An ageing gangster, who championed the rights of his people – the Tamil underclass in Malaysian plantations – and was imprisoned under false charges, emerged after 25 years. He sported a grey stubble that went superbly well with the shades of his defiant three-piece suits and broke into a jig as his comrades celebrated his return with a Tamil hip hop number. “Tamil race and its identity now will become real…,” the song said in the middle. Sometime later the gangster created a huge ruckus when a Hindu temple was about to be demolished and demanded for Malaysia’s Tamil labourers the same wage as the local Chinese. The message of Tamil ethnic pride was not to be missed in the blockbuster movie Kabali. But many of the Indian diaspora in Malaysia and Singapore said that they did not relate to the righteous Tamil versus villainous Chinese story.
Malaysia’s bad Chinese – far from reality
In both countries the term ‘Indian’ loosely refers to the people from the subcontinent, including those of present day Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The majority of the local Indian population are ethnic Tamil.
As of June 2015 the population of Singapore stood at 3.38 million, while that of Malaysia was 31.7 million in 2016. Singapore became a part of the Malaysian Federation in 1963 but separated in 1965 to become an independent sovereign nation.
Most families of the Indian diaspora migrated to the region from today’s Tamil Nadu and southern parts of the Indian subcontinent generations back as labourers of a colonial economy, much like the righteous gangster of Kabali.
But the film’s message of the persecution of the overseas Tamils had little resonance with the lives of the diaspora.
“We are great fans of Rajini sir but we do not relate to the film. This is not a Malaysian story,” said M.K. Muralee, a Kuala Lumpur-based movie producer and member of the Malaysian Indian Film Producers Association, who was also part of Kabali’s Malaysian crew.
The majority of Malaysian Indians are poor or very poor, says Karmveer Singh, who was a doctoral candidate in Southeast Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Many of Malaysia’s Indian workers were displaced after plantations, where they were traditionally engaged as labourers, were acquired for national development in the 1980s.
But the discontent of Malaysian Indians is directed primarily at the majority Malays rather than the ethnic Chinese, who comprise 23% of Malaysia’s population and are also a minority in the country.
“In Malaysia, the Indians and the Chinese are not pitted against each other unlike what they show in the film. We have friendly relations with the Chinese,” said Muralee of Malaysian Indian Film Producers Association.
Malaysia has national policies of affirmative action that assure the majority Malay population, referred to as the Bumiputras or the sons of the soil, special privilege in securing housing, government jobs, business licenses and education.
In November 2007, the Hindu Rights Action Force, a coalition of NGOs, gathered more than 50,000 minority Indians in the streets of Kuala Lumpur to announce a symbolic lawsuit against the British government, the former colonial ruler, for bringing them to the region as indentured labourers. The emotionally-charged protests were against economic deprivation, the destruction of Hindu temples and the violation of the fundamental rights of Indians, said to be the most persecuted among Malaysia’s three ethnic groups.
“Our previous generations may have connected to some parts of the story such as the Indians earning less than the Chinese. But that does not happen here anymore,” said Muralee.
Malaysia’s race-based politics primarily represents the Malay-Chinese ethnic tension. For instance, when massive rallies, known as Bersih 2.0, were organised in Malaysian cities in 2015 to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who faced a financial scandal, Malay rights groups saw the anti-corruption demonstrations as Chinese-led protests against the leadership of the ruling United Malay National Organisation, an ethnic party that represents the interest of the Malay population.
Race – Singapore’s no-go area
In neighbouring Singapore, where the majority of the population are ethnic Chinese, race remains rather a sensitive and controversial matter.
As Kabali played a couple of days after its massive opening weekend at a theatre in Singapore that primarily screens Tamil movies from India, there was a handful of quiet viewers and the loud cheers, reserved usually for demigod superstar Rajinikanth’s films, remained conspicuously absent.
“Kabali so far had an average response from the viewers,” said a representative of Singapore’s Rex Cinemas, the theatre chain that runs primarily Tamil movies from India. “We had 9,000 viewers in the first four days at each of our two theatres,” he added.
The Indian and Malay population are a minority in multi-racial Singapore. But since the country’s independence from Malaysia the government introduced pro-active policies to ensure racial diversity and integration and encouraged a strong ‘Singaporean’ identity for people of all races.
