But is the book better? : Utter 2014

Lee Jia Min

The event I will be reviewing is Utter organised by The Arts House, held on 6th September 2014.

It is an event initiated by The Singapore Writers Festival, which showcases four short films that have been adapted from books. Each film employs one of the four main languages in Singapore. As such, each film presents a snippet of the ideologies and lifestyles of varying racial communities. Together, they present a fuller picture of the multicultural Singaporean society. The film screening took place in a small auditorium in The Arts House. Each of us were presented with a book at the entrance of the auditorium, containing both the original short story taken from the book, and the treatment of the film, written in the form of a play. Since three out of four stories were originally written in Chinese, Malay and Tamil, the translated version of these texts were also included in the book. Before the screening, the audience were encouraged to read the original stories and subsequently reflect on whether the book is better than its film adaptation. Indeed, the event was a celebration of the best of Singapore writing and also its potential in being adapted into different media and across languages.

The story I will be focusing on the film “At Your Doorstep”, whereby the original story (from the Tamil book) was written by Kamaladevi Aravindhan. It is a 12 minute film adaptation directed by Don Aravind about a widowed elderly woman, Kamatchi, whose declining mental and physical health causes much tension between her and her son’s nuclear family, whom she is living with. As such, she feels isolated and grieved.

I found 3 areas in which the book differed from the film. One would be the difference in pace and mood. The pace of the written story is fast within a rather densely packed narrative. It chronicles not only Kamatchi’s loneliness in her son’s house, but also her life of newfound liberation as she independently moves into a studio apartment. The story ends with her arrest by the police upon unwittingly keeping an immigrant offender as a tenant. On the other hand, the pace of the film is much slower, whereby the melancholic inner emotions of Kamatchi takes centre stage. Even as her sorrow turns into relief when she passes away, this element of desolation continues in her family’s mourning. As such, the film sustains a much gloomier mood as compared to the book, in which Kamatchi’s diversity of emotions, both positive and negative, change the story’s mood from time to time.

Next, while the book seemed to place equal blame on both Kamatchi and her son’s family for the discord amongst them, the film portrays Kamatchi as a pitiful victim. For example, in the book, the narrator asked “who wouldn’t be angry if you asked the same question over and over again?”, suggesting that it was Kamatchi who incurred the legitimate anger of her family members. The narrator also points to her “senseless actions” as the reason for the disruptions in the family’s daily routine. Her stubborn nature also portrays her as an active agent in the conflict. For example, the beginning of the tale started with a soliloquy of melodramatic complaints against her children. There was also a sense of rebellion as she revels in her new found freedom in the studio apartment. On the other hand, Kamatchi in the film is seen as a silent, long-suffering character, the recipient of harsh scolding and disrespect. She retreats into the self for comfort, such as through her reminiscence about her late husband. While Kamatchi in the book seem like a more dynamic character, experiencing a wide range of emotions such as anger, mirth, shock and grief, Kamatchi in the film is defined by her sadness.

Thirdly, the relationship between kamatchi and the people around her seem more estranged in the film. Her isolation is also intensified in the film. In the book, her family members do express kindness in buying her an apartment of her own. Kamatchi also enjoys a close friendship built with her young tenant. However, in the film, Kamatchi lives in complete solitude. Even her grandson treats her with contempt. Upon musing about her family dynamics, I suddenly thought about the family dynamics depicted in other Indian literature that I have read. In novels such as the “Inheritance of Loss” by Kiran Desai and Nagamandala by Girish Karnad, the wives are trapped in psychologically and physically abusive relationships with their husbands. On the other hand, in a Tamil movie “Videsh”, although the young wife is slighted by the rest of the family, there is an element of gender equality portrayed by the presence of the matriarch. However, “At Your Doorstep” subverts both these stereotypes regarding the relationship between spouses and reverence for the elderly in the family. Kamatchi shared a tender relationship with her husband, yet does not receive respect from her juniors. As such, the film gave me a refreshing perspective about familial dynamics in Indian culture, which has been a topic foreign and fascinating for me.

Indeed, the book’s adaptation is a more optimistic portrayal of the lives of the elderly in Singapore and their relationship with their family. However, I personally prefer the film’s adaptation because it portrays reality in an honest albeit depressing manner. It shows the negative effects of an aging population as not limited to the economy or workforce but occurring on a personal level. Indeed, all four stories portray strained relationships between the elderly and the younger generation, some exaggerated (Going Home), and others real and intense (At your Doorstep). Film, besides its entertainment purposes, now takes on the role of a social critique, providing a platform to discuss issues that are bleak yet pertinent. As such, topics that have often been shunned for their depressing quality are now broached on tactfully, in a manner that does not alienate the audience but instead engages with them. Also, melancholy facilitates meditation and musing, both of which are vital in reflection.

The production team did highlight the films’ segregation into distinct languages and the employment of casts of the same race in each film. This reflects upon and exposes the artificiality of mainstream television productions and its failure to represent a realistic society. Indeed, for practical reasons of catering to specific groups of audiences, television programmes of each channel (apart from those where English is the medium of communication) often use a single language and casts of the same race. Perhaps this is where Shklovsky’s theory of defamiliarization comes to play. Due to over-automatization of perception, the artificiality of this construct is hardly strikes us when we watch programs of our native language, portraying casts of our race. However, this is poignantly highlighted when we watch films of foreign languages. For me, these referred to the Malay film, “Tin Kosong”, and Tamil one, “Going Home”. An entire story in Tamil, consisting of an all Indian cast struck me as incongruent with the multiculturalism of Singapore (I do know that it portrays a home setting but yet the home can be and might be intended to be a representation of the society). It is this unfamiliarity that leads us to realise the artificiality of programmes of our own language and race, which we have accustomed to see as the “normal”. Nevertheless, the production team has countered this problem by introducing bits of cross culture, such that minor characters in each film are of a different race. As a result, the film does not fall into the small pitfall despite highlighting it. I found this method of defamiliarizing and reconciliation really clever.

For more information about similar events such as Utter, keep a look out for future events organised by The Art House!:)

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