K. Rajagopal: "We can't take anything for granted; we need to keep pushing."

It would not be a stretch to call K. Rajagopal, the self-taught veteran of the Singapore film scene, a man of paradoxes. 

From making his debut feature at an age when fellow veterans get to sit back to plan their retrospectives and blu-ray boxsets, to the raw, unfiltered, and sometimes brutal intensity he displays for the moving image that could give younger filmmakers a run for their money, K. Rajagopal (’Raja’ to friends!) is the best form of anachrony one can get. 

Taking a moment of breather out of the making of 'Lizard on the Wall,' his spanking new feature commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts, Raja sits down with us for a quick chat on where he is and how he got here. 

You have mentioned your theatrical background before, would you mind elaborating on how you started, and how you got into film? 

I won't claim to be a great actor; I don't think I ever realised my full potential, but I do think that discovering theatre was the best thing that happened to me. If I never took that first step to go and audition for William Teo, and if I did not get that part, I don't think I would be making films today. I don't think I would have this with me today. The interest was triggered a long time ago, because I loved literature and theatre, and I did it in school. I had one good review from my production of 'Pygmalion' and my drama teacher told me that I have something special, and that theatre is something I should pursue and would do good in. 

It is still a point of pride for me to have forayed into English theatre, and met and worked with some of the greatest directors in theatre of the time. I have worked quite a bit with William Teo, Ong Keng Sen, and Kuo Pao Kun—I did his workshop and a play—I had a lot of opportunities, and I worked with every experimental theatre groups at the time. I also worked with a whole body of directors who came from abroad like Arifin Noer, Krishen Jit, and Nonon Padilla, etc. 

I felt that these great opportunities were my best learning ground, and though I did not get the big parts—I was either the ensemble or supporting roles—most of the time, I think that doing these works were very enriching. All my contemporaries are doing well: Swee Lin, Kheng Hua, Ivan Heng, Kay Siu, Meng Choo, Claire Wong...all of that generation are still here, doing theatre. 

It is great and all, and I was so proud that I did all of that, but I left because I felt that I wasn't going anywhere. Above all, things changed: in the late Nineties, the schools were coming up, and a lot of the contemporaries I named went full-time. They gave up their day jobs and started doing theatre full-time, so all the rehearsals processes were now in daytime, not at night as they were before. 

I couldn't give up my job at that time, so I decided that I had to stop. It didn't suit my schedule and I thought that I have to find something else; I have done this all, but something was missing. All these have made me want to find a way to express myself; and after ten years of theatre, I realised that I wanted to do film. 

I had zero knowledge in filmmaking, absolutely zilch, and I have never even handled a camera before. What I had was this sense of working with actors from my working and learning from all these directors, and the understanding that the story is the most important thing. You must have a good story, then you can tell it anywhere. In theatre, we used to do Poor Man's theatre where you don't need props or anything at all to do the play. 

I had all these stories in my head and I wrote them all down one night, and one of them became my first film. Later on, I got my friend, Rose who worked in MediaCorp, to help me and we shot my first film. 

If it wasn't for Singapore International Film Festival, and the award I won, I might have also stopped where I was. I wasn't young when I made my first short film—I was thirty—so it was like a rejuvenation of sort, a second wind. An actor likes his glories, you know? I realised that I wanted to be someone who didn't care about that—I wanted to make good works, I wanted to tell stories, and so I became a director. 

For my first few works, I did everything myself, produce, casting, all that. I didn't have anyone professional to help me; I relied on friends—that's why everyone who acted in my early works were non-actors. 

Then, Keng Sen invited me to do a film for his work in the Singapore Arts Festival and now it's been twenty years and Keng Sen has commissioned me to do something for SIFA. It is a real honour, because we have been onstage together before, and he is the best. I owe it to him when it comes to working with actors. All these people I used to watch on stage, I worked with, and now, even as I did film, I am also doing something with theatre. 

It is this whole journey with theatre, if you ask me about it. It has helped me in so many ways, and theatre is still something very special to me. I would say that I matured because of it. 

What was your early life like? What were the triggers to that first step? 

As a young person, I was someone who was very disciplined. I was the type who would go back home and finish my homework; I had a system, I was very much to myself, and everything I did I needed to be at the top, whether it was being a scout—during job week I must have the highest collection, I must sell the most number of donation draw tickets—or tending to the flowerbeds at school. 

My siblings were all athletes, and they used to come home with medals, while I came back with a medal for Best Gardener in school. I was very proud because I looked after this flowerbed for the longest time, and they gave me an award for it. When I joined the gardening society, a lot of people made fun of me, but there was something in it that I connected with. My family did laugh at me about winning that prize, and I think that was when I grew a bit sensitive. 

I used to save money from part-time work during holidays to spend it on my family; I took my siblings out to the movies and made sure that every birthday in the family, I would be the one to buy the cake. I would save my money in this plastic orange that I won from a singing competition; I got it when I was five or six, and I couldn't sing to save my life, but I did perform a rhyme, and I won this orange with sweets inside. 

