Tough road from Singapore to Chennai

Abbas Akbar (left) with his wife Jaya Rathakrishnan at a preview of Chennai2Singapore in Singapore last month.
Rajesh Balachandiranand (left) and Gokul Anan.PHOTO: MDA
Abbas Akbar (left) with his wife Jaya Rathakrishnan at a preview of Chennai2Singapore in Singapore last month.
Abbas Akbar (left) with his wife Jaya Rathakrishnan at a preview of Chennai2Singapore in Singapore last month.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Film-maker Abbas Akbar faces a huge challenge trying to get his Tamil-language feature Chennai2Singapore accepted in Chennai

Singaporean film-maker Abbas Akbar struggled to get his debut feature, the Tamil-language feature Chennai2Singapore (PG13, 122 minutes), up on screens in his home country.

Now, he is facing a bigger challenge: to have the romance drama accepted in Chennai, the city that is home to the film factories making hundreds of Tamil movies a year.

Speaking on the telephone to The Straits Times just before the film's opening, Abbas, 34, says that the mood of distributors there is positive.

"Right now, theatres are filling up and we are getting calls from theatres far away from Chennai that want distributors to send the movie to them," he says.

Unlike other made-in-Singapore Tamil-language movies, Abbas' film is aimed at the mainstream rather than the festival or arthouse circuit. It features action, romance, comedy and musical interludes.

A majority of reviewers in India have written positively about it, he says.

Abbas, who started in the industry as a camera assistant and never went to film school, is aware that breaking through in Chennai will be "the mother of all battles", he says.

I was walking around with a DVD that cost $1.4 million and I had $20 in my bank account.

DIRECTOR ABBAS AKBAR on not having the money to fund the release of his movie, Chennai2Singapore, starring Rajesh Balachandiranand and Gokul Anand

"This is the capital of the Tamil film industry. The best of the best is here... they will not hesitate to tell you that your script is s***," says Abbas, who has made shows for Channel 5 and Vasantham.

The Tamil film industry, nicknamed "Kollywood" for the district in Chennai in which many studios are located, is brutal towards newcomers, especially those who come from overseas, he says.

But he thinks that despite his film's lack of obvious bank-ability, such as stars and big special effects, the audience is hungry for fresh, original stories.

"Our edge is the content," he says.

The story of aspiring film-maker Harish (India-based, Singapore-trained actor Gokul Anand), who flies from Chennai to Singapore in search of a wealthy film financier, has no stars. It was also made on a relatively small budget of $1.4 million, with assistance from content creation company mm2 Entertainment, the Infocomm Media Development Authority's New Talent Feature Grant worth $250,000 and private investors.

Much of the funding also came from his production company Comicbook, which was founded on $250,000 raised by the sale of his flat. He has set up an office in Chennai to handle his film and also produce other works.

But even with money in the bank, things were far from smooth. Production on the film collapsed three times - the third time, when 30 per cent of the film had already been filmed, with a different lead actor - but on the fourth try, everything worked, he says.

There was one more hurdle: Finding someone to fund the release of the movie as he had run out of money.

"I was walking around with a DVD that cost $1.4 million and I had $20 in my bank account," he says. But mm2 Entertainment stepped in as an investor because it was "curious about this Singaporean trying to set up an entertainment company in India".

He is married to Jaya Rathakrishnan, head of television production at Comicbook. She also executive-produced and was head writer on a Mediacorp drama about breast cancer, BRA, broadcast on Channel 5 two months ago. They have no children.

"She's extremely patient. For six years, she was the backbone of this venture," he says. •Chennai2Singapore is screening at Rex Cinemas. For bookings and schedule, go to www.rexcinemas.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2017, with the headline 'Tough road from Singapore to Chennai'. Print Edition | Subscribe