On the Record: K Rajagopal, award-winning Singaporean filmmaker

On the Record: K Rajagopal, award-winning Singaporean filmmaker

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Award-winning filmmaker, K Rajagopal describes himself as a late bloomer. (Photo: Singapore International Film Festival)

SINGAPORE: Singaporean filmmaker K Rajagopal’s first feature film, A Yellow Bird, made headlines last year when it was invited to participate in the Cannes Film Festival’s International Critics’ Week and was in the running for the coveted Camera d’Or award.

The film, which tells the story of an ex-convict who tries to re-connect with his family after his release from prison, continues to tour the region.

The self-taught filmmaker has plans to make another short film and feature film, but is keeping mum about the details. He continues to mentor young filmmakers and will play an active role in this year’s Singapore International Film Festival from Nov 23 to Dec 4, as one of the jury members of the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition.

Raja went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about the issues that films have opened his eyes to, why he does not mind that his films are not commercially successful, and what led him to the craft.

K Rajagopal: I think I became a filmmaker because I was a very frustrated actor. I was doing theatre for the longest time, a good 10 years from the mid-80s to the 90s. My teacher in school introduced us to the arts. She would bring us to plays and so I got hooked on it, and I think I’ve always been like that since young.

I liked going on stage and telling stories. I did only one stage play in school but when I started watching local plays like the ones put up by TheatreWorks at that time and William Teo and Kuo Pao Kun, I was very attracted to acting and I remember watching Lim Kay Siu and Lim Kay Tong on stage, and I said to myself that I wanted to act. I wanted to be on stage.  I wanted to do more and I did.

Bharati: Why were you frustrated though?

Raja: There were no roles for me because I think they were always looking for experienced actors or people they knew. So I decided to stage manage for TheatreWorks, just to get Ong Keng Sen’s attention. Just so that he would recognise me, acknowledge me. Finally, one day he asked if I wanted to act in a play.

It was a small part – the role of a policeman and I said “sure”. That’s how it started. I did a lot of his plays. I went for Kuo Pao Kun’s workshops. I did a few with William Teo. This was actually the best education in filmmaking, especially education about acting. I got to learn about actors, to learn how to work with actors.

Bharati: But you said you were frustrated. Why?

Raja: My frustration was because I was not getting the lead part. Because of the scripts, they were for the majority.

Bharati: When you say majority, you mean in terms of race?

Raja: Yeah, I mean Chinese because the writers, the playwrights were mostly Chinese. There were very few Indian writers. But I carried on and I said to myself: “Okay, the minute I get a lead part I’m going to stop.”

And then finally Keng Sen gave me a lead part in a play opposite Kay Tong. It was amazing and after that I just felt satisfied and I felt it was enough. I took a break from theatre. I worked full-time. There was also a change in the whole theatre scene because there were a lot of full-time actors. A lot of my contemporaries decided to quit their jobs and take on full-time acting in theatre.


Bharati: We’ll talk more about the race issue in a moment, but why didn’t you do what some of your contemporaries were doing – go into the arts full-time instead of stepping away?

Raja: I had commitments. I had commitments at home. I couldn’t do it.

Bharati: It was about money?

Raja: Yeah,

I had to earn money because my father died and we were a family of five siblings. So I couldn’t. My mother was putting a lot of pressure on me to be responsible and things like that. So I worked and that was when I was in fact, moonlighting. I couldn't study film. I had to work. 

I had two jobs and everything. I was working in the hotel industry and I was also teaching in a school for mentally-challenged people. I was a training officer.

So I had different jobs at different times. In my job at a hotel in Little India, I was exposed to a seedy side of Singapore – Sri Lankans running away from their country during the war and they were trying to seek asylum in Europe. There was an influx at that time of foreign workers. A lot of them were illegal and there were sex workers and things like that and it was a very compelling thing. I had all these story ideas in my head and I wanted to tell them.


Bharati: You actually made a film based on what you saw there. A short film called I Can’t Sleep Tonight. But your filmmaking, as you mentioned earlier, is also connected to your being a “frustrated actor”. You were not able to get lead roles as a result of being of a minority race in Singapore. You’ve said before that you make films, in part, to represent the minority experience.

