Recently, a course on dissent and resistance that was to be conducted by poet and playwright Alfian Bin Sa’at in NUS-Yale was dropped by the university. Sa’at had not been fully aware of the consequences that students could be going against the laws and risk arrest in pursuing the course curriculum.
The decision said the Yale President,Professor Peter Salovey, was made “internally and without government interference”.
In an earlier report, Professor Salovey had said: “In founding and working with our Singaporean colleagues on Yale-NUS, Yale has insisted on the values of academic freedom and open inquiry, which have been central to the college and have inspired outstanding work by faculty, students, and staff: Yale-NUS has become a model of innovation in liberal arts education in Asia.”
That sounds exclusive and enticing… made one feel like a star. But it was just a start — a start to showcase what a small group of talented individuals can do.
The idea for the fourteen-and-a-half-minute film brewed over a cup of coffee where writer Tanuj Khosla shared his story with actress Renita Kapoor. Kapoor said she always wanted to play a dark character and the story offered that.
Set in an indeterminate interior, in this case Kapoor’s house in Singapore, the film mapped the life of a stand-up comedian couple in India (and there is no way to figure out where the locale is if it is all within a room). We know the country because the dialogues mention the fact that the husband is a top comedian in India. The movie is mainly conversation between the couple — in a mix of colloquial Hindi with a smattering of English — the way any person would in a well-to do Hindi speaking Indian home.
The story takes a strange twist.
The wife is Kapoor. And the husband? The husband is no less than actor Shishir Sharma, a well-known actor on stage, television and Bollywood in India.
For fifteen minutes, no one spoke. No one moved. And all eyes were glued to the screen that told a gripping tale with a strange twist at the end.
Zafar Anjum, the founder of Kitaab and Filmwallas made his grand debut as a director of this film – The Sacrifice. Why would Zafar Anjum — a writer with a number of books under his belt and some published by Penguin — move to direction and filmmaking?
He is a well-known figure on television. He is a prominent actor in films… a good friend to famed actor Nasseruddin Shah and actress Ratna Pathak. He is kind to young filmmakers who start their career and does short films for them as he recently did in Singapore. He starred in Kitaab and Filmwalla founder Zafar Anjum’s first short film that has been shown to the public — a fourteen-and-a-half-minute movie called The Sacrifice with a talented actress from Singapore, Renita Kapoor.
And yet this man has a secret, a small office in Mumbai where he spends time by himself and writes. Meet Shishir Sharma, the character actor who can be seen on stage in theatre, on the silver screen, both in Indian television and cinema.
And what does the actor write?
You would think… it would be something for the screen or maybe about his life. But no, he writes about his parents and his father’s past. For spoilers, the story starts as a romantic one. Picture this: 1951 — in sepia tone — A young man in his early twenties goes off to get milk as does a fifteen-year-old girl. This would be a common thing but, wait, the story does not end there. The two meet and they travel in the opposite direction from their home on train to spend time with each other unbeknown to their families and, a few years later, they are married, and they have their first child — Shishir Sharma.
Talking to Shishir Sharma was not just a privilege but like a walk through the annals of Indian theatre and film history. His parents were involved with theatre and films, including the Leftists IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association founded in 1943 to bring cultural awakening among Indians during the independence struggle). Though his father earned a living through his small business, the interest in theatre and films stayed. He was even part of the production unit of NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) when the legendary film Garam Hawa was filmed in 1970s, says Sharma. Based on an unpublished story by the noted Urdu writer, Ismat Chugtai, this award-winning film gives a poignant telling on the impact of the 1947 Partition.
Living in Mumbai moving around with friends Naseeruddin and Ratna Pathak, Sharma was cajoled into theatre in 1974 by a person no less than Satyadev Dubey, an Indian theatre director, actor, playwright, screen writer and director and winner of numerous national awards ultimately crowned by the fourth highest civilian honour in India, Padma Bhushan. He had trained outstanding actors like Amrish Puri, Amol Palekar and, later, Nasseruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak and Neena Kulkarni, says Sharma. He was picked together with Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak. He tells a story of how Dubey came into Pathak’s house and found the three friends having a meal. He asked them to join his group. Sharma refused initially but eventually gave in.
From theatre he moved to television in 1993 with Swabhiman that came after Buniyad, both popular television serials in the early days of soaps in India. They were very well paid in those days, says Sharma.
Satyam, his first film was in Telugu. That came after some more years. Sharma started acting in a number of Telugu movies. And he actually has a Telugu tutor coming in to teach him the language. “All the characters I play are not really Telugu. They don’t want the pukka (pure) Telugu accent.”
Raazi… courtesy Democracy News Live
Then came more films, this time in Hindi; among them, the national award-winning films, Uri and Raazi, and short films, like Roganjosh, where he and Naseeruddin Shah, were back together. Roganjosh, written and directed by Sanjeev Vig, won the Best Filmfare Award in the category of short films and is an emotional telling of how the terrorist bomb blast of Bombay Taj in 2007 destroyed the lives of everyday men and women. He was picked for this movie, Sharma says, because of his forty-four-year-old friendship with Naseeruddin Shah. Their mutual camaraderie was an asset to the film.
I closed my eyes for a minute, exhausted. The train huffed into Eunos. We had five more stops to reach our destination. I opened my eyes to some unknown fear and confusion. My hand felt empty. Had I missed my handbag?
“Vikas!” my inner voice said.
“Vikas! Where is Vikas?” I screamed.
My husband raised his head from his mobile in confusion.
