The LargeUp Interview: Machel Montano on “Bazodee”

Words by Jesse Serwer

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In Bazodee, premiering tonight in Port of Spain as part of this year’s Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival, Machel Montano plays a soca performer whose flagging music career is rekindled after he finds himself in a forbidden romance with an East Indian girl set to marry the son of one of her father’s business associates. It’s the first foray into acting by Trinidad’s foremost soca star, but the role wasn’t much of a stretch, he says. “This character I play, Lee De Leon, he decided to go away to seek world fame and become internationally known, and he didn’t really succeed at that, so he came back home despondent,” Machel says. “That has happened to me maybe about three times in life.”

A light drama set against the backdrop of Trinidad Carnival Bazodee breaks out into musical sequences and stars legendary Indian actor Kabir Bedi, but don’t confuse it with a Bollywood movie. “We call it Triniwood,” says director Todd Kessler. “It’s got a much more real, less glossy style than Bollywood.”

We spoke with Machel about his dive into acting, the influence of Indian culture in Trinidad, and the meaning of the word bazodee. And, as a bonus, we spoke with Kessler (a co-creator of TV series Blue’s Clues), so read on for that as well.

LargeUp: How did you get involved in this project?

Machel Montano: Well, approximately 10 years ago [laughs], I received an e-mail from Claire Ince, the writer of the story. She’s Bajan, and her husband Ancil McKain, who is Tobagonian, was the producer. I finally met with them in New York and they said, “We are big fans of your music, we feel that there is a lot of love and unity in your music. And we want to write a Caribbean love story based on your music.” I was pretty flattered and honored back then, and I jumped into the project. and they gave me a script. When I read the script, I loved the idea of what they were saying. I was very nervous about acting, but I thought I was going to do whatever was in my power to make this happen, and that was 10 years ago. I thought it would have been done within two years. I just stuck with them throughout, because the story was about Caribbean unity. Here was this couple who were experienced in the film industry, and still relatively new. But they were sitting on something I believed in, so I went the distance with them. And of course they offered me one of the lead roles in the film, which was exciting for me.

LU: Had you pursued acting in the past?

MM: I’ve had limited experience acting. I did one live play, on stage, back in the day in Trinidad. I consider my acting experience to come straight from the stage. I feel every night I’m definitely acting a role with lines and parts and performance memory. But I really didn’t think I would be good at it. When it was coming to the time to shoot, I took maybe about four classes with this guy who came to my house and explained some stuff. And then I met the director, and he said, “Listen, don’t worry about taking acting classes. You’re a musician, I work with musicians all of the time. You’re gonna get it.”

While this movie has been going on, I have had a few more offers to do a couple other small films, and I’ve been feeling the urge to take those opportunities and try to develop more.

LU: Anything promising?

MM: There is one thing executive produced by Spike Lee. It’s a local Trini short film that’s now being developed into a big film. And there was one that came across my desk recently called Queen of Soca with Teri Lyons, and they were looking for other parts. I was really interested in jumping on that, too. And then recently there was another story with a taxi driver who encourages a guy to leave his country, or a villain in that same flick, and I had to choose between them. I been browsing and looking at them but I’ve been so absorbed with this movie, and with my career taking a turn. Now is a really volatile — in a good way — time for soca music, and I’m really trying to do what I can to propel soca music into the right avenues and channels. I’ve been a bit consumed. Being on tour, doing a movie, doing an album, releasing singles with Mad Decent, it’s been a little bit hectic.

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LU: What about this movie did you identify with?

MM: This character I play, Lee De Leon, he was a soca artist that had a couple of hits and he decided to go away to seek world fame and become internationally known, and he didn’t really succeed at that, so he came back home despondent. That has happened to me maybe about three times in life. I was signed to a German label at a very young age, and tried to break soca music there, and then I was signed to Delicious Vinyl back in 1995 with “Come Dig It,” and then I saw myself coming back home, and then I was signed to Atlantic Records in 2000, and I saw myself coming back home.

Every time I tried to break soca music internationally, I wasn’t successful at that. And every time I came back, I had to spend time getting myself back into the groove or inspiring myself again to do new things. And it’s so strange that every time I departed and I came back, I came back with such great experience. I worked so hard, I learned so much, I was exposed to a different level of professionalism, and when I came back I gained perspective. What it helped me do is it really helped me advance the local industry. It helped me advance the standards of soca music across the Caribbean, or in its world. And I was able to top that world, whether it was the quality of the music, whether it was the quality of the live show, or the quality of the business or marketing. It was always a help to go away, suffer, not succeed, come back and try to re-motivate and inspire myself. I always found something that probably took me one level up. So I definitely connected with that part of the story. That was totally written in there by Clare without her knowing that these things were part of my life. It was so relatable.

The difference with this one was it was a girl, it was love, that really re-kindled his musical spirit. It was the adoration by this gyul. And for me, in more recent times, I have been focusing on love as a key element in my life because I’ve always put work first, and relationships have always suffered. I started to slowly realize that the great thing about my music is the love that it puts into people. So I had to find a way to bring love to the forefront of my mission. Deliver love through my music. Before it was to deliver energy, to deliver hype, to deliver this sort of revelry that will make people go insane. Now I am more focused on: How do I deliver music that will bring people together, teach them about love and to accept each other, and teach them to venture into each other’s differences and find similarities?