I think my father’s passing had something to do with my affinity for theatre. He died when we were very young and he went suddenly, so the whole family was shaken. I couldn't deal with my mother's emotion because my parents were very much in love, and she couldn't really take it, but she had to look after us, all five of us. 

I struggled with my loss emotionally for the longest time, through college, and I think theatre helped me understand death and whatever it was that I was going through better, because it helps you through all these different roles and circumstances. 

I became less disciplined, a little haywire, a bit lost, after his death, but I think the entire idea of theatre brought back my discipline. There were no two ways about it; you had to do it properly. Sometimes, I still am the boy with the best gardening plot, I think I would always have that inside me. And twenty-two years later from my debut work, I still feel as though I am making my first film every time I make a film. 

I would feel nervous, as if I don't know shit, and my mind would go blank; but after I have my first shot, something will happen and I will just get going. For any project from the past till now, I still get the jitters each time. 

From that point onwards, how did you progress? 

I was actually a commerce student that almost couldn’t make it; I had to leave because I failed. It was the year my father died; it was a bad year for me. I didn't do my exams; I went to Sentosa and sat on the beach. I was very disturbed and I just couldn't do it. So naturally, I failed. The school administration wanted to throw me out but my GP teacher, Ms. Moliah bte Hashim, thought that I could do it, and she went to the principal to ask to let me repeat and let me be in the Arts. She said that she would take me under her wings and make sure I do well, and I did. 

After I started work, there were still some issues at home, and I decided to moonlight. I had a main job in the day, while at night I had this job at a motel, four times a week. I wanted something less demanding; it was a motel, it wasn't so formal. I didn't have to standup the whole night, and I could still relax a little bit. I didn't have to dress up. 

I was not even thirty then; I was twenty-six and I actually had that job before I got my main job. I was in between jobs, and I went away to travel. I did a freelance job, took the money, and went to backpack in India, from the South all the way to Nepal. I already have the motel job by that time. It helped me quite a bit actually with my identity, because there were a lot of foreigners—an influx of migrant workers and illegal people—and mixing with all these people from abroad, helped me deal with it. 

Earlier on, I was very much in denial, I didn't want to be Indian, I felt very close to my Chinese friends; I don't want to say that I was pandering to the majority, but my friends were all Chinese, and I kind of didn't want to say that I am Indian. I had a complex since childhood, when people would say that I am smelly and weird for putting oil in my hair. I didn't want to do those things anymore because I didn't want to be made fun of, and I was afraid of speaking the language because I was afraid my friends would make fun of it too. 

I never used to address these; people thought I was a foreigner. And after I returned from my trip, I am just so proud of my culture, my heritage. I learnt all about what is under the skin, and it really helped. 

I just kept on doing it and then it got to me, because I had skin issues after that, due to the lack of sleep probably. Then, I started making films, and after that, I took a ten-year hiatus. I realised that I didn't have money to make a feature, and I have spent a lot of my own money on my shorts and it didn't seem like it was going anywhere, no one was looking for me. So, I stopped. I didn't know what to do. 

There was no Singapore Film Commission or Infocomm Media Development Authority at that time. I decided that nothing is working for now and went back to my other life. Then in 2007, Lucky 7 happened. During my hiatus, I didn't shoot anything except a telemovie I did for Vasantham and something for OKTO. 

It was only after I did the Lucky 7 project that I got commissioned. I did something very experimental there, something very different from what I used to do, and then the museum commissioned me to do some work. After that, I had a retrospective. 

I had two films commissioned, I had a retrospective, then I got an honorary award from the Substation. I thought that was it, people are recognizing me as a veteran short filmmaker, I thought this was where I should stop. They have given me a pat on the shoulder, well done, moving on. 

I never thought I would do a feature; then, I met Fran Borgia, my producer, at a play, King Lear, and we went to Belgium to perform it. I had met the other director, Ho Tzu Nyen, during Lucky 7 and he had asked me whether I'd like to do it, and I agreed. After that, I got a nomination for King Lear from Life Theatre Awards, and I met and worked with all my friends again. 

Kheng Hua asked me to act, so did Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan from Spell#7, and it was hard because I had all these TV jobs. I was also teaching for four years—I taught in a special needs school for four years after my hiatus, from 2006 to 2009. Then my friends asked me whether I was interested in doing documentaries, and I started doing freelance TV. I couldn't commit to theatre because I was traveling—some jobs were overseas—and I thought I shouldn't dabble and waste people's time. I did some good plays: I did two with Spell#7, the Epic Poem of Malaya and Dream Home, which was also part of Singapore Arts Festival. 

There was this second inning to theatre. Then, I managed to do a feature; it went to Cannes, and now I am doing this. There are no complaints. Life is good. I am very lucky. 

Was there a lot of soul-searching during those ten years? 

