Entering the Cannes Film Festival with his very first feature film may sound like beginner’s luck, until you consider how long K Rajagopal has been working on his craft.
BY JO TAN
Published on 26 January 2017
BY JO TAN
Film-maker K Rajagopal is good at getting things right on the first try. His very first feature film, A Yellow Bird (which he wrote and directed), was chosen as a contender for the International Critics’ Week and the Camera d’Or award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. His first short film I Can’t Sleep Tonight won the Singapore International Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize in 1995.
What’s less apparent is how these first tries came after really taking time to understand the craft: A Yellow Bird was only made after 20 years of writing and directing experience. “Before, I was not sure if I could make a feature film, I did not have the resources and the confidence,” he says simply.
Rajagopal also only made his first short film after taking a lengthy, less-than-conventional route. “I never went to film school as there were none at the time, but since young, I used to save my pocket money to watch films, and so the film-makers that I admired were my teachers. I always loved the cinema — I had all these stories in my head to tell but never had an opportunity.” He found a temporary outlet in theatre acting, which he pursued for 10 years under the legendary likes of William Teo, Kuo Pao Kun and Krishen Jit, until deciding that film-making would offer him greater control over the stories he told.
“Being an actor taught me a great deal about approaching scripts in a particular way, and when I finally managed to make a short film (even just) with $400, a borrowed camera and a cast of friends and non-professional actors, what I learnt came in useful.”
“Useful” is an understatement — Rajagopal’s nuanced sensibilities, plus ceaseless learning on the job, saw his quickly developing work continuously receiving accolades. He won two other Special Jury Prizes, got invited to various international festivals, and also contributed to celebrated short film collections such as Lucky 7 and 7 Letters.
But while his films got increasingly polished, certain themes remained. The idea of searching for belonging began with I Can’t Sleep Tonight, where a Sri Lankan illegal worker, an Indian prostitute and a German drug-addict backpacker scrabble for some sort of connection, and continues with A Yellow Bird, where an ex-convict and a foreign sex worker are forced to re-evaluate concepts of home and family.
Explains Rajagopal, “Asked many times if I was a foreigner by fellow Singaporeans, I started questioning my own identity. What does it mean to be a stranger or outsider in Singapore?”