Two tales from one city
Naam and Parambarai, two Tamil series from Singapore, dwell strongly on identity issues
The Merlion is the official mascot of Singapore, a half-beast, half-fish creature of the land and sea, which juxtaposes the myths of the Chinese dragons, Grecian phoenix, and the Indian Garuda and Naga. Poet Edwin Thamboo, of Tamil and Teochew lineage, often considered Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate, established the Merlion as a personification of the island nation. The creature is as much about Singapore’s spirits as it is about identity, always an issue in any nation. This concern is clearly envisioned in Naam and Parambarai, two recent series from Singapore that have become rather popular among Tamil viewers worldwide.
Naam: One Love One Life brings together the lives of six musicians, from various backgrounds, struggling to prove their worth. Though each has her own way of living and perceiving the world, together they mesh in a unique way to produce compelling music. But bitterness and betrayals break the band, until the arrival of an intruder gives them a chance to reflect on their misunderstandings.
Parambarai, a four-part miniseries focusing on inter-generational trauma, follows the powerful matriarch, Rajathi, and her lineage as the family navigates scandals, vendettas and a dark secret. It shows how the remnants of our past live on through the generations we leave behind. Our present life becomes our future’s past. With so much at stake, how far will one go to redefine legacy and change destiny?
Jaya Rathakrishnan, the screenwriter of Parambarai, who has worked on a lot of popular Singaporean series over the past two decades, says, “I began my script with excerpts from my grandmother Kamatchi’s journey to Singapore during World War II. It was about her thoughts about Singapore then, which was to become her second home for life. I represented the spirits and the thought processes of the Indian diaspora, the Tamil settlers who came during the invasion of Malaya and the fall of Singapore. I was inspired by the ideologies of Periyar and Bharathiyar and thus characterised Rajathi and Krishnayya, the protagonists, in such a way as to evoke the identity and spirits of the Tamils in Singapore in those days.”
The stories then took on a life of their own. As she wrote the script, Jaya was conscious of Indians being the earliest settlers on the island. “We carry the DNA of our motherland and we made Singapore our home, creating an identity here. It’s really hard to explain our heart, our culture as Indian, and our identity as Singaporean. We actually mutate ourselves as new individuals, making the best of both worlds,” says Jaya. The minutiae of location, costume, the Chola dialect, etc., are captured to make Parambarai a historical account.
The director of Naam is T. Suriavelan, who wrote, directed and acted in the first Indian indie musical trilogy: Usuraiya Tholaichaen, Sagiyae and Vilagathey, which trended globally for its stunning visuals, screenplay and some compelling music by Stephen Zecharia. Naam is partially an autobiographical recounting of this journey. Says Suriavelan, “Frankly, Naam is our team’s dream project. The 32-part series released last year speaks through its script making and music to audiences across nations.”
In Naam, he says, more than a director, he worked with minute aspects of the screenplay. “The intense visuals, balancing the good and bad characterisation, blurring the lines between right and wrong, drawing the timeline back and forth to tell the story of 360 Entertainment Productions was a bit tricky.” The series has extensive detailing even in the title posters, for instance, the personification of a black shawl. Says Suriavelan, “I tried my best to unfold the real nature of the characters; to keep it authentic. I wanted to highlight the clashing of ideas.”
One major aspect of Naam’s success is the musical track and background score by Ajmal Tahseen and Suman Battuer, which are trending. Says Suriavelan, “One thing I kept in mind was to write songs with simple diction to express philosophical thoughts.” The series has five single tracks along with a title track for the introduction. The tracks are elegant and classical in diction, but with sounds and notes that suit a 21st century audience.
In both series, the identity of the Singaporean Indian is examined, a unique mutated identity that merges DNA, culture, and traditions. The series explore the edges of the new vision of Indians in Singapore and see them cast in the image of the Merlion.
Both series are available for free viewing at meWATCH, a Singaporean digital video-on-demand service.
The writer is a researcher in Linguistics, History and Culture.