LU: Tell me about the music selection in the movie. It’s basically all your music.

MM: This was Clare’s idea from the beginning. She picked them. I probably suggested two songs, when she was looking for songs that could be sung at certain places to convey a certain message. Like “Mesmerize.” Clare and I have never sat down and over-indulged over these Machel Montano songs that she loves, but [when] she placed them into the story, [it was like] she had the ideas in my head. This movie is something of a Caribbean musical. Me, I would be the kind of naive, or shy, person who would say I don’t want to put only my songs but she showed me deeper meaning into my songs, that different people will see the messages. And that was a humbling realization for me, and I went along.

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LU: Do you watch a lot of Bollywood?

MM: I’ve watched a few. It has been building around that this is a Bollywood-style film, but this is not a Bollywood-style film.The cast and the crew, and the producers, were identifying ourselves as a Bollywood film for a little bit. I think it was because of the Indian element: It’s the story of an East Indian family, and us shooting in Trinidad, where there is such a huge Indian community juxtaposed with an African community. A lot of the movie is inspired ultimately by one song, “Real Unity,” which was done by my friend Drupatee, which is really a remake of “Aap Jaisa Koi,” a famous Indian song from way back, a Bollywood song. We got clearer as we went into the process that ‘Hey, this is not really a Bollywood film.’ Today, I had to call the Facebook and Instagram team and tell them please remove “Bollywood-style” from the explanation. It’s really “Trini-wood,” if you want to call it anything. It’s really a Caribbean culture film.

LU: I don’t think I actually heard the word bazodee spoken in the movie. For those who don’t know, can you explain what it means?

MM: Bazodee, in simplest terms, is to be head over heels in love. Or, as Beyonce would say, crazy in love, or drunk in love. All these Beyonce-like terms [laughs]. But it’s really from the French term, abasourdir, and it means to be dazed, lightheaded, caught up in a magical moment that you forget everything else around you. To be bazodee speaks volumes of not just love, but the love people have of Carnival [in Trinidad]. People forget about their rent, they forget about their mortgage, they forget about their stress, they forget sometimes about marital problems, and they immerse themselves into the color and the joy and the wining and the drinking and the atmosphere. And they get lost. Head over heels in love with what is going on.

We took the word bazodee from the French abasourdir and we really coupled it with love. Like, “This girl have this guy bazodee.” It means his head is all gone and he doesn’t have sense of time or place, or himself even. The equivalent for bazodee in American terms would be sprung. “This guy is sprung off of this girl.” It’s like he’s drunk, he’s crazy, he’s doing stupid shit. You know when you see different friends and you will say, “Aw man, he’s whipped. He’s gone. She has him all tied up.”

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Interview with Todd Kessler

LargeUp: As an American, how did you find yourself directing a movie combining the cultures to Trinidad and India?

Todd Kessler: I came into the project because I loved the ideas in the script and the vibrant characters. It’s on one level the story of a woman who sacrifices her own needs to help others in her family. I thought this was a unique and universal story — something I had never seen before. It was also the very rare script which featured a female protagonist in a role that was complex and not in the least stereotypical.

I had seen very early drafts of the script when it was under option to a company in London. I had told the producers if it ever became available again I was interested in directing. It eventually did become available, and I became involved. Yes, it does deal with a mixing of cultures, but at its heart Bazodee is a universal story, and I think it will be embraced by audiences worldwide.

TK: I didn’t know Machel’s music before I got involved.  The one thing I do know that Machel has told me is that although Claire wrote the script entirely from her imagination, [he] was surprised to discover that the story had many parallels to his real life. That’s part of the reason he approached the role with such passion and dedication.

LU: What research did you do to prepare for this movie, on both Bollywood techniques and Trinidad Carnival?

TK: [Writer] Claire Ince’s husband, Ancil McKain, grew up in Tobago, so I think he kept the film on an accurate Trini track. All of the film’s department heads did extensive research before they began, and each department was staffed nearly entirely by local crew. And they all had a lot of input into keeping things accurate.

LU: Were the Carnival scenes actually done during Carnival season?

TK: They were done at the beginning of the season. Everything was authentic.

LU: I can’t help but think of Black Orpheus, which introduced Rio Carnival to the world. Was that an influence at all in making Bazodee?

TK: Absolutely. Black Orpheus is a great film, and many aspects of it were in the back of my mind while I directed. Although I’d say generally Black Orpheus is more mythic and allegorical, and Bazodee is more “local” and down to earth.

LU: We know Machel, but what can you tell us about some of the other actors in this movie?

TK: Bazodee is the opposite of the Hollywood film Aloha, which hired white people to play Hawaiians. Every actor in Bazodee is authentic, and their actual background is close if not identical to the background of the character they are playing. Most of the actors in the film are Trini – and they’re all fantastic and real.

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