“One question I often encounter in my own country is, ‘Where are you from?’ The Indian person is at times not recognised as a Singaporean, but as an outsider,” says K. Rajagopal, the director of ‘A Yellow Bird’.
Rajagopal is an Indian-Singaporean who spent his career grappling with a sense of belonging, as a minority growing up in Chinese-dominant Singapore. His questions about identity now has the feature film treatment in ‘A Yellow Bird,’ a story about an ex-con’s bitter homecoming.
The ex-con is Siva, who returns to his flat after eight years in prison to find an unforgiving mother and a missing ex-wife and daughter.
In an uphill battle to right his wrongdoings and locate his family, he meets a kindred spirit, Chen Chen, a young Chinese migrant who’s paying off her family’s debts by working illegally as a prostitute.
The film has received international plaudits, and if Variety magazine lauded it for its “relentless realism”, it will not be an easy watch. Here are our three takeaways on the powerful tale of redemption:
#1 – TWO OUTCASTS YEARNING FOR HOME
As an ex-convict, Siva returns to society and finds himself even more marginalised, left treated like an immigrant in his motherland. Chen Chen, on the other hand, is seen as a second class citizen.
The unlikely pairing of two outsiders emphasises the shared oppression faced by a society that prefers exclusivity over integration. At the same time, Siva and Chen Chen’s yearning for family and home aren’t any different from any Singaporean.
#2 – SET IN AN UNCOMFORTABLE CONVERSATION ABOUT XENOPHOBIA
On 8 December 2013, Singapore witnessed its first civil riot in 40 years. Migrant Indian workers rose in anger after an accident killed one of their own on the streets of Little India.
Many Singaporeans vented their frustration on social media using derogatory terms and making xenophobic remarks to the lower-class Indian migrant population.
Instead of re-evaluating the state in which these migrant workers are living in, the government and media attributed the violence to abuse of alcohol. To solve the problem, an alcoholic ban after 10pm nationwide ensued.
Siva returns to this new reality in ‘A Yellow Bird’, after 8 years. He is a man displaced; a local by birth, but due to his ethnicity, he’s treated like a second-class citizen.
#3 – FINDING A SAFE SPACE IN THE FRINGES
Rajagopal deliberately chose to shoot ‘A Yellow Bird’ in the fringes. The underbelly of the city is where Siva navigates safely after being dislodged from society, and Chen Chen lives and works out of a makeshift camp in the forest.
Does Rajagopal mean to associate freedom with a retreat from the bustling modern city? No. Rather the analogy of his characters finding a home in unusual spaces is made all the more poignant by the parallel of Singapore’s struggle to find new space through land reclamation efforts.
‘A Yellow Bird’ is Rajagopal’s debut feature film, and stars Sivakumar Palakrishnan as “Siva”, and Huang Lu as “Chen Chen”, with Seema Biwas as the mother, Udaya Soundari, Nithiyia Rao and Indra Chandra.
It opens in Singapore cinemas (GV Vivocity, GV Suntec) on 8 December 2016.