Flying high: Star of A Yellow Bird proves local actors can dream big

Flying high: Star of A Yellow Bird proves local actors can dream big
Actor Sivakumar Palakrishnan.
PHOTO: Sivakumar Palakrishnan family

Ever heard of this 15-letter word katsaridaphobia? It means an absolute fear of cockroaches, which makes Sivakumar Palakrishnan freeze on the spot or even break into a cold sweat and can literally turn the sufferer's life into a nightmare.

But despite being revolted, psychologically, by roaches, the 40-year-old actor had to put this secretly behind him when award-winning director K. Rajagopal asked him to spend his weekends living rough on the streets of Little India to explore his leading role in A Yellow Bird, as a former drug-addict convict, abandoned by family and friends after eight years behind bars.

"Yes, I'm afraid of cockroaches," he says with an amicable smirk on his face.

"Getting out of it now after experiencing what it was to be homeless. Rajagopal gave me an experience every actor wants. He needed me to understand what it feels like not to have a home to go back to. You need to know it, at least experience for one day. The movie needed that honesty in performance."

A Yellow Bird, which significantly premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival, follows an ethnic Indian man - or a "black devil" as one of the film's Chinese characters calls him - trying to rebuild his life and family after a spell in prison.

"I made him go out and live and sleep in the streets because he doesn't come from that side of the tracks," recalls Rajagopal.

"It was tough for him but he did it. I wanted a fresh response, for him to feel what it was really like to be homeless. That is why I like him so much as an actor. He's very open and intense."

In his breakthrough major movie role, which received rave reviews from his contemporaries, Siva acted his role as a charmless, sweaty and sombre man whose quick-witted underworld-like temper is always ready to boil over.

He has to grapple with his minority "mama" status and the fractures he created within his family after marrying a Chinese prostitute.

The cast of A Yellow Bird (from left) Seema Biswas, Huang Lu, K Rajagopal, Sivakumar Palakrishnan, and Udaya Soundari. Photo: MDA

From mother (played by Bollywood actress Seema Biswas of Bandit Queen fame) who rejected him and a society that offered no respite, Siva was, in a nutshell, a hopeless street vagabond.

He befriends Chen Chen (played by China actress Huang Lu), a prostitute who connects with him through their shared desperation. He works as a hired mourner in funeral processions to come to terms with a desperate life.

And when Siva discovers a terrible truth, he plunges into a liminal zone between death and redemption.

Simply put, it raises eyebrows of a damned Singapore lifestyle, seldom portrayed on screen.

Sensitive character

R. Ramachandran, Founder-Director of Act 3 Theatrics, says: "Siva lived his character with such subtle sensitivity and I was absorbed into the role in the movie. I had to constantly shake off my personal sense of frustration, desperation, anger and doom."

Rajagopal, who has previously won the Singapore International Film Festival's Special Jury Prize three years in a row, with I Can't Sleep Tonight (1995), The Glare (1996) and Absence (1997), adds: "I have known Siva as an actor for more than 10 years. We have worked in short films and television dramas prior to A Yellow Bird. Siva was my first and only choice for the film. You can say that I wrote this film for him.

"He is an actor who likes to be challenged. He has great mental, emotional and physical stamina. He is always open to suggestions and collaborates with me very well. He totally immerses himself in the role and he is any director's dream."

This Rajagopal feature debut, shot over 25 days, is a co-production between Singapore and France, and is supported by the New Talent Feature Grant of the Media Development Authority of Singapore, as well as the World Cinema Fund of Le Centre National du Cinema et de L'image Animee of France.

The film, which was selectively picked for the Critics' Week section of the world's top film festival, also touches on the "simmering tensions beneath the skin" of Singapore's seemingly harmonious multi-racial melting pot.

Rajagopal insisted that the struggling ex-con Siva overcame his cockroach fears and slept on the kitchen floor with his mother because she rented out the bedroom of her tiny apartment to mainland Chinese migrants.

