The Creative Space Within the Indian Diasporas – What Exactly Is the Tamil Film Industry of Singapore and Malaysia Like?10 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
Singapore and Malaysia are two countries that share a lot more than a border, having been one country (Malaya) previously anyway. Both have similarities in food, demographic and culture – the ultimate cultural melting pot being their biggest similarity where the Chinese, Malays, Indians and their various diasporas make up the chunk of the population.
Having said that, there is a large disparity with the films that come out of Southeast Asia, especially in these parts. Singapore and Malaysia have a large majority of Chinese and Malay films, respectively, some of which are world-class films that have gone on to win international recognition. However, the Tamil films from the region are not anywhere near as accessible and the numbers (or lack thereof) will shock you.
When the British colonised Malaya, they brought large numbers of workers from South India along with them. They worked in rubber plantations and tin mines, while being paid very little. Of course much has happened since then but the roots of the Indians from Singapore and Malaysia is traced back to that time. The majority came from South India (and were Tamils) but there were also a number of North Indians, Sri Lankans and Bengladeshis who came to these shores. While many are now second or third generation Singaporeans/Malaysians, most have families and ties in India.
Where people are, arts and culture thrive naturally. Hence came about the world of Malaysian and Singaporean Indian cinema – more specifically, Tamil films since the diaspora is mostly made out of Tamil people.
In that sense, both countries have a very similar demographic, making for a somewhat similar creative space that have led to many fruitful artistic partnerships throughout the years. After all, the diaspora is strongest in Malaysia and Singapore, which is perhaps the reason why Tamil films are only made in these parts of Southeast Asia.
I found that realisation rather disconcerting. There are Indians scattered throughout Southeast Asia. Yet, films, whether independent or wide-release, mostly come from Malaysia and Singapore.
There are virtually no Tamil films that come out of places like Thailand, Myanmar or Indonesia although there are a substantial number of Indians there. While the diasporas are definitely tiny, I believe that content should cater to everyone. Take for example the obsession the whole world has with Bollywood. Regardless of language or race, everyone loves the colourful and boisterous song and drama that comes with the films. Why not the same for Tamil films?
Now, that is not to say that independent filmmakers don’t exist – they definitely do. From Don Aravind’s Drive series to K. Kavi Nanthan’s Venpa, these short films are award-winning and widely successful. However, independent films are generally made for film festival debuts before they are released to the masses. As such, it would be more telling to focus on wide-release films to have a proper gauge of the creation and reception of the industry.
Tamil Films from Malaysia and Singapore
As Malaysia is bigger in size than Singapore, naturally more films and content comes out of the country. Released in 1969, Ratha Paei was the first Tamil film to be locally produced. After which, Tamil films took a backseat, with the next few films being released from the 1990s onwards. In total, the country has seen less than 100 films in the last 50 odd years.
The best time for Malaysian Tamil cinema has been in the 2010s, with the top ten all-time grossers all coming from that decade. However, in a country where Tamils make up at least ten percent of the entire population, the business made by these films are abysmal. The highest grossing Malaysian Tamil movie is Vedigundu Pasangge released in 2018. The film only made a total of RM 1,330, 218 – the highest by a mile as second-place Maindhan did not even cross the million mark.
Another very noteworthy film from our neighbours is Jagat, touted as amongst the best Tamil movies made there. It is also a hallmark, being the first local Tamil film to be screened in theatres for eight weeks running. Director Shanjhey Kumar Perumal took 10 years to complete this film due to a lack of financial support. His grit paid off with the film sweeping the 28th Malaysian Film Festival winning the Best Director and Best Picture awards. The film then went on to win all major categories in the 2016 Kuala Lumpur Film Critics Awards.
The turmoil that Jagat went through to be completed and released makes my point for me. The film is obviously of top quality, as proven by its slate of awards – but what if it was never made due to financial constraints? What if the director did not tough it out and persevere over 10 years? Malaysian Tamil cinema would have lost, arguably, its largest stride yet – the diaspora would have lost a gem.