Raja: As an actor, I played Indian parts, but they were supporting roles. There were local plays with minority characters but I think they were caricatures. There was no identity, no proper representation. When I looked around, there was nothing about my community or where I came from, what I’m familiar with, the language, or the people. It was so prominent. We are multi-racial. So I thought of doing something to protect this. I’m Indian, so whomever I create, the characters I create have to be very close to me.

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K Rajagopal with the cast of "A Yellow Bird" at the Cannes Film Festival 2016. (Photo: Alice Kohl)

Bharati: You said most of the writers were ethnically Chinese and you think that’s why minorities were not represented. Some might say in a multi-racial society that is, on the face of it, as integrated as we are, that’s no excuse. Even Singaporean Chinese individuals should be able to be conscious of being inclusive and have their writing be representative of the racial realities on the ground. Writers should be aware of sometimes making their protagonists a minority race, whether it is Indian or Malay, or having actors of a minority race, based on merit, play lead roles. You shouldn’t need Indian writers to do that for Indians or Malay writers to do that for Malays. What do you think?

Raja: I think it is very important that when we create new work, whether it’s in theatre or film, that you should not just write in a character for the sake of having a multi-racial mix in that film.

I think you should be honest and if you feel that it is required, then you do it. Otherwise, we can’t force it.

So I’m Indian, and I can tell the Indian story, but my work often requires a character to interact with someone of a different race. It’s part of the story, so I might have a Chinese protagonist too.

But if a Chinese writer feels that they want to write about their own experience and that does not include a non-Chinese person, you can’t force them to create work for the purpose of being inclusive. 

I think you should be honest with what you want to do. I think there are a lot more filmmakers, Indian filmmakers telling Indian stories today. I think if you want to be part of it, you have to stand up and create your own work.

Bharati: You make a good point in that it shouldn’t be forced, and in some cases, the work may not call for minority representation. But to some extent, based on what you’ve said, the exclusion could be indicative of people living insular lives where their experience does not include people of other races, hence does not get reflected in their art.

Also if they wouldn’t, based on merit, give a lead role to a minority actor especially if the part does not call for a person of any specific race, it’s rather disturbing. Don’t you find these possibilities disturbing?

Raja: Honestly I think on the surface, yes, we may all seem to be living harmoniously but we have huge differences. It’s also about the way we live. We tend to not fully want to understand each other. I think because there’s too much emphasis on racial integration and in fact, because of that, you really feel the difference. Maybe if there weren’t too much emphasis on this, you wouldn’t.

You may just not think about it and get to know each other as human beings.  There might be talk about Deepavali and having the other communities find out more. But we do it in a very artificial way in schools and sometimes at the grassroots level. If you look at Singapore in the early days when we had kampung style living, I think it was more natural.

Bharati: More organic?

Raja: Yes, and people just didn’t think and they just lived together. But now even in the HDB blocks, there are racial quotas.

When it’s controlled that way, these enforced rules about multi-racial living make a lot more obvious – the differences. I think that’s created a problem in a way.

Bharati: I can see where you’re coming from, but if there hadn’t been policies to encourage racial integration, might there have been even more serious problems? We’ve seen evidence of this in our past – the racial riots.

Raja: Yes, that did happen. But I think there’s a bit too much control in trying to make us think in a certain way or participate in activities that are organised and it’s not because all of the people sincerely want to know more about someone of another race. So I think the approach needs to change.

Bharati: How would you suggest this be done instead?

Raja: I think you should allow people to do it on their own and I think a lot of us do it naturally. I may not go to grassroots events but I’m I naturally concerned about my neighbour whether they are Indian or Chinese.

Bharati: Not everyone naturally feels that way.

Raja: I think it has to start in school. You may want to acknowledge that we are different but at the same time, we should be taught human values where things have nothing to do with race. Talk about the human experience regardless of race. In that way it is more inclusive in a natural way.

