The Short Films of Rajagopal - Part 2

Sitting through a retrospective of Raja's short films is like tracing the conscious journey of an obsession. In Absence, the lack of a fatherly figure in the story leads to the young man's adoration of the priest his mum 'frequents'. In Brother, a migrant worker on the run finds solace in the company of his local saviour which develops into an ambiguous state between friendship and hero-worship. In the New World, a fatherly figure becomes a parallel to the New World Amusement Park for a boy, both of which are objects of wonder and inspiration to him. In Lucky Seven, the amorphous lead seems to be stuck a wet dream about a fatherly figure who manifests itself in the form of a mannequin. This is not to forget his earlier films that also had traces of the same fixation.

While the fixation is personal and esoteric, the scenes are situationally very simple and they draw upon very fundamental human reactions and needs to play, to explore, to escape and sometimes, just to touch. It is basal and human and yet also intriguing at the same time. Raymond Tan in an earlier post, has dealt with his earlier films. Raja had a long hiatus before he picked up the camera again with the Lucky Seven Project under Sun Koh. Here is where Raja's films have become noticeably fragmented, genre-bending and almost like a showcase of racing thoughts.

Lucky Seven was an omnibus film with 7 segments, each directed by a different director and Raja helmed the second segment. Here, our lead, played by Sunny Pang, seems to have walked into a phantasmal space where the characters in it exist like fragments of strange memories. The segment carries on from an earlier scene (by Sun Koh) in which Sunny was a reading letter left behind by his dad. This cuts to a desert where Sunny struggles up a sand hill bearing the beatings of the sun's rays on his shoulders. He meets 2 random Indian construction workers who are strangely taking a shower out of nowhere and joins them. Against their dark skin tones, the soap suds and water makes a visually arresting contrast. In fact, the rest of the segment follows in the same rein of visual play. Sunny goes on to spot a bridal-gown-wearing mannequin in the distance and it turns out to be a male mannequin, with its chiselled cheek and jaw making a stark visual juxtaposition against the white bodice of the dress. Like an 'inception' sequence, Sunny and the mannequin interact in multiple dimensions. Sunny saves him from drowning in a pool. They dance in a HDB void deck. Sunny stages his funeral. In what seems to be stylised representations of the underlying relationship between Sunny and the mannequin, Raja gives memory a treatment that departs from the usual naturalism.

One particular scene had the audience cracking up a little. Sunny finishes a carnal act with a prostitute and to our surprise, fishes out a wet cucumber that has been used in the act, to preposterous effect. Then, to top it all, he returns it to a refrigerator where there are 50 other cucumbers. I know there were 50, because I was Raja's producer for this piece. In a way, it makes it weird why I am writing a review. I have to emphasize that much of Raja's films is made in the editing suite and in the aftermath of the shoot, which really demonstrates how organic his films are. Back to the cucumber, straddling between obsession and humour, it reminds me of how Raja creates a duality of being very basal and yet very deliberate.

Raja's Lucky Seven foray propelled him back into creating new works and The New World followed shortly after that. Commissioned under the National Museum's Digital Homelands Project, The New World is new ground but unfortunately same soil. While using the memory of the New World amusement park as a focal point, it rests back on the issue of hero-worship on his father. This time, there is more of a logical flow, almost too didactically demarcated. We follow a boy from his days of being taken to the New World by his father for its rides to him as a young teenager going to the New World to discover his puberty. In this coming-of-age journey, The New World exists as a kind of parallel to his father, like a door to his self-discoveries.

I can't decide of this is more documentary or more experimental. For sure, it lacks the audacity of his other more risque films and the narrative grace as well. Using text labels like '8 years later' and other textbook style explanations of New World's developments, its logical structure takes the mystery and aura out of an old icon. Though it features snippets of the more humanly aspects of going to the park like the dad putting his hand over the boy in a dark cinema, its flashes of re-enactment amount to very little in digging out the soul of his memory of the New World. Somehow, the genre-bending use of the stick-figure animation seems to out of sync with the rest of the medium.

What seems to save the film is Jacintha's rendition of 'Moon River'. As Raja claims, Jacintha sang this song in Mandarin for him and he promised to make a film out of it and dedicate it to her. In fact, one scene single-handedly creates an ambience for the film, so enamouring, that it continues to linger on after the film. There is where the dancer gently seduces the young man and plants a kiss on him, causing a bump in the throat and tear in his eye. This is also where Raja's artful and subtle direction creates pockets of magic throughout the film even though the piece does not hold well in its totality.

His latest film, Timeless is a quite a departure from his recent two in that it moves away from the father-son obsession into a more outwardly focussed view of human history. Thankfully, some essential Raja elements still stay like his constant fascination with 'disrobing' the human condition. If there is one motif that threads all his films together, it is that of 'stripping'. Sexual connotations aside (some of which are intendedly so), Raja seeks to uncover his characters at a level is that the most primeval and the most raw, causing them to appear both human and crazy and the same time.

Timeless deals with the repetition of history over time. It strings together 3 incidents which include a murder in in 1875, a slaying incident in 1969 and a man's close encounter with a lady in present time. In each of the episodes, it presents a relationship and casts light on a darker side of human behaviour and motivations when situations put a relationship to test. While this sounds cliche, what distinguishes it from an average film is the juxtaposition and the subtlety of the links that tie all three incidents together. Playing it over a Singapore's approximate historical time-frame, gives it both a national angle above its obvious humanistic angle. While, it demonstrates human frailty and how little it changes over time, to me, it gave a microcosmic sense of our collective emotional reserve as a country. Situations repeat themselves even though the scenes and clothes change. A sense of helplessness and submitting to our sub-conscious behavioural dictations overrides the film.

The film actually puts Raja in a vulnerable spot as it is like a mirror of his personal journey in making films or I dare say, coming to terms with his own family history and obsessions. In this immaculately put-together retrospective, doors to Raja's personal struggle with his identity, his fascinations and his obsessions are cast wide open and we witness how they repeat themselves rampantly from film to film, just like how history repeats itself in Timeless. And delightfully in Timeless, Raja leaves it up to the audience to join the dots between violence and serenity, love and lust, and what's personal and whats objective. We are not sure if Timeless is a closure on his personal journey that spanned more than a decade, but it subtly draws you into a mental conversation with the film, questioning its choices, making the connections and even looking back at his older films with a different mirror.

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