“The minority has disadvantages in any country but as a society we have progressed since 40 years back when racial prejudice was not uncommon in public in Singapore,” said Ravi Philomen, an independent blogger and member of the opposition Singapore People’s Party.
In Singapore Tamil is an official language along with English, Mandarin and Malay.
“We are strongly connected to Tamil movies and culture and we have a strong Tamil identity. But we are Singaporeans first,” said Shiva Chandran, an Indian-Singaporean film editor.
A 2015-report published in The Straits Times newspaper said that the relationship between Singapore’s different ethnic groups remains good at least on the surface.
For instance, government policies such as the system of Group Representation Constituency requires political parties to field minority candidates in each GRC team during elections. Singapore also has a minority quota in housing estates to ensure ethnic integration.
Many Indian Singaporeans think that racial sentiments are not expressed and the experiences of racial prejudice are not articulated in the country, thanks to the government policies.
“Issues such as the pay disparity between the Chinese and Indians that Kabali shows are controversial matters and cannot be discussed here,” said Prakash, an Indian-Singaporean student who is enrolled at a university in Australia. “But we love Rajini sir because we see him as an elder brother and he represents the common man’s struggle,” added Prakash.
Tamil cinema and the diaspora – less than fair representation
Tamils living outside of Tamil Nadu tend to be under-represented in mainstream Tamil cinema, said Pa. Ranjith, director of Kabali, in an interview to The Hindu in July. “There are Tamilians in Bombay, Singapore but movies on these people are not many,” he said.
Singapore and Malaysia have a significant Tamil population apart from other countries such as Sri Lanka, Mauritius and South Africa. But the number is still small when compared with Bollywood’s overseas audience, said Selvaraj Velayutham, a senior lecturer with Australia’s Macquarie University, in an email interview.
“Outside India, the Tamil-speaking population numbers around 8 million,” wrote Velayutham in a 2008 book, Tamil Cinema: The Cultural Politics of India’s Other Film Industry.
The Tamil film industry thus traditionally remained steadfastly committed to the local Indian market with an estimated population of 64 million Tamils living in Tamil Nadu alone.
“Since 2000 the likes of A.R. Rahman and Ilayaraja have regularly performed overseas and Tamil movie awards are also held in countries like Singapore and Malaysia. But this is part of the industry’s global outreach to expand the fan base of Tamil cinema,” said Velayutham. “These events do not have any commercial imperative.”
In Tamil Cinema, Velayutham wrote that diasporic Tamil communities traditionally remained stereotyped – cast in minor roles or characterised as being ‘wayward’ and ‘uncultured’ – in mainstream Tamil cinema.
Yet, their less than realistic portrayal fails to dent Rajinikanth’s phenomenal following among overseas Indians. Recent media reports said Kabali’s international box office earnings soared upto Rs 90 crore in the first weekend. This is partly because countries like Malaysia and Singapore do not have a thriving film industry, observed film scholar Gopalan Ravindran in a 2006-article, published in the Seoul-based journal Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia.
“Most people loved the way Rajini Sir spoke Tamil Malaysian slang in the film,” said Shankar, an executive at Kuala Lumpur’s Malik Films that distributed the original Tamil and the dubbed Malay version in the country.
“Whether Tamil films from the homeland contain diasporic narratives or not, they turn out be a huge draw among the local Indians, particularly the younger generation,” observed Ravindran in the 2006-article.
However, while the diaspora continues to worship ‘Rajini sir’, Malaysia and Singapore are beginning to produce their own Tamil movies. “Since 2009 the Malaysian film industry produced big budget Tamil movies despite competition from films produced in Chennai,” said Muralee of Malaysian Indian Film Producers Association. Jagat, a 2015-film, was among the highest grossing films of the industry.
Singapore’s media development authority is also coming up with Chennai2Singapore, a film dubbed as the first co-production between Chennai and Singapore’s nascent film industry. “Such films give the diaspora another platform to articulate their identities,” said Velayutham. “But the cinema produced outside is less likely to be relevant or attractive to an Indian Tamil audience because they are thoroughly Malaysian or Singaporean Tamil.”
Suruchi Mazumdar submitted her doctoral thesis in Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.