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The Life Interview With K. Rajagopal: Late bloomer takes flight

Self-taught film-maker K. Rajagopal's first full-length feature was picked for the International Critics' Week at the Cannes film festival

He is 51. In film-making terms, K. Rajagopal should be a veteran, releasing box sets of his work, with festivals running retrospectives.

But he has only now made his first full-length film, an achievement that writer-directors normally check off in their 20s or early 30s. Why so late?

"A lot of people ask me this. I'm a late bloomer," says the self-taught film-maker, smiling.

Some might say it has been a worthwhile wait. His debut feature, A Yellow Bird, which he directed and co-wrote with Jeremy Chua, has been noticed.

The story of an ex-convict's struggle to reintegrate was selected for the International Critics' Week at this year's Cannes International Film Festival, one of seven chosen out of more than 1,000 submissions worldwide, in a category for first- and second-time works of film- makers.

I had an aunt who came every Sunday to recreate movies for us kids, by telling us the story, scene by scene. That's how we were entertained. Four to seven in the evening, that was storytelling time. I thank her in the credits of one of my short films. ''

K. RAJAGOPAL on storytelling in his family

The film has yet to get distribution here, but he hopes it will be screened at the Singapore International Film Festival, held at the end of the year.

In a second-floor room in a building in Kelantan Lane, a part of town known for stores selling pumps, pipes and lighting, he chats with The Straits Times.

The office of Akanga Film Asia, producer of A Yellow Bird, is tiny and threadbare, its walls lined with posters of past output, including ones featuring K. Rajagopal as actor or director.

The film-maker mulls over the question of why there is a 20-year gap between his first short film and his first feature.

He puts it down to his personality and how his creative urges found an outlet in acting for theatre and in making short films.

"I'm not an extrovert. I had the desire and curiosity, but I was also happy with the small success of my short films. Maybe if I had gone to film school, my mind would have been open to a different world," he says.

He was born Kesavadas Rajagopal and goes by K. Rajagopal as an artist and is Raja to friends. He is younger than Jack Neo, 56, and the same age as Eric Khoo.

Of the batch of 1990s film- makers, some among them, such as Neo, trained on the job at the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (later Mediacorp). Others took courses overseas, as Khoo did.

If K. Rajagopal had been born later, he might have taken film and media classes at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic or Lasalle College of the Arts. None of these options were open to him, however.

After national service, with A- level certificate in hand, he held down two jobs to help his mother and siblings while acting in plays at night and on weekends.

In school, he loved storytelling competitions. At St Andrew's Junior College, teachers told him he had a good voice and that he should get into acting. That was when he caught the theatre bug.

For the next decade or so, he would go on to work with theatre practitioners such as Kuo Pao Kun, William Teo and Ong Keng Sen, among others.

Acting was his passion and he had his own stories to tell, but he considered making live theatre too lofty a goal, especially after working with masters who had dedicated their lives to the art.

In the mid-1990s, he juggled two jobs and acting.

"I'd have theatre rehearsals from 7 to 10pm, then go to work again at 11pm till 7am," he says.

By day, he was an insurance claims executive. After dark, he was night auditor at a hotel in Little India, a job which included working at the front desk.

At the Singapore International Film Festival, his eyes were opened to short films, from local artists such as Khoo.

He saw the social realist works of Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien and Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Malayalam- language drama Rat-Trap (1981). Their work made the act of film- making seem less daunting, attainable by someone with little experience.

What he saw around the hotel went into his first short film, 1995's I Can't Sleep Tonight, made with friends who donated time and equipment.

"It's about three people, all here illegally, who can't sleep, who can't speak one another's language and how they spend the night together without talking," he says.

That first short won a Special Jury Prize at the Singapore International Film Festival, as did subsequent shorts The Glare (1996) and Absence (1997).

Established artists chipped in, among them film-maker Jasmine Ng, who edited Absence. Then came Brother (1997), a short commissioned by the Singapore Arts Festival, in collaboration with TheatreWorks.

He has parlayed that beginning, when he pulled in favours from friends, to his present career as freelance director. This week, for instance, he is in Australia with comedian and host Kumar, shooting a travelogue for Vasantham.

