinidadian writer on film and theatre who has been living and working in Spain, France and England since the early 1980’s.

Caption: Bim (Ralph Maraj) has a serious discussion with a comrade in the eponymous 1974 film.

I would have given anything to be a fly on the wall the day Hugh and Suzanne Robertson, together with Raoul Pantin, sat down before André Tanker to broach the subject of the music for Bim. I can imagine producers, director and screenwriter saying to score composer something along these lines:

“It’s about this Indian boy, Bim Singh, who leaves his country village in the late 40s after his father is killed by family enemies to go to the capital. He’s only 15 when he arrives in Port-of-Spain, where he encounters bigger, fiercer wars. He meanders through family fall-outs, schoolyard hostilities and petty street crime to eventually reach lofty heights in the world of politics.

“It is an era of much brinksmanship and manoeuvring, with incessant talk of Independence. We follow him until his final fall; we want to end with a close-up of a face filled with horror, the face of Bim himself, by then an influential political leader but a deeply disturbed man. We home in on him mere nano-seconds after he realises he has committed his final, most serious crime…”

Running through the hour and forty minutes of screen time before that final shot are all the beautiful imperfections of the first fully Trinidadian feature film. There is everything that makes it the precious, ground-breaking work it was at the time. I was 12 going on 13 when Bim was released in Trinidad and children my age were not allowed to see it. The film, it was explained, contained “plenty violence and cussin” so the censors did not think it appropriate for children.

Photo: Raoul Pantin, who wrote the script for the 1974 film, discusses the work on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of its release.
(Courtesy: Trinidad Guardian)

I had heard from people old enough—some of my teachers at QRC—that it was “worth seeing,” a healthy change from the Bruce Lee and karate fare that was the craze among children at that time. Much more than there had been for Caribbean Fox four years earlier or for the 1969 The Right and the Wrong, both helmed by Indian director Harbance Kumar, there was a buzz about this “film about Trinidad by Trinidadians.”

When I did eventually see Bim, I was indeed struck by all the crude street language, the “violence and cussin,” the portrayal of animosity among the races in Trinidad and Tobago, the way men seemed to think they were entitled to treat women. What the Robertsons and Pantin had been able to do then was indeed ground-breaking, immense and the immensity of their achievement can be even better appreciated today, almost half a century later.

Revisiting Bim four and a half decades later, thanks to the 40th Anniversary Film and Music Pack, I find the film’s imperfections all the more endearing, its shortcomings charming.

Perfection in any home-grown Trinidad film product back then would have been out of sync with place and context; it remains elusive even today. But today, those “imperfections” can be contemplated with even greater fondness as qualities that help to make Bim all the more abiding.

Photo: Bim lead actor Ralph Maraj became a Cabinet minister with two different parties, life upstaging art?

One thing that was not off limits to children at the time was the music of the film. Failings of plot, characters and characterisations notwithstanding, one majestic element illuminates the heady undertaking embarked upon by Messrs Robertson and Pantin 45 years ago. These gentlemen had the vision to confer the responsibility for the score to a then 31-year-old Andre Tanker. Having listened to the 33-minute soundtrack again today, I am left in absolutely no doubt about Tanker’s place in the pantheon of Caribbean music.

It is not difficult for film grammarians to identify syntactic and morphological defects. The storyline is, to put it kindly, facile; the plot is forced, shrieking at times with manifestly contrived conflicts and twists and artificially provoked transitions intended to move the story effortlessly forward. There are glaring art department let-downs (in 1948 Trinidad, Mootilal didn’t move mountains!).

Much of the acting is poor, amateurish, Ralph Maraj, who is immense throughout—in every shot, every frame, every scene and sequence—being the only major exception. The now late Wilbert Holder doesn’t do too badly in his brief appearances.

But too many of the characters are stereotypes, too typically mid-20th-century Trinidadian to be omitted: the brothel owner, the badjohn, the good-for-nothing, rum-drinking, abusive husband, the battered, submissive, common-law wife. They come over as a flock of ghosts extracted from the collective unconscious and foisted on the viewership with little effort to work them organically into a cogent, compelling plot.

Photo: Bim director Hugh Robertson (right) hard at work.

The dramatic progression and the narrative fluency suffer as a result. This is a problem that plagues not only the embryonic cinema of Trinidad and Tobago but film making the world over, I think. Any number of bad films are produced because the makers are trying to make a good point. In Bim, some of the exchanges are masterfully pitched, paced and delivered.

All the interplay between Wabham (Holder) and the adult Bim (Maraj) are remarkable in this respect but too many dialogues are weak and forced, lines cubically conjured to drive home a point, within a context that is itself forced. The result is a generous dose of hatched mouthing, spawning exchanges that are completely contrived, dialogues that are mere cardboard cut-outs.

A shrieking example is the scene where Bim is scolded by Bolo (Ronald Amoroso), his aunt’s common-law husband, in order to provide the platform for our protagonist, at the relatively tender age of 16, to be kicked out into the hard, unforgiving world of the street. Segue to the following block within narrative progression. The most cursory examination of what sparks that row and how Bim easily capitulates reveals a trumped up conflict, a mere paste-and-cut job designed to take the story where the director needs it to be.

Other stellar moments of mere jarring mouthing include the tennis court exchanges between the Governor (Vernon Lloyd) and the Head of Police (Lawrence Goldstraw), both British. The important point of view of the ruling colonial elite is thus aired because a way had to be found to bring them into the fray.

Nothing easier than presenting them on Princes Building Court, towels round their necks absorbing token sweat, during their token game of tennis, stopping to sip a token glass of lemonade, while discussing the genuine problems of local politics, offering a roll-call of potential troublemakers while they exchange views on the safety and future of Her Majesty’s colony. The dialogue is predictable, insipid, the entire sequence mere plastic surgery, a superimposition. So the politics and sociology get taken care of but cinematic articulation is poor, not to say non-existent.

Photo: The soundtrack CD released in 2014 to mark the 40th anniversary of the launch of the film.

These are all defects which the passage of time has made it easy to live with. Above and beyond these easily identifiable grammatical shortcomings, the film’s strengths, its greater virtues resonate. I marvel at how well Bim has aged, in how wholesomely crafted it seems desspite all such obvious “flaws.”

And its greatest strength, its most abiding asset is indisputably its music.

Robust, Tanker’s score has stood the test of time, continuing to poignantly define Bim’s essence. The true Trinidad is laid bare, with all its vices and virtues, the tempered ferocity of the haggling and in-fighting that are hallmarks of the culture. Through music, Tanker manages to magically transposes to the medium of film everything that was central to the concerns of writer Pantin, director Robertson, editor Paul Evans and DOP Bruce Sparks.

A integral part of the fabric of the film, it nevertheless contrives to define itself as a precious work of art in and of itself.

Editors note: Part 2 will be published on Monday March 28 and Part 3 on Wednesday March 30.

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