Interview: Filmaker K Rajagopal
Singapore filmmaker K Rajagopal shows us the good omen in yellow birds.
The journey filmmaker K Rajagopal (Raja) has taken over the span of almost three decades reminds us that filmmaking does not always run on a steam engine and instead can be a more personal experience that takes time to mature and unfold. Raja first hit the local film scene by winning the Special Jury Prize at the Singapore International Film Festival Silver Screen Awards three years in a row with his short films ‘I Can’t Sleep Tonight’ (1995), ‘The Glare’ (1996) and ‘Absence’ (1997).
Over the years, while he was also engaged in theatre and television work, he would wander back into the film scene with new short films that would extend the exploration of issues like memories, identity and displacement. Collaborations like ‘The Lucky Seven Project’ and ‘7 Letters’, where he was one of several directors making an omnibus feature film, also brought Raja back into the thick of the filmmaking buzz that had hit Singapore over the past decade.
He finally completed his first feature film ‘A Yellow Bird’ early this 2016. The film competed at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for the Camera d’Or award for feature film debuts and was also screened at the same festival’s La Semaine de la Critique segment (International Critics’ Week). The film’s story is simple – a man released from prison after eight years tries to reconnect back with life and his family – just the way Raja likes his filmmaking process to be. Raja relives this journey with Art Republik in an interview.
What does the ‘Yellow Bird’ in the film title symbolise?
The idea came from my mother. She once said, if you see a yellow bird, it means you will meet someone nice or hear some good news. This came to my mind again when I was writing the script. I felt it represented the story I was telling.
How did the idea for the film come about?
I was reading ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus about a man who is drawn into a murder and later sentenced to death. I felt I related to the questions about morality raised in the book, such as what is right and wrong, who is to say whether you are right or wrong or how you live your life. ‘The Stranger’ itself is also influenced by other books like ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘Notes from Underground’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. So one book inspired the other and I felt there were a lot of interesting connections from one writer to the other, which I found compelling.
In light of what I read, I was looking at the context of Singapore and exploring the idea of alienation. As you know, my films have always been about alienation, displacement, the minority, so all these ideas came together in that way and that’s how I started writing the script.
What’s your process in scriptwriting?
I started by writing the story, then I broke it down into different scenes and tried to connect them. I also worked with Jeremy Chua, who was my collaborator in developing the script. We would talk the scenes through and I would share with him what I see in each scene and what I think the different characters would say. Having decided on how the different scenes are set up, he would help write it out in words.
Did you have a full script at the point of time when you started production?
Yes, in fact I had 10 drafts. We needed a script because we were pitching for the grants. With my initial script, we were invited to a pitch at the L’Atelier programme at Cinéfondation with 15 other directors. I presented my script to many people and one of them who read it eventually became my co-producer from France. We also presented our script to Cinema Du Monde, the World Cinema Fund. So again it went through many pairs of eyes.
Your cast is quite a mixed bag, with the leads being a local actor and two very accomplished actresses in their own circles, Huang Lu and Seema Biswas. How did you find them?
For the role of Chen Chen, the prostitute Siva encounters in the film, I needed a professional actress who has acted in films of a more independent nature and I held many auditions. I came across Huang Lu having watched her in films like ‘Blind Massage’ and ‘Blind Mountain’. She is in fact a prominent film actress whom many independent directors like to work with and has been appearing in numerous independent films over the last 10 years. So I just sent her my script and I remember Huang Lu coming back to tell me ‘I am the Yellow Bird’. That was her reply.
As for Seema Biswas, she has always been very selective with her film projects. Her biggest claim to fame was ‘The Bandit Queen‘, directed by Shekhar Kapur in 1994. She has acted in a few Hollywood films and she is also a theatre actress as well. For Seema, she always decides with her heart, and she felt she identified with the story. So she came on board as well.
I heard you made Siva, the lead actor, sleep on the streets to condition him for his role. Could you share more about this little adventure?
Yes, I did ‘put’ him out on the streets for two nights in which he was not allowed to go home. He basically camped at the HDB block where we filmed, sleeping on cardboard. I wanted him to feel comfortable in the role. If he went into the role cold, it would have been difficult.