"This is not unusual," says the director, who was one of eight recipients of the Singapore Film Commission's New Talent Feature Grant (NTFG), which supports promising first or second time feature film-makers with a grant of up to $250,000.

"People rent rooms to foreigners to make money to pay the rent. It is very, very common, particularly among poor Indians. One of the great things about Singapore is that we are given a government-subsidised home."

A Yellow Bird also daringly touched on another taboo subject - inter-racial relationships - throwing Siva together with a young Chinese migrant mother (Huang Lu), who is forced into prostitution.

Siva says: "Rajagopal is just brilliantly natural. This was his first feature film. His passion in telling a story is very spiritual. I'm blessed to work with him and we have worked together in short films and television series, this was also my first feature film with him. I'm very honoured that he gave me the opportunity to be part of his first film. Was I surprised? Yes, of course! In fact that's how I feel about every the project when I'm being shortlisted."

Big occasion

He also praised his co-stars for making him rise to the occasion.

He says: "Acting with Seema (Biswas) is a blessing. I experienced the level of professionalism an actor needs to achieve in his craft. With a Bollywood background, she could've requested for a caravan by snapping her fingers but she sat on the floor with me and displayed utmost respect and humility with everyone.

"Huang Lu's just a beautiful actress with awesome energy. If you are attuned, you can tap on it and it helps your reaction. A bubbly character and humble as well. Udaya (Soundari) is my favourite local actor. She is multi-talented and we have great chemistry. I love to work with her.

"Nithiya (Rao) and I shared one scene in A Yellow Bird. A very important scene and she gave me the amount of energy that was needed for me to react. I would really like to work more with her in the future."

Siva, who has been a full-time actor and director for 15 years, the last three years with Mediacorp as a full-time producer for Channel 5, knows that acting is never a bed of the proverbial roses. But he challenges younger Singaporeans, with acting skills, to take the big shot.

"One of the biggest obstacles an actor faces is the mental challenge of constant rejections, a belief system that was in place that you bought in to and being surrounded by nay-sayers and non-do-ers," he says. "Action cures fear. Indecision, delays on the other hand, feed fear. You should deposit only positive thoughts into your memory."

Think big, he advises

"Big people monopolise listening. Small people monopolise talking. Top leaders spend more time requesting advice than they do in giving it. As a leader, the way you think towards your job determines how those around you think towards their jobs. Look important."

Does it pay to be a professional actor in Singapore, I candidly ask him.

Smiling cautiously, Siva, a father of two teenage girls, replies: "When you work hard and go for your dream, anything, everything pays. Yes, it has been challenging at times. Production companies don't pay you on time, but bills will always arrive on time. Well, I have also looked at those who have somehow managed, succeeded in making a career out of this. It has its ups and downs but you have to just go straight."

He feels blessed to be mentored by Rajagopal, adding: "The company you surround yourself with will surely have an impact on your success. It is up to you to surround yourself with people who uplift you and whose presence calls forth your best. Analyse your crew, filter out the negativity and dedicate time to relationships.

"Rajagopal was like a divine intervention in my life. He got more than the best out of me because we believed in each other.

"Remember: People who tell you that it cannot be done are usually unsuccessful people."

Facing rejection

Facing rejection again and again is just part and parcel of an actor's occupational hazard.

He says: "I have shared this with other actors or newcomers, it's not rejection. To the person who is auditioning you don't see playing the role and that's okay or you failed to impress them at the moment. But it's only through these moments that you will learn to understand and know where you lack in your skills and how to improve them. These rejections only make you better."

Another sensitive question: Can you seriously make a living out of acting in "Singawood" (Singapore version of Hollywood)?

"The numbers vary because you have a lot of them in a multi-racial industry," he replies. "Wages? Seriously, it depends on your popularity. Everyone wants to be on the side whichever 'wood' that is. Bollywood. Kollywood. Tollywood or Hollywood.

"I want to make it big in my own country as well. I want my name to be in the history of Singapore cinema for 50 years to come. If someone tells me they want to try Hollywood, I would say: Go for it, dream big, sky's not the limit. Dreams are limitless."