Perseverance pays off

He was born into a family that loved movies, with talented storytellers in their midst. He was the middle child, with two older sisters and younger twin brothers, in a three-generation family of nine.

"My father was the sole breadwinner. He had to take care of all of us," he says.

He remembers a time when his father, P.M. Rajagopal, took the movie-crazy boy to the cinema, but waited outside while the son watched the film because he could afford only one ticket.

His mother Leela was a mathematics teacher before she married and his father was a warrant officer in the air force. The language spoken at home was Malayalam. "That makes me a minority of a minority," he says.

English was also spoken - he describes his grandfather as a "total Anglophile".

Both father and grandfather worked in the British air force here and his family was offered citizenship in the United Kingdom during the British military withdrawal.

That debate, whether to stay or go, is played out in The Flame, his contribution to last year's 7 Letters film compendium. His family chose to stay, of course, with his father taking up a job with the Singapore forces.

His father died of a heart attack when he was 16. His housewife mother started to give tuition and the family moved from Seletar Air Base to a four-room flat in Ang Mo Kio. After national service, he plunged into work and acting.

K. Rajagopal is single, a fact he attributes to a medical condition, vitiligo. The skin loses its pigment, making it appear blotchy. He has lived with it since his 20s and is the reason he wears a hat, even when he is on stage.

He has faced other challenges. In 2005, he was sentenced to 20 months in prison, for stealing nearly $170,000 from his employer, Plum Blossoms International, an art gallery for which he was general manager.

"I made a mistake. I've learnt from it and want to move on with life. I'd never want to hurt anyone ever again, in any way, and now I want to focus on what I do best, which is to make films."

The 111-minute drama A Yellow Bird, while it features a former prisoner as the lead character, is not autobiographical, he says. He asserts that his experience in prison has shaped his life as an artist, but in a general, indirect way.

In 2007, his career was rebooted, through an invitation to take part in a film anthology, Lucky 7, which featured contributions from Sun Koh, Boo Junfeng, Brian Gothong Tan, Chew Tze Chuan, Ho Tzu Nyen and Tania Sng. These are film-makers much younger than him.

K. Rajagopal was happy to be back in the fraternity of artists.

"They had seen my early work, probably when they were in the polytechnic or film school. They had a new energy and were so easy to work with. Everyone helped one another," he says.

Through this project, he was introduced to Ho's collaborator, producer Fran Borgia, founder of Akanga Film Asia, a man who would go on to shepherd many of the artist's works to completion.

But when Borgia, 36, first floated the idea over coffee in 2011 in a Chinatown cafe, K. Rajagopal recoiled.

"I was scared, very scared. What if I had no story? What if I didn't have the stamina for a feature? I was almost in tears," he says.

Borgia had worked with the actor on stage projects and viewed his short films. A feature was a reasonable next step, Borgia felt.

The Spanish-born, Singapore- based producer says: "He was in his late 40s and had never made a feature. He asked me, 'Are you sure you want to do this?'"

For Borgia, age is never an issue; maturity is. The film-maker had that quality, along with skills learnt on the stage, such as working with actors, he says.

Once the producer cleared up the film-maker's doubts, things moved ahead. Funding fell into place, from France and, in 2012, from the Media Development Authority's New Talent Feature Grant.

In the meantime, Borgia produced the 2011 short Timeless, which the artist wrote and directed.

A Yellow Bird stars Siva Palakrishnan as the ex-prisoner. Indian actress Seema Biswas plays his mother and Chinese actress Huang Lu plays a worker from China staying illegally.

It has taken him longer than most to get to the milestone of first feature, but K. Rajagopal thinks the slow maturation - through theatre, in short films and television projects - has made the pleasure of achievement much sweeter.

"When I got the Cannes selection, I was overwhelmed. This is my first feature and I made the selection. I'm so glad I didn't stop trying. So glad I didn't say no, to all the opportunities presented to me by wonderful people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2016, with the headline 'Late bloomer takes flight'. Print Edition | Subscribe