Saying that there are Indians and Malays and in a multi-racial society you have to know more about them – people tend not to pay attention to too many of those messages. Allow people to learn from each other or to understand each other in a more natural, organic way.


Bharati:  You yourself have said that you’ve felt as if you were “on the edge and an outsider in your own country”.

Raja: Because now I’m seen as a foreigner. I think also because there are more Indian expatriates now, Singaporeans ask me where I’m from.

When I tell them I’m from Singapore, they don’t want to believe me. They’ll say: “Ya, I know. Now you’re in Singapore. But before, where were you from?” But I was born here.

They think I'm from India. They forget or don't know that many of us have been here for generations. A lot of people, a lot of people have this idea that the Indians living here are all expatriates, that they were not born here. That’s frustrating. That’s why I write, put it into a film to sort of explore you being a foreigner being in your own country where you are not accepted, where you are seen differently.

Bharati: So clearly something has gone wrong. In spite of the fact that so many members of the minority communities were born in Singapore and some of us have had family here since Singapore’s independence, if not even before that, some Singaporeans are only familiar with the expatriates who’ve recently entered the country.

Raja: I don’t know what it is. There’s a disconnect somewhere. We need to go out and get to know people more. Not be so self-absorbed maybe and have more dialogue with each other about identity.

Bharati: I understand you’ve struggled with your identity for a long time though. It’s not a recent thing for you.

Raja: Because I felt like I was Chinese for the longest time when I was growing up. I felt like I couldn’t identify with the Indian race because I was embarrassed by my “Indian-ness”.

Bharati: Why were you embarrassed?

Raja: Because I was made fun of. It wasn’t serious. It wasn’t like I was bullied or anything like that, but it affected me when I was made fun of for being Indian.

Bharati: How were you made fun of?

Raja: The oil in my hair. I refused to use oil after that. I stopped speaking my language because people made fun of it. But I made friends with Chinese and they accepted me. 

Bharati: But you felt you had to distance yourself from your Indian-ness. You don’t think that’s serious?

Raja: Definitely, I was ashamed of my culture. But I made very good Chinese friends so I can’t say that people are racists.

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Behind the scenes of "A Yellow Bird". (Photo: Facebook / A Yellow Bird)

Bharati: But you felt that you had to distance yourself from your Indian identity in order to be accepted by your Chinese friends. We can’t say what they were thinking. But the fact that they made fun of you and you then distanced yourself from your culture in order to be able to make friends and be accepted – surely that’s serious.

Raja: Yes, there’ll always be a group of people who discriminate. Maybe they don’t know better. I think it’s a question of ignorance. So as a child, I too didn’t know better. I just wanted to be accepted and I changed in order for that to happen.

Bharati: Unfortunately, that doesn’t really help others understand the differences and accept a person who might be different from them.

Raja: Yes, if we had better dialogue about our differences and talked about them as human differences rather than racial differences, and help our children do that as well, things might get better.

Bharati: We also have to bear in mind that not all people of a particular race are the same as each other– so yes, human differences rather than racial differences.

Raja: I don’t really know how but I think if someone talks about their experience in school … if you want to make someone respect another person’s culture, religion or race or customs, then it’s for them to understand it from its roots, more than just very superficial education.

I think it should go deeper than telling people that during Hari Raya they do this, or during Deepavali, they just eat cakes. It shouldn’t be about food or clothes. 

There needs to be more dialogue - have kids talk about it or write about it or express what they feel, why just because a person’s skin colour is different from yours, they are worse or better than you.


Bharati: You’ve said before that you’ve spent a lot of time searching for your identity. Have you managed to find answers?

Raja: Yes, I’m much more comfortable in my skin.

Bharati: How did you get to this stage?

Raja: I went to India. It was the migrant population that I encountered in Singapore while I was making my films that made me want to go to India. I had gone there as a child. My next trip was as an adult on a backpacking trip from the South to the North. I realised how beautiful it was and how ignorant I was to be ashamed of my culture. But the trip made me feel proud of having that kind of ancestry. I went back to Kerala where my ancestors came from and right up to Nepal. And when I came back I think I realised that a lot of it is something that I can feel for – the language, the food, the customs, religion. I could understand myself better. I was not so anxious about who I was.