As the train doors closed, I could catch a glimpse of Vikas running in the platform, his little head bobbing up and down.
I stood near the train doors, shaking; my body soaked despite the chill.
I vaguely heard a woman assuring me that my child would be found soon. As soon as we got down in the next stop, we hurried over to the passenger service center. My husband calmly reported the particulars of our child.
“How old is your son?”
“He knows his name and address, of course?”
“He knows nothing. He has the Down syndrome.” replied my husband, looking at me, irritably, as if it was my fault.
It was evident from the guy’s expression that they did not come across missing cases frequently.
He seemed sure that Vikas would be found. The authorities concerned had been notified.
We sat in the platform, waiting, as the trains rolled across, spilling out a few passengers and taking in a lot of them.
The Reluctant Editor has a forward by the prominent Singaporean lawyer and diplomat, Professor Tommy Koh, which tells us that the author, P N Balji “is one of Singapore’s veteran newspaper journalists and editors, and a very good one”. The narrative is not just an account of the Singapore media seen through the eyes of a veteran journalist as stated obviously on the book cover, but also a quick sketch of a man who is introverted and self-effacing.
We do not find the author talk much of himself or his work, but he does give an extensive report on the media history from the early 1970s to the early 2000s in Singapore, including episodes like the Toh Chin Chye case, where a false allegation was made in a newspaper report on an ex-minister of Singapore. PN Balji had been in editorial positions in The Straits Times (ST), The New Paper (TNP) and the founding Editor-in-Chief of Today.
The historic evolution of all the newspapers in Singapore and the government’s involvement in monitoring the media is clearly spelt out — even to the point of deciding what kind of newspapers were necessary for communicating with people. Described as a “brash” newspaper, The New Paper was started to bridge the gap between those who read and comprehended the one hundred and seventy-one-year-old newspaper, The Straits Times, and the people who don’t understand the ST. The New Paper was started to “speak the language of blue-collar workers”. A tabloid and later a morning daily, it needed a set of different writing skills as Professor Koh tells us in the foreword. His article in simple English had to be rewritten by the editor to make it comprehensible for the readers of TNP.
The vivacious author of the Mahabharat– based Aryavarta Chronicles, a Singapore-based writer and an academic, Krishna Udayasankar, talks to Zafar Anjum about her journey as a writer and the future she sees for herself…
About: Set in different cities around the world, Elaine Chiew’s award-winning stories travel into the heart of the Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese diasporas to explore the lives of those torn between cultures and juggling divided selves. In the title story, four writers find their cultural bonds of friendship tested when a handsome young Asian writer joins their group. In other stories, a brother searches for his sister forced to serve as a comfort woman during World War Two; three Singaporean sisters run a French gourmet restaurant in New York; a woman raps about being a Tiger Mother in Belgravia; and a filmmaker struggles to document the lives of samsui women—Singapore’s thrifty, hardworking construction workers.
About: An English Writer is a story about a forgotten English poet/writer, C.J Richards (retired I.C.S) who lived and worked in Burma for over 35 years as an Indian Civil Servant. He retired in 1947 and settled in Swarraton, Hampshire in UK. Although he wrote seven books and many articles on Burma and UK, not many people know much of him and his life. The novel “An English Writer” explores the life of the English writer and defines his connection with both communities, Burma (Myanmar) and Britain as a poet and writer. The story, set in present Yangon, transports people back into the times of the English writer, C. J Richards, from 1920 to 1947 and then to 1976.
The traffic on the Amity Causeway linking Singapore and Malaysia was especially heavy for a Thursday, which put Dennis Quek even more on edge. He took a deep breath as he approached the first entry point station, hoping that he could swallow any obvious distress signs that the inspection machine might detect.
Finally, Dennis reached the front of a long queue. His car was pulled automatically into the right spot before the inspection machine. The hazy blue light filled the whole car, followed by the voice of the machine. “One person in vehicle. A driver, no passengers.”
Dennis nodded. He then turned his head to the right, ready for the facial identification. This time it was the warm, lemony light that filled the front of the inspection machine. Dennis squeezed out an awkward smile, thinking this was best for the situation. The smile was starting to get uncomfortable when the machine finally announced the identification.
Media personnel in Singapore have new openings. The Story Lab Apprenticeship has launched coursesto provide young professionals structured training and opportunities. They can then get jobs in producing, writing, digital marketing and content creation after going through the courses. The applications for the programme ends on 29 th September.
These initiatives were announced by the Minister for Communications and Information, Mr S Iswaran, at the LASALLE College of the Arts 33rd Convocation Ceremony in Singapore.
Elaine Chiew is a writer and a visual arts researcher, editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015) and her short story collection The Heartsick Diaspora is forthcoming from Penguin Random House SEA (Oct 2019) and Myriad Editions UK (Jan 2020). Twice winner of the Bridport Short Story Competition, she has published numerous stories in anthologies in the UK, US and Singapore. Originally from Malaysia, Chiew graduated from Stanford Law School and worked as a corporate securities lawyer in New York and Hong Kong before studying for an MA in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts Singapore, a degree conferred by Goldsmiths, University of London. Elaine lives in Singapore and blogs about art at www.invisibleflaneuse.blogspot.com. In this interview, she reveals more about her new book and her ideas.
Why do you write?
Very simply, I can’t not write, call it word-constipation or what Danish short story writer Naja Marie Aidt calls ‘an urge that cannot be overlooked’ or a ‘point of desire’. A character or voice arrives out of the blue, takes hold of you as in a waking dream, make me real, it says, and you do.