In the last decade, the industry put out about five to six films a year on average. What is fascinating about Malaysian Tamil films, however, is their diversity. The creatives do not shy away from genres creating everything from comedy to horror to arthouse films.
They are definitely on an upward trajectory as more opportunities have been presenting themselves from Tamil Nadu. Many big guns in Kollywood actively seek out Malaysian talent whether it is in film or music – the most noteworthy being the late Malaysia Vasudevan. Lovingly knighted with “Malaysia” in his name, the veteran garnered huge success in Kollywood as an actor, singer and director.
Over in Singapore, things aren’t looking that good and even possibly worse. At least the Malaysian Tamil scene is large enough to warrant a Wikipedia page. The same cannot be said about the Singaporean Tamil scene. The scene is so flimsy and scarce that there isn’t even a collated site with accessible information, making commentaries or research very tedious while perpetuating the problem of a lack of awareness.
If my memory serves me right (because the internet isn’t), the first Tamil full-length film made in Singapore was Gurushetram – 24 Hours of Anger. The film was released in 2010 and shown on selected screens. While it went on to make history, it made less than S$100,000 at the box office. A great first step, definitely, but the path seemed to have halted there, for the next film was only made six years later.
Following this abysmal showing, the next Tamil feature film was only released in 2016. A Yellow Bird was director K Rajagopal’s first feature film which paved the way for his Cannes debut. It is also available on Netflix, which is another milestone for the industry as it is the first Singaporean Tamil film to be on a streaming giant. While there are pockets of Mandarin and English in the film, there is a substantial bit of Tamil which allows it a spot in this article. It is a pity that I am so starved for options for this piece that I have to really reach for anything that is a remotely Tamil film.
Unlike the Malaysia industry where there are a variety of themes for the films, Singaporean Tamil films are predominantly dark, with violence and shady pasts being the preferred trope. Perhaps venturing into a variety of themes would allow the films to be more accessible to a larger target audience, which makes for better business.
Intermittently, independent feature films are released with special screenings in selected theatres. One such example is Joe: The Black Assassin, which was released in 2017 and met moderate success. However, this brave attempt showed other filmmakers that while it may not be the easiest thing to do, making an independent Tamil film is possible. Joe: The Black Assassin remains in the minds of many even today, due to its stellar music and its trailblazer status.
Do Singaporeans and Malaysians look abroad for films because there aren’t enough around here? Or is the inverse true? This is a chicken-and-egg scenario that we probably will never get the answers to until more resources and opportunities are presented to the industry itself.
The severe lack of films has little to do with talent – both countries have government-backed television channels that are widely successful. The channels create quality drama series, variety shows and infotainment programmes. Malaysia’s Astro and Singapore’s Vasantham have had many collaborations over the years. Furthermore, the people of Malaysia have been very welcoming when Vasantham artistes cross the border for concerts and the same reception has been extended to them here.
Like many other things, the main problem here seems to be funding and a lack of opportunity. Money makes the world go round and it definitely makes films. Perhaps the way forward would be identifying the potential in marginalised filmmakers and offering them grants to create films, which would in turn generate sales. Perhaps – but what I do know for sure is that what is being done is nowhere near enough.
In 2019, IMDA announced the Southeast Asia co-production grant that saw eight feature films awarded the grant. It aims to encourage filmmakers from around the region to work with each other and create high quality films for the whole world to enjoy. While this is a great step in the right direction, more needs to be done to cater assistance for minority creatives that fall through the cracks.
One such initiative is the SeaShorts Film Festival that looks to showcase Southeast Asian stories. 2020 being its 4th edition, the festival has been a launchpad for directors from around the region to showcase their films. This year’s theme is: Reimagining shortfilms, Reinventing Southeast Asia; very fitting because that is what the creatives in these diasporas have been aiming to do. Gone are the days where local Tamil films are just a sad replica of Kollywood. Now, local films are a representation of the dynamics in a diaspora, as it rightly should be.
Just like SeaShorts, more platforms must be provided for these filmmakers. As long people want to watch films, creatives are spurred on to scratch that itch, which is the very basis of the industry.
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