Bharati: How did connecting with India help you connect here in Singapore, as a Singaporean Indian?

Raja: I think I started to look at people and where they came from differently. I was happy to converse in Tamil, which I also learnt to speak. So I was not shy about being Indian anymore. I was not shy to talk about the fact that I watched Indian films. Before, I wouldn’t say if I watched a Tamil movie, or listened to Indian music because I was worried that my friends would make fun of me. They may not have made fun of that but because I had been made fun of in other ways for being Indian, I thought they might make fun of this too.  


Bharati: What else has filmmaking opened your eyes to?

Raja: When I screened A Yellow Bird, I realised a lot of people are not familiar with the marginalised in society. They are not familiar with the people, my characters.

They asked me and actually these questions came from young Singaporeans: “Where did you do your research? Are these people real?” When I told them I did the research right here in Singapore and these characters are based on Singaporeans and people who live here, they were surprised. 

They asked about the locations.

“Where did you film this? Did you go abroad to film?”

I said: “No, this is Singapore. Have you looked around?”

These were all real locations here. It was not a set. There was a foreigner in the audience who said: “You know, I’ve only been here three months and I’ve seen all this.” I filmed at Maude Road, Little India, a quarry in Tampines. They thought these places were overseas. It was all done in Singapore and they didn’t know.

I think Singaporeans are very closed off, ignorant. Either they do not want to learn or they are too engrossed in their own lives.

Maybe it’s the affluence but I think it is also how we live our lives now. Everything is about the phone and the technology has kind of closed us in. We don’t explore real life. We don’t walk around. We don’t want to know about other peoples’ lives that are not represented on social media.

When we see someone who’s not like us, we keep them out. We are not interested. And I think it has become quite selfish that way - ignoring things that don’t interest you or involve you, things you are uncomfortable with.

So even when it came to my film, when they were watching these characters, they were very uncomfortable with the characters. Some of them asked me if these things happened in Singapore. Did the sex workers really hide here? I said: “Yes, it’s from a newspaper article.” They just didn’t know. So they’re not even reading.

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"A Yellow Bird" is K Rajagopal's first feature film. (Photo: Photo: Facebook / A Yellow Bird)

Bharati: What do you think it will take for people to open up their minds to what’s happening around them, to care a little bit more?

Raja: I think it starts with the kind of education that we have. I think although they say it’s more leaning towards critical thinking instead of rote learning or creating bookworms now, I think it has to change a lot more at different levels. It’s not just in primary and secondary, but at the tertiary level.

People need to be made to read more, to think more, to look more. I do think a lot of people have been affected in a strange way by the migrant situation. I think that has changed the way people looked at other races because the coming of the Chinese from China has created a kind of tension between Singaporean Chinese and the Chinese from China as well.

I mean it’s not just about two different races, right? I think all that has to change as well. I recently saw a story from Lebanon where the education minister was fighting to take in migrant kids and giving them places in schools. He said he felt strongly about it because he was once a migrant and he ran away from his country and came to Lebanon and that gave him hope. So he wants to give all these people who are stranded, hope. So he created a school and positions for them so that they could study. These kinds of stories inspire me to think that we should be more accepting. We should open up, we should integrate. We should take this as a part of our lives now. We should see where it goes instead of being antagonistic.

Bharati: Some efforts are being made to encourage integration between new Singapore citizens and the rest of the population, efforts to increase acceptance of transient workers. What do you think of those?

Raja: Again, while they are good, it shouldn’t be too forced like our racial integration policies. I think let it all happen. I mean why even try to force. Just encourage people to look outside themselves generally and everything will evolve and slowly find its own kind of resolve. It will resolve. And then a new problem will arise and I think that makes it more interesting. We shouldn’t force it. Let everyone live through it and see what happens.

Bharati: Even if living through it means living through some chaos, some unrest?

