India food lore with Singapore touch


When Singaporean filmmaker Don Aravind was offered the chance to do the Indian segment of HBO Asia's eight-part Food Lore series, he reeled out the storyline in five minutes. But he made it clear to commissioning producer Eric Khoo, the Singaporean film personality, that it will not be totally about India.

"Honestly, I didn't know what to tell him," Don told tabla! after the world premiere of his 60-minute A Plate of Moon at the Singapore International Film Festival last Sunday.

"It was a huge jump for me (to be given this assignment). I wanted to do it, but it was hard for me to connect with India. I told him I'll do something on India but it will also have a bit of Singapore."

Don, who has directed and written more than 25 short films of which many have received major accolades at prestigious international film festivals, said Khoo heard him out and then cleared the project almost immediately.

"I don't know what came into me, maybe it was the alcohol or something" said Don.

"It's not a story that I had thought about. I told him how I would approach it and he said, 'Okay, let's go with it'.

"HBO was kind and everything after that happened organically. Right people came on board at the right time."

Food Lore, which debuted on Nov 3 and features a new episode every Sunday on HBO GO and HBO, is not about cooking.

It is an unorthodox anthology drama series examining relationships as they are shaped by the uniting, divisive, heartening, saddening and even politically-charged presence of what we eat.

Don's A Plate of Moon, which was shot in India and Singapore, shows the power of a favourite dish in mentally transporting an elderly victim of Alzheimer's disease back to a place of joy - although the cook herself, deflated and betrayed by circumstance, cannot share in his happiness.

It tells the story of a Tamil Nadu village girl Anbu (played by Magalakshmi Sudarsanan) who is left with no choice but to work as a domestic helper for Alzheimer-stricken old man Raja (A. Panneeirchelvam), who is recovering from his wife's death, in Singapore.

She needs to settle her family's debts and also her fiance's to keep him loyal. But just as Anbu begins to endear herself to the old man and his son Navin (Jaivant Viknesh) - they bond over food, love and memories, an unexpected piece of news sends her world unravelling again.

"Because we're doing an anthology series, I wanted to involve a lot of auteur filmmakers who have a passion for food," Khoo said in March when the show was first announced at the Hong Kong Filmart.

"What I really felt was important for the series was the diversity of Asian food and different cultures. From day one, I wanted all the episodes to have mother tongue - it had to be the language of their country. That's when you really get the flavour of it."

The series was shot in eight countries - the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Singapore, Thailand, Japan and Malaysia.

Each episode is directed by some of Asia's most talented storytellers, including Takumi Saitoh from Japan, Erik Matti from the Philippines and Billy Christian from Indonesia.

But only A Plate of Moon, which is in Tamil and has English sub-titles, has been made by a filmmaker who is not from that country.

The Singapore episode - Tamarind - was directed by Khoo himself. It is a love story between a French female chef (Valentine Payen) and a Malay hawker (Firdaus Rahman) who sells mee siam, which happens to be Khoo's favourite dish.

"I've watched Don's short films for quite a while now and some have moved me to tears," Khoo told tabla!

"I feel he is a talented, sensitive filmmaker and we bonded over whisky - sharing stories and creative ideas. It was at one of these sessions that I asked him to come on board Food Lore and he gladly accepted."

Don pointed out that the human story was easy for him to bring out.

"But since I'm not a foodie, it was tough for me to bring out the food part," he said.

His script writer, Jaya Rathakrishnan, came to his rescue.

"She brought out the element of the plate of moon (termed nila choru in Tamil where children are told stories about the moon by elders and cajoled to eat food)," he said.

"I liked the motif of the moon and food but was conscious that food should just weave into the story and should not stick right in front. The food element is probably stronger in the other seven episodes."

According to Don, the idea for the story came from his domestic helper from India who has been with his family for more than two decades.

"She used to tell me stories of her life in India," he said. "It was always about poverty and debt, a cycle that never ends.

"Villagers in India are highly emotional. If someone does something to them, they will end their lives. For me, they were ending their lives too easily. I wanted to portray this emotional aspect of their lives."

Filming in India was a challenge, but Don has managed to stitch together gripping scenes, which depict the stark realities in Indian households.

He spoke to farmers and learnt how much they had to suffer.

"Debt and poverty are part of their lives which they are not able to overcome," he said.

What also helped him was the skilful acting by the main characters who are Singaporeans.

Magalakshmi, the winner of the Vasantham reality acting competition Thedal 2016, has starred in successful television serials such as Alaipayuthey (2018), Vettai 4 (2018) and Agram (2019).

Jaivant showed his class in television series Vettai 2 and short film Song of the Waves (2017), while Panneeirchelvam is a veteran who has acted in more than 200 local television dramas.

"Don has done justice to the India subject," said Jay Vardhan, who is in the life insurance business and watched A Plate of Moon on Sunday.

"It must have been difficult for him. But he has conceptualised the scenes in India and Singapore well."

Another viewer, actor Udaya Soundari, said: "He deviates from the main theme, but manages to blend the many-layered story well. There is subtle humour throughout which also keeps the audience engaged."

A Plate of Moon, Episode 4 on Food Lore, debuted on Nov 24 at 10pm on HBO GO and HBO. The episode can be streamed on HBO GO anytime, anywhere.

"Villagers in India are highly emotional. If someone does something to them, they will end their lives. For me, they were ending their lives too easily. I wanted to portray this emotional aspect of their lives."

- Singaporean filmmaker Don Aravind


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