Anton Burggraaf

The year 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indians in South Africa. A number of commemorative events have been held around the country, culminating in November, the month when the first ship from India docked at the newly proclaimed city of Durban in 1860. The SS Truro’s passengers were indentured Indian labourers, destined for the sugar plantations of the colony of Natal. They arrived in a total of 384 vessels, 262 sailing from Madras and 122 from Calcutta. The final ship arrived in South Africa on 21 July 1911.

It may be hard for South Africans to think of the past in this way. Today Indian people are woven into the fabric of South African life, and historical focus on them has generally concerned the more recent struggle of black South Africans for political liberation. In fact, it is perhaps due to Indian activism of the 1950s and 1960s that we no longer think of Indians as once oppressed. At that time, there was an alignment with black politics to the extent that Indians “disappeared” – even to the extent of calling themselves black.

And as any South Africans of Indian descent will tell you, the indentured past is too long gone for it to have any bearing on contemporary social reality, so the chances of it coming up – even artificially in a commemorative year such as this – is as remote as the subject of the Great Trek may be to many Afrikaners.

However, this unique immigration sequence was the origin of what South Africa knows today: the largest indigenous Indian populations in the world outside of India.

Some history.

By the mid-1800s, the rapidly expanding British Empire desperately needed labour to develop its colonies. And in those days sugar was wealth; it was “white gold”. Unfortunately for the colonialists in Natal, the strong Zulu nation refused to become part of the labour force needed to work coastal sugar plantations. This was not a unique case: indentured labour effectively replaced slavery everywhere after that system was abolished by the British parliament in 1833, but many former slaves simply refused to work for the pittance that constituted mandatory earnings.

So the empire had to look elsewhere for indentured labour, and found in India a ready and desperate workforce. Colonialism had devastated Indian society and economy in the early 1800s by way of a divisive administration, unfair taxation and industrialisation. There was an increase in famine, a destruction of indigenous industries and, eventually, shocking unemployment. In just a few decades, India’s landholding peasants were turned into rootless labourers. So native Indians were easily enticed by promises of prosperity and abundance in the sugar plantations across the globe, and were prepared to leave all that they knew for a new life.

This history provides the rich setting for the South African film White Gold, shot in location in Durban and India. With all the hype around local films being released in 2010, White Gold has somehow slipped under the radar. But it has enjoyed some success at Ster-Kinekor cinemas countrywide, and typifies a new wave of self-funded independent feature.

Watch the White Gold trailer:

The film’s Durban-based executive producer Dinesh Naidoo is bullish about its run and the buzz it has made in the Indian community.

“We’ve had lots of positive comment and a great deal of praise,” he says. “We’ll get a crossover audience but I’m mainly interested in the Indian market. It’s extremely tough out there so the timing of the release was important for November. We had the premiere in Durban at nine cinemas, with huge marketing. It was a pre-sold event with companies reserving the houses for their employees and clients. We had a poster release and a promotion with the music as well.”

Naidoo is perhaps better known in Durban for his tour operations company, Serendipity Tours, specialising in tailor-made tours to India. So what is a tour operator doing making a feature film? “I’ve also been importing Indian films for local distribution for a while now,” Naidoo says. “So while films are not new to me this is the first time I’ve gone into the business of making one.”

Jayan Moodley, the film’s writer, is a friend of Naidoo’s and came to him with an idea to make a drama in 2009 about indentured Indians as part of the 150 years commemoration.

Naidoo and Moodley are both fourth-generation South African Indians with no links to that time, but they were fascinated nonetheless with the idea of contributing to the discussion because no local drama feature had been made on the subject. “This is a story that needs to be made,” says Naidoo. But a take on history was only part of the plan. “Originally it was going to be a modern day story with flash backs to India of the 1800s but in the end there was so much material we had to cut it down.” He laughs. This meant that some actors playing the modern characters do not appear in the final cut.

The story follows a young man, Shankar, and his merry band of friends who set out from a rural India under the yoke of colonial rule. They leave behind their home and families, and a harsh but nonetheless idyllic rural life. They have a rude awakening when they arrive in Natal and are faced with primitive conditions, virtual slave brutality and the betrayal of their kin. As they face the consequences of their decision to leave India, they experience further turmoil when one of them dares to love beyond the boundaries of his faith.

As Naidoo points out, the title White Gold plays on the idea of the “white lies” told to the Indian people by British recruiters, enticing them to journey to a foreign land for the “gold that grew on the chilli trees”, or “gold on the pavements”. It also refers to the industry name for white sugar – the crop that the indentured Indians were exported to all colonies to harvest. And it is ironic: the labour of these indentured Indians built the Natal economy of yesteryear, the labourers themselves being the white man's gold.

What is fascinating is how the film underlines the blurring of caste that occurred in the immigrant groups and the fundamental losses that Rehana Ebr-Valley highlights in her excellent Kala Pani, a study of caste in South Africa. Those losses were of the sub-caste, the Brahmin (the uppermost caste) and the elders. In a sense, these new Indians had to recreate their society, which would be based on the values that they enjoyed as a collective in a foreign land.

The film cost a cool R2.5-million (US$365 700) to make and was wholly funded by Naidoo, a sizable investment. Moodley went to India to research the film as well as scout for locations, but the funding doors she knocked on stayed firmly shut. That’s when Naidoo decided to risk funding the film himself.

Interestingly, Naidoo is not looking for a shot-term return on this investment, preferring to see the film as a stepping-stone into the industry and an experiment for the local market. He will be distributing the film, especially to gauge international appetite and points to the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin with its worldwide membership. For him, the reach of this organisation alone gives him the confidence to take market local movies globally.

“You can recover your money from TV, and in any territory with an Indian diaspora, I believe there is an appetite,” he says. And having gone through this experiment, Naidoo believes he now knows enough to make a traditional feature for under R2-million. “You learn from your mistakes.”

Naidoo found the experience of shooting invigorating. “What I really enjoyed is shooting in two countries. Creating sets is one thing but shooting in found locations is amazing. I made sure I spent good money on sets and sound, and technical stuff.” And it shows. The film is a technical gem with superb cinematography, charming characters and a colourful and excellently produced soundtrack, post-synchronised.

For this first time executive producer, the bug has bitten. Next year, Naidoo will be reviewing scripts and looking at several filming options. The movie has created a buzz in the Indian community, especially in Durban, home for most of White Gold’s first-time actors.

It bodes well for the film industry generally that this film has made it onto circuit and into the cultural domain.