Raja: Yes, I think sometimes you need it. I think it’s important to find out. Like when the Little India riots happened a few years ago, it made us realise that we cannot take anything for granted, and more also needs to be done to look at the welfare of migrants. It was shocking. Something like that happening in Singapore - no one expected it. It’s not that I’m saying we need such things to happen or that I wish it upon Singapore. We are peace-loving people, but sometimes, in spite of efforts things go wrong, and you need that little bit of a shake-up to make us think better. I feel that we take a lot of things for granted and when such things happen it could make more realise that these people are just like us.

Bharati: Or it could have a reverse effect. It could make people fear the people involved.

Raja: That’s where education and awareness can come in. We need to take care of them too, accept them. Why are we so antagonistic? Why are we trying to create this tension that could result in chaos?


Bharati: Your movies are often about an underclass. What do you think helped you develop this sensitivity?

Raja: I’m very interested in them. I think because I’m of an older generation, in my 50s now, we were more exposed to such things. We were less on our phones and explored the island more. Plus I held jobs like the one at the hotel in Little India which exposed me migrants, but also the lower-income class in Singapore.

Sometimes I feel that there’s a neglect of these people; for example, older people collecting cardboard. I think a lot more can be done to raise their status. It makes me sad to see old people working. I feel that that should stop. I think it’s time they enjoy their old age, but I see so many working.

Bharati: The government does provide assistance, but we largely live in a society that encourages self-reliance. While you say more needs to be done to help, what’s a good balance?

Raja: Not everyone has the same capacity. Some people make mistakes and don’t plan well for their futures, or just lived in bad circumstances from the start. When people are young, they should be encouraged to fend for themselves, but I’m talking about older people who after a certain age, should be taken care of much, much better. They shouldn’t be looking for cardboard.

We are not a big country. We can identify who these people are and do something about it. I’m sure there is support, and NGO support as well, but then why do we still see such things. Why don’t we have policies that say that if you come from a certain income group, and are of a certain age, we will support you with maybe, a pension.

Bharati: Of course, social assistance is not free. It’s taxpayers’ money.

Raja: Yes, I realise that such policies have caused huge problems in the West and countries can go bankrupt. But I think we are much smaller and maybe we can do slightly better in looking after the old.

Bharati: Your films often touch on sensitive issues like race and discrimination. I know that none of them have been officially censored or banned by the authorities after they were made, but have you ever had to self-censor during the filmmaking process?

Raja: Actually, no.  The rating system has helped, I think. I’ve been okay with the ratings my films have been given. There were no cuts for A Yellow Bird. It was given an M18 rating which is fair enough. I think any one younger would not have enjoyed the film because I think you need to have a bit more life experience in order to understand what these characters were doing. When you’re a bit younger, you may lose interest in the film. So I didn’t mind that.

There were a lot of vulgarities in the film, but there were no cuts. I’m ok with the ratings system, but not with cuts and bans. Why should we ban something? Honestly, I think when a filmmaker makes a film and they want to say something, we should learn to trust that the audience is mature enough to process it whether or not they like the film and if they disagree with something – they don’t have to watch it themselves, but don’t prevent others from doing so. 

So far, I don’t think I’m saying anything adverse in my films. I think it’s because I present it as it is. I try to be as honest as possible. In terms of issues that I want to talk about, I’ve not had to self-censor at all.


Bharati: We’ve seen a number of successful filmmakers such as yourself in the spotlight lately. What are the enduring challenges that you face as a filmmaker today though?

Raja: I think there’s a lack of faith in films that are not commercial.

The authorities sometimes don’t have faith when giving grants. They tend to bet on commercially viable films. 

But having said that, I must say I’m grateful for the grant that I got. But I think more such films need to be funded and without too many conditions. I don’t expect things to happen overnight. Every system will take time. Let’s also be okay with making mistakes. Sometimes bad films are made; we shouldn’t let that stop us. Let’s learn from those experiences and move on.

Bharati: I understand that while your film was sold out at certain festival screenings even in Singapore, but it didn’t do well at the commercial cinema box office. Why do you think this was so?

