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Indian-origin Tanzanian filmmaker Amil Shivji believes in retelling history from the point of view of the people rather than repeating the colonial narrative. In his sophomore feature, Tug of War, Shivji, whose ancestors came to Tanzania from Porbandar, Gujarat, tells a story of love and resistance set in the last decade of British colonial rule and freedom struggle in Zanzibar, an autonomous island that has a large Indian community. Part of the 46th Toronto International Film Festival’s Discovery programme, Tug of War was the director’s dissertation for his Master’s degree while studying at the York University, Toronto. Shivji, who teaches cinema at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, the business capital of Tanzania, talks to Faizal Khan about the making of the film and its contemporary resonance. Excerpts from an interview:
Your second feature film, Tug of War, is a period drama set in the 1950s during the last decade of the British colonial rule in Tanzania. What are the lessons for contemporary society from the history of the freedom struggle?
I think the primary elements of telling a story in the ’50s were to reflect on the struggles that have put us where we are right now. But the struggle hasn’t ended. We are not in a better place. Populist and right wing ideologies have gained space and we need to bring back resistance ideas to counter mainstream ideologies. I wanted to make a film that is very contemporary.
You deal with class distinctions and colonialism in your works like your first feature film, T-Junction (2017), and now Tug of War. How different is telling history from the point of view of the people, not from the colonial point of view?
It is two completely different stories and two different histories. One is from the oppressed and one from the oppressor. We have never had the chance to tell our stories, we never had the tools to tell them. We didn’t hold the pen or camera. During the research for the film, I saw what the colonial narrative was. I avoided those kinds of frames. I was more keen on showing the history of the working class people, who were mostly Indian. Zanzibar is not a tourist site, it is a country. It still breathes and speaks an entire culture of its own. The colonial narrative never gave us that. This film is and hopes to be an anti-colonial film.
Zanzibar is famously known as the Spice Islands. Does it indicate the island’s close relations with India?
It is not just India, Zanzibar’s culture was immensely built on trade with India, China and the Middle East. It was a hub of different cultures. It was a hub for trading spices when it was under the rule of the Sultanate of Oman. Spices grew in Zanzibar and also came from India. Zanzibar played a big role in spice trade and slave trade during those times.
How close are you to your roots in India? Have you ever visited the country of your ancestors?
I am a fourth-generation Tanzanian. My parents were born in Tanzania. Their parents were born in Zanzibar. When Indians came in the 19th century, they would land in Zanzibar first and move to Tanzania later. For the Indian migration to East Africa, a leading point would have been Gujarat, Porbandar to be specific. The infrastructure and architecture of Zanzibar speak closely to Porbandar. The head of architects for building the Stone Town in Zanzibar was from India. The Indian community played a big role in the development of the island. Both my parents are lawyers and my father is a visiting professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has a love affair with JNU and always talks highly about it. I visited India as a child a long time ago. We did a tourist’s trip going to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. I want to visit India again, especially to participate in a film festival. It would be a wonderful experience.
When did you start production of Tug of War? What were the challenges for a filmmaker in a country that doesn’t have a big film industry in completing the film?
The film is based on a novel by Zanzibarian writer Adam Shafi taught in secondary school. I first read when I was in school. Years later, when I was struggling with the script for my first feature film, T- Junction, a neighbour, gave me the novel to help me with inspiration. I immediately knew it spoke to cinema with its visual imagery. After T-Junction, I wanted to adapt the novel into a film. So, my initial approach was to do a Master’s programme in film production to help me raise finance. I went to study in Toronto with that approach. My Master’s thesis was on Tug of War. After moving back to Zanzibar from Dar-es-Salaam for production, I changed my thesis to full script. The film is a story of love and resistance, about Denge, a young man who is part of the Communist movement against the colonial regime and Yasmin, an Indian-origin runaway bride who is roped into his activities. The film is the first cinematic adaptation of a Swahili literary work in Tanzania.
Are you familiar with Indian cinema? Are there any influences from Indian films in your filmmaking?
Definitely. As a child I would go to the cinema and watch a Bollywood film. Bollywood actors were famous in Zanzibar. Someone like Mithun Chakraborty was a household name in Swahili families. In Zanzibar, cinema culture was huge, insane. In the ’50s, the biggest market for Hindi movies after India was Zanzibar. People here would be humming the tune of Bollywood songs. We tried to get the rights for a few Bollywood film songs for Tug of War. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen, the pricing was out of the world. And we ended up working with independent artistes to create Indian music. One of them was from the family of the music composer of Sholay.