The shared misery of hundreds of thousands of Indian indentured labourers under British rule in Mauritius is set to get the Bollywood treatment a la Lagaan, the Oscar-nominated story of a village’s victory over heavy colonial tax.
Fuelling the screenplay will be the novel Lal Pasina, written by the late Sahitya Akademi awardee Abhimanyu Anat, a Mauritian of Indian origin, with four governments spearheading the project. The preface of the novel has been written by Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio.
The governments of India and Mauritius, two countries united by an ocean as well as history, along with the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh administrations, have shown interest in coming together to depict this largely forgotten chapter of history: The transport of lakhs of Indians to the shores of this African island for indentured labour at minimal pay.
In the early 19th century, as the British took over Mauritius from the French and sought to settle it, they decided to tap another colony for cheap labour.
Indians, especially in Bihar (then the part of the Bengal presidency), were shown the promise of a better life and riches to convince them to make the trip across the Equator.
Once in Mauritius, they were put to work under terribly exacting conditions. So many people from the subcontinent were taken there that an estimated two-thirds of the Mauritian population today is of Indian-Pakistani origin, with Bhojpuri spoken by approximately one-tenth of the citizens.
Janata Dal (United) leader K.C. Tyagi said the idea took root during the 11th Hindi sammelan, which was held in Mauritius this August.
Where it all began
According to Tyagi, the wife and daughter-in-law of Anat, who died this June at the age of 81, met him while he was in Mauritius. He said it was then that they decided to make a movie on Indian indentured labourers on the lines of Lagaan (2001).
Anat’s relatives, he added, expressed a desire to meet minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj, and a meeting was subsequently organised when she arrived in Mauritius for the Hindi sammelan last month. Tyagi said:
We have all seen Lagaan and admired it. Anat’s family and I were discussing Bihar’s contribution towards Mauritius and the barbaric treatment the labourers went through. These poor people and their families were thrown into slavery on the promise of a rich life. They were told that they will get to keep the gold they dig up. But that was a sham and they were made to work in inhuman conditions and many died over the years.
We agreed that it deserves to be a movie just like Lagaan. (At the meeting with the external affairs minister) The idea of the movie was discussed. And Swaraj liked the idea.
Tyagi said the four governments had now agreed to take the project forward. In India, the project will be led by the ministry of external affairs.
You see, the Prime Minister of Mauritius Pravind Jugnauth is Yadav a native of Gazipur, Bihar. And so is former PM Mauritius Navin Ramgoolam, who is from Bihar’s Kurmi caste.
Asked about the movie, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said:
I am not privy to the meeting held between Anat’s family and the minister. Till now we have not received any communication from them.
However, Ratnesh Anat, son of the Lal Pasina author, said the family met Swaraj in August:
I spoke to her about the novel, which talks about the Girmithiya community. She told me she would be happy to help. We even spoke about having her ministry help in the project. I now hear the government of Bihar is excited for the project. I am grateful to all of them.
Starring Aamir, Nawazuddin, Shah Rukh?
If Tyagi is to be believed, the movie promises to be a star-studded affair, with several “acclaimed” actors showing interest.
Efforts are under way to get Ashutosh Gowariker (film-maker), Aamir Khan, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, among others. I can safely tell you that even someone on behalf of Shah Rukh Khan has shown interest in the project.
Meanwhile, the movie has also given allies Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Janata Dal (United) a common cause amid their seat-share squabbles ahead of next year’s Lok Sabha elections.