Raja: I wish more people had gone to watch it. But I understand because the film did not have any big mainstream stars. It was not fast-paced and it was heavy. Also it was released in December. It was the holidays and people don’t want to see a depressing, dark film about a man who is struggling.

Bharati: How do you think the audience for artistic independent films can grow? How can people be encouraged to explore difficult issues through art and not just look at films as entertainment?

Raja: I think we should encourage them a lot more in terms of exposure. I’m hoping that the younger lot of people who are studying film would come out and influence others more, or attract more audience with good content. I don’t think a good film would ever go unnoticed. Eventually it will find its place. It would be good if private investors or the government could pump more money into marketing such work too.

We need to see the value of the work and take a risk. Often, people wait for the work to win an international award before they watch it. Why must it be internationally recognised before you think it’s good? I think we have to change our mindset. I think as long as we keep doing the good work and we are very persistent with it, not give up, eventually, people might come around and say: “Hey, you’re still at it. Maybe I’ll watch it.”

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K Rajagopal just before the screening of "A Yellow Bird" at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Photo: Facebook / A Yellow Bird)

Bharati: You’ve said that you never had the luxury of quitting your job to become a full-time filmmaker. Considering you haven’t been able to make money out of your filmmaking career, I guess that’s still not an option. Don’t you wish you could though?

Raja: Yes, but I’m okay with the current circumstance. I don’t mind not making money out of my films.

I don't look at it as work. I don’t look at it as a business. I look at it as something so part of me that I’m creating, so even if it doesn’t make money, it’s fine. If something good happens or comes out of it, fine. I'll be happy about it, but I don’t set out to say that I’m going to make a film and I want money for it. I do it because I had this urge inside to tell stories.

The short films that I won awards for earlier in my career did help me get paid jobs in TV. They recognised me as a director and they have trusted me with TV jobs that are my livelihood now. But the films themselves are to explore difficult issues, and if that’s not commercially viable yet, it’s fine. And I’m okay to work another job for my livelihood. That’s the reality and it’s fine.

Making films changes me as a person, grows me as a person and that, for me, is very attractive.

Also, I must remember that it was some of these jobs I did that inspired my films. As I mentioned earlier, I Can’t Sleep Tonight was inspired by what I was exposed to in my job at a hotel in Little India. So that provided me with life experience to make films.

Bharati: While it might do that for you, if your work only gets a small audience, doesn’t it make you question the point of it?

Raja: Of course, I really want people to watch the film because I’m sharing a story and it’s important for them to identify with it.

Bharati: Have you ever thought of making the films more palatable to a mainstream audience in order to maximise their impact?

Raja: I want to set out to be honest as possible when I’m doing it. After that, if only one person likes it, I can’t help it. I can’t control that at all.

But I wouldn’t rewrite a scene just to get an audience, make them laugh or something just to get more people to watch it. I just do what comes to my mind, my instincts and I follow that. 

And if it reaches out and it reaches out only to a certain point, then I’m not going to force it. I’m not saying I don’t want the audience to watch or that I’m only doing it for myself. I’m not. But really, all I can do is be honest in my work and I know it makes an impact even though it’s not for a large audience.

One lady came up to me after a screening of A Yellow Bird and she was crying, she was weeping. She said she felt like the character in the film, searching for the truth. I didn’t know how to react. I just held her hand and sat down with her. At the same time, there are people who say they didn’t get it. And I’m okay with that. That’s to be expected.

Bharati: We’ve seen a number of successful Singaporean filmmakers emerge in recent years, but based on your observations, can we expect much more considering the financial risks involved?

Raja: Just from talking to students, I realise that a lot of them don’t stick with it. They go off and do things that make them money. It’s a reality. You need to make money to live. I do that as well but to continue with what you believe in and continue filmmaking that way without money, I think, is when you know it sets you apart from the rest. And then you know that’s when you really believe in the art. I realised that I could not live without telling the stories in my head and so I continued. It takes mental, emotional and physical stamina for you to do a film. I love it and I will continue trying my best.