Also, Siva had a different work process with me from the other cast members. I did not show him the script but only feed it to him in parts. I wanted him to slip into the role without having to plan or anticipate too much and this was also possible because dialogue was minimal in his role. I felt it was important for his characterisation to unfold organically because that’s how life is – we never know what will happen to us in the next hour.
The film’s trailer reveals a considerable portion of the story unfolding in a forest, could you share, without providing spoilers, the significance of this in the film?
For me, the forest space is a metaphor in the film. The first half of the film is rather claustrophobic as it is set in the city area with a highly dense living space. So compared to the first half where everything is concrete and defined, the second half takes place in a more loosely-defined space with water and trees. In the story, Siva is being asked to leave his house by his own mother, so there is a force pushing him away from his natural habitat to somewhere unknown. There is in fact also a scene in which someone from the National Environment Agency comes to shoot the birds out of the trees in a sort of visual parallel to what Siva is experiencing.
I would like to add that the decision to shoot in the forest actually arose out of constraints. It was not supposed to be, but in the end, I felt it turned out better for the film.
What kind of feedback have you received from audiences so far?
Actually, the film has just started to travel in the film festival circuit. After Cannes, it went to the Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea and the Pacific Meridian International Film Festival in Vladivostok, Russia. We have also received invitations to several other film festivals around the world.
I would say I have seen a whole spectrum of reactions to my film. Speaking to people in Cannes, some really liked it while others found it too intense and dark. Some have commented that the film is ‘relentless’ in a way that it grips you and does not let go.
One of the most unforgettable responses I had was from a Japanese lady in Cannes. She came up to me after watching the film and started weeping. She said she identified with Siva’s character because she has also been on this journey trying to find connection with people and she feels very displaced, living in France. The film deals with the search for what is true to you and it spoke to her. I actually sat down with her, not to console her, but to hear her speak her heart out, even though some meaning got lost in her patchy English (she was more fluent in French) and I thought that was a really beautiful moment.
Huang Lu also shared that she cried watching the film because she identified with how her character was fleshed out in the final cut as well as the language of the film. Thankfully, she also commented that the Mandarin spoken in the film was rather authentic!
What do you think are the greatest challenges for filmmaking in Singapore?
For me, my personal challenge has always been in developing a full script. Before this, I have made several short films and directed for television. For television work, there is usually a certain standard style, even though sometimes we try to deliver something a little more out of the box. For my earlier short films, I did not have scripts. It was often a very instinctive process and I could do them relatively quickly.
It is different when it is a feature film, and a debut feature at that. It is certainly a bigger responsibility. The fact that it’s your first, I ended up getting into a bit of a knot for a while, perhaps out of a certain pressure I put on myself. Then I realised it didn’t work for me. I needed time to think about the story. So in the end, it took me three years to hone the script. I wanted to be very sure that this was the story I was going to tell. While the challenges of producing, working with actors and technicalities are always there, this for me was the main challenge – you must be sure about the story you want to tell.
Of course, there were also other challenges and the industry is not mature. But for me, I knew ‘A Yellow Bird’ was meant to be a simple film and I did not intend it to be anything more. It was something very close to my heart and I didn’t want to rush it and treat it like a project. For me filmmaking is always something very personal. I have to be in the right frame of mind and emotional space to do it.
What kind of doors have opened for you since the completion of ‘A Yellow Bird’?
One of the best things that arose from this journey has been knowing my collaborators and having the opportunity to work with them. I would say my meeting with Claire Lajoumard, my producer in France, through the L’Atelier programme at Cinéfondation has been the starting point of many other collaborations. For instance, she introduced me to the sound designer and colourist. When I first met them, I just knew they were the right people to work with. They were not just interested in the technicalities of making the film. They were really interested in the core of the story, the emotions and the characters. Even in post-production, I enjoyed the work process thoroughly as no one treated it like a job. I made so many good friends and I am still in touch with them.
In Singapore, I am also fortunate to have met some good collaborators. Upon completing the film, I have been invited by many people to take on more film projects here. So undeniably, I have felt a certain sense of acknowledgement, and I view every opportunity that has come by positively. I mean, you never know when they will come again.
Words by SK Sing
This article was published in Art Republik.