N Rengarajan moved to Singapore in 2014 to work as a labourer on a construction worker, and three years later, he already has strong opinions on his adopted home. In his poems, he describes his journey as “a pilgrimage that reeks of money,” reciting his Tamil poem Life Overseas: Pluses and Minuses.
Filmmaker Vishal Daryanomel’s documentary Between Pudukkottai and Singapore uses Rengarajan’s poems as the basis for an exploration of the hopes, dreams and anxieties of migrants in Singapore. Using Rengarajan’s three poems that primarily juxtapose his migration to Singapore and its effects on his personal life, the film is shot at places such cricket grounds and parks in the Little India district in the country. “We wanted to depict spaces where migrant workers would usually spend their time,” the director said. “And in Singapore, those spaces are limited. Some Singaporeans might not even frequent those places when it is really busy. So we wanted to use his lines and put a visual to it.”
The 18-minute documentary will be launched at the Singapore Writers Festival on November 10. “The goal for the film is to raise awareness about the human elements in our migrant worker population, which is sometimes lost in Singapore,” the independent filmmaker said. “It is to make people understand that they are not in Singapore just as labourers, but that they also have the dreams and talents that a lot of us have.”
A Singaporean of Indian descent, Daryanomel was drawn to the subject during his volunteering days at the Annual Migrant Workers Poetry event in 2014. Rengarajan was the only Indian poet at the event, competing against migrant workers from other countries. “His poetry resonated with me and that is why I thought we could go on this project together,” Daryanomel said. “The dynamic was very interesting because the Singapore migrant population is made up of Bangladeshis, Indians from South India and largely from Punjab. At the same time we also have migrant workers from Thailand and Cambodia. Being the only Tamil poet without a support system performing at the event was pretty great.”
The film uses observational footage to subtly point out the differences between aspirations and actualities. Between Pudukkottai and Singapore sticks with the poorer sections of the Tamil community in Singapore – the labourers who have incurred financial debt, have to face entry barriers in finding jobs, and general stereotypes about the Indian community. The Tamil-speaking community in Singapore has coexisted peacefully in the country except for riots in 2013, which were sparked off by an Indian construction worker’s death in a road accident.
But the film is not a sob story. In one of the film’s best sequences, Rengarajan describes the one thing he loves the most about his life away from his homeland. “Back in my country, if it is crowded, we tussle for a ticket and a place in the bus. But here in Singapore, we follow suit and don’t cut the queue,” he says with a smile.