Having a positive mindset matters a lot, as he says: "Attitudes are mirrors of the mind, they reflect thinking…when our attitude is right, our abilities reach a maximum of effectiveness and good results inevitably follow."

Siva adds: "Always try to have energy; your smile, your handshake, talk and walk. Act alive. Always broadcast good news. No one will ever accomplish anything positive telling bad news."

He describes his dream debut at Cannes in May for the 55th edition of La Semaine de la Critique (International Critics' Week) like a "kid in Disneyland".

Holding his hands over his face, he says: "No words can explain this joy I went through in Cannes. I was like a kid in Disneyland, that's the best explanation of my feeling I can share as a Singapore rookie with some of the biggest names in world acting.

Lessons at Cannes

"I wasn't intimidated but I was excited about knowing that George Clooney and Julia Roberts were there and I'm walking down the same red carpet as them though it was on different days. I also realised that (actress) Zoe Zaldana was standing right behind me on the red carpet."

Another quick fiery question: The most defining lesson you learnt at Cannes?

"Nothing is impossible but break the impossible to I'm-possible!," he answers instantly.

Sivakumar (middle row, left) with Daisy Rani of HuM Theatre (foreground).Photo: Sivakumar Palakrishnan Family

Actress-director Daisy Irani, the co-founder of local theatre group HuM Theatre, says of Siva: "I've watched him over the years. He's grown tremendously as an actor. I would say his strength is versatility. Give him a role, whether in comedy or drama, old or young, he bites into it and does a splendid job."

Siva's best advice for budding actors: "Share and never be afraid to share your knowledge. Enjoy what you do and be humble at all times. Never let fame take over. Be grounded at all times."

His bottom-line message is simply, like a yellow bird, to boldly fly to the highest heights, without fear or favour. Just as he's overcoming his fear for cockroaches, he believes the younger actor-generation must continue to be "honest in performance".

Just as Siva showed in his first major feature film the importance of "personal honesty".

He adds: "I want to be an actor because I have the luxury of experiencing what it feels to be someone else. A Yellow Bird has nothing to do with my personal life. I always try and make myself fit the role that I have been tasked with."

Quick Siva quotes

When did you start acting?

I always wanted to be an actor ever since I started watching movies at a young age. I was 10 and I told myself I would be an actor or director. I used to draw out my characters and finish up by drawing out my poster.

Biggest acting breaks?

For television, Red Thread (2009), Lifeline (2008) and First Class (2008). First movie in India was Naalai (Tomorrow). First Tamil movie in Singapore was Gurushetram and then came A Yellow Bird.

Favourite local actors?

I can't do ranking but I do have some personal favourites: Sunny Pang, Gunaseelan, Pannir Selvam, Matstura, Fir Rahman and Udaya Soundari.

Any acting awards?

The 2014 Pradhana Vizha was my first award from Vasantham for Best Actor. I would not judge it whether it's important or not but embrace the acknowledgement with absolute humility.

Biggest heartache for local actors?

Doubt on personal and/or professional ability.

How to keep a level head in acting?

It's just a mirror experience of a choice made. One needs to know the difference between a "need" and a "want".

Fun to be an actor?

Matter of perception, really. It's fun to be an actor and can become stressful the very next day. One needs to know why they want to become an actor and have a goal. Same principle even if you want to be a dentist.

If you could turn the clock, what would you do or want to be?

I wouldn't change anything. I'm really grateful for every single experience in life.

Biggest role-model in life?

My father, Palakrishnan. I don't have reasons and this interview won't be enough to fill up the reasons. He plays inspiring roles as a father, grandfather, husband, brother, uncle, father-in-law, friend and colleague in the utmost respectable way.

Your private family life?

My mother is Anjali. Two younger brothers Nantha and Barani, both are married. My wife, Sonniya, and two wonderful daughters, Ananya and Sai Akshaya. We are a simple family and have dedicated our times mostly to spiritual life. Respecting all religions and races.

How would you want Singaporeans to remember Sivakumar Palakrishnan?


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