Yes. I kept away, and did my own things. I was very much a loner. I had a lot of friends who were Indians, especially foreigners, I ran into them after I was with the theatre people a long time. I was very attracted to this migrant theme at that time, which is probably why my films all have that kind of atmosphere about them. 

I think it is very much because I am an outsider myself too. I think that was why I identified with them, I felt like an outcast, to put it very strongly. I won't be overdramatic about it, but I felt at home with them, and I was very much working on that kind of stories. 

I was very happy in that way, being a part of a group that was very different from what I knew before, non-Singaporeans and all. I think it helped me have a better idea of who I am and what I want to be. Coming back to do things, my mind grew differently, it matured differently. You are at peace, you have settled down. Furthermore, I was already forty-five. 

Now, I want to do different things. I have always maintained that my protagonists have to be Indian; I feel that I should tell the story through the best...all that. But you never know, I might go on to do something completely different. 

Going on about this theme of isolation and alienation, was it always a conscious decision? Did your theatrical experiences shape your cinematic sensibilities? 

I think it is a subconscious thing for me. The associations came later on. You are naturally attracted to what you are thinking about because your mind would force you to go into a certain direction, so the stories you want to tell will naturally relate to what you are interested in or what you are attracted to. 

It is not like I am an activist or anything like that; I am not deliberately making a statement or forcing a meaning on something. For me, it is subtler, having this impulse of wanting to tell a story about an outsider. A lot of it has got to do with my feelings at that point in time. 

My back theatre definitely helped me with my filmmaking, especially with how I deal with actors. I am never very technical, but now, over the years, I know things. I know what I want. I can block. As I am a very visceral person, a lot of things didn't come from words, but from my visual ideas that I put together into a story. Then, I would think about dialogue, which is why my films don't really have a lot of dialogue. 

Why did you choose to go from being an actor to being a theatre? Why did you not think of just changing the medium you were acting in? 

I didn't feel all that good about acting, to be honest. In acting, you are still dependent on a higher power to mold you; and I think I wanted to do that myself. I would have gone into theatre directing but I didn't dare because everyone was there, and they are all so good at it. 

Everyone who taught me everything were there and I really didn't dare to make a fool of myself in front of them, so I went to something niche and not a lot of people did at that time. I think I found my grounding there in film. Back then, there were only Eric, Kelvin, Jasmine. 

I wanted to be a director because, I want to be in control of myself and everything. I didn't have the confidence to do theatre directing or my own plays or cast myself. I did think of monologues, the imagination is there and the writings followed, but I thought film was easier because it is not live, you can do it at your own convenience because the audience is not really there. 

You don't actually see the audience when you are doing your work; they come much later after you are done, and most of the time you won't know them. You get to be your own audience and your own director. I guess that was why I chose what I chose. There was no way for me to say that I want to direct a play, not when Keng Sen, Pao Kun, and William Teo were there. 

Would you say that doing films also allow you a more tangible sense of control over this translation of visceral feelings into an output? 

I think that is what it is. I don't know whether it is control control, that is the thing that drives me, but definitely I want to tell my stories my own way. There are collaborations on set, true, but ultimately, the story is mine. 

What is your identity as a filmmaker like? Do you feel that the nature of being a director has changed now? 

My identity as a filmmaker was to make the film for myself first. Before I ask anyone else how they think, I have to understand what I want and where I am and where I want to go from there. I am not someone who would tackle an issue directly on its head; I want to portray the ways that society impacts individuals. 

There are a lot of issues that any modern society would face, issues that affect us all, and how do you go about telling those stories? Do you scream it down someone's throat? No. 

So, my perspectives come from me and how an issue might impact me—my short in 7 Letters was really my parents' story; A Yellow Bird had parts rooted in the things I have heard and seen. The films I made were all real in some sense. I am not really political with my works, but they are there if you want to see them. I don't believe in being overt: I look for human stories, because they would definitely have these issue embedded in them. We deal with them everyday, after all. 

As for what it takes to be a film director, I would say things definitely got easier. There were no authority or grants before, everything came out of your own pocket; and there was nowhere to learn except on the job. The schools have barely been set up and there were next to no filmmakers. Nowadays, there are producing courses and directing courses and all sorts of things, and students could rely on this network and each other to make films. 

When I started, I did everything myself; now, I have producers, and I am very thankful for them. They take care for me, and they are supportive. It is much better for me now than before. Now, there is proper representation and proper ways of going about things. My practices have always been results of the circumstances: there were no money or crew or whatever. Maybe it is good, because then I am always responding to whatever is out there, but it is hard. 

It was good for me that A Yellow Bird got its grounding in a foreign land, and I got to talk to talented craftsmen such as sound designers and colourists. These interactions encourage you not to stop; I don't know when my next film is coming out but I am more hopeful for it now. It is important to get recognition for something that you do, it helps you to go on to do more work. We can't take anything for granted; we need to keep pushing. 

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