Production Talk with Navin Kumar - director of 'Journey Of A Kavadi Bearer'

Journey Of A Kavadi Bearer won the Best Documentary Award at the National Youth Film Awards (NYFA) this year, and we interview director Navin Kumar about the documentary, about a Taoist medium who participates in the annual Hindu festival Thaipusam.


Michael Lim, a Taoist medium, embarks on the annual Hindu journey of Thaipusam to fulfil his promise to the gods, with the support of his devotees and family. 

How did you chance upon Michael? Or did you seek him out based on the topic you had chosen? 

Initially, my nine page script was written out solely using my imagination. I created the character without anyone to be based upon, and wrote a fake story on Thaipusam, which was supposed to be held in Batu Cave, Malaysia.

My story was chosen by my lecturer for the Documentary module due to the exaggeration of my script, and I was told to execute it. Naturally, I panicked because my story wasn’t real. I was struggling for 2 weeks, looking for Hindu case studies who were willing to go to Batu Cave. I met a few people, but they were unwilling when asked to go to Batu Cave. Within these 2 weeks, the angle of my documentary kept changing, and I asked my lecturer if i could base the story in Singapore instead.

Documentaries in Singapore are very common. I wanted to do a documentary with a different angle, one which has never been done before. I started to look for special cases of Thaipusam, such as the handicapped or a different race practicing Thaipusam.

That was when I came across an online article about Michael, a Taoist medium, who practices Thaipusam. I went to approach him using social media. We agreed to meet for a informal interview. 

Why did you choose Michael, an apparent spiritualist, over a devout Hindu?

As mentioned earlier, I had many story angles for this documentary. I felt that the impact would be stronger if a Taoist medium, who practices Thaipusam, was my case study. Michael is Taoist, and he feels that Taoist culture and Hindu culture are very similar. If he could tell the story and show the right practices of Thaipusam, it would be quite special. 

What were the issues (if any) you ran into when filming? 

Firstly, finding a case study was a major issue, as mentioned above. Scripting the flow of the story was also an issue. During the filming of my documentary, being alert was very important. We had to be fast as we could only film the process once since everything was live. For example, the trance procession, prayers, the Thaipusam event itself, only happened once, and we always had 2 to 3 cameras on stand by so we would not miss any of the moments. We were always called out at random days and timings, even during wee hours, when a trance or any events happened.

There was one Saturday where we had to do an interview after Michael’s trance procession. However, after 4-5 hours of the procession, Michael was exhausted and was not able to say the content and details as discussed before. We had to call off the interview, which led to a delay for our documentary.

There was another incident when we were filming the procession, and in the midst of the trance, Michael turned to the cameraman and told him that the footage would be gone. True enough, all our audio files disappeared. It was a struggle to fix the sound and to replace many shots. Our laptop also kept crashing each time we edited a sequence due to the overwhelming amount of footage we had. 

Was the film made for a school assignment? If yes, how did that constrain the creative process? If not, how would you do better for the documentary, supposing you could? 

The film was made for a school assignment for a module called Documentary project. It definitely did strain the creative process, one of the biggest hindrance, being the time constraint being a requirement. Our film was initially 20 to 30 minutes long, but we had to cut it down to 12 minutes. It meant that we had to cut down almost half the content.

Michael also restricted us from including some of the content and details as it was quite sensitive to the public. That was one of the things that made me change the story angle.

To watch:

Photo credits: Seng Mei Yi
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