By Upneet Kaur-Nagpal
I saw Sikh guard statues with red turbans in an old Singaporean Chinese cemetery, and said, let’s make a film!
As a filmmaker, I ride on such outbursts of inspiration. It takes one flash of an image to strike the match and Vaidayaan! I am betrothed to the film. With my latest documentary, Singh In the Lion City, it was this very image of life-size Sikh statues, perched by an ornate tombstone in Bukit Brown, that brought this film to life.
I am a documentary filmmaker who happens to be Singaporean and Sikh as well. Driven by a fascination of people and their stories, I have travelled and lived across diverse places, and crave for a time when ‘one world fits all’. Through my films, and platform, Uptake Media, I hope to refresh tired perspectives by empowering niche communities to share their stories – in their own voices.
My stories have surrounded the gypsies, the homeless and poet migrant worker communities, and are all unified by a common theme – Home. Singh In The Lion City continues with this theme. In fact, it resonates further with me because it speaks directly to my roots. It’s not just Ishvinder (main character in the film) Singh’s story, it’s also my story. And yours, perhaps.
I have had my musings on the meaning of home – where is home, what is home? I often found myself in a similar dilemma to Ishvinder – not being able to identify with India in the same way as Indians do, and not always being able to connect with Singapore’s mainstream. Ishvinder’s dilemma led him on a quest in search for his identity. I tagged along, with curious eyes and a camera.
Singh In The Lion City is a short documentary about a Singaporean Sikh man’s personal quest to decode his cultural identity. This sets him on a journey of self-discovery along a shared heritage trail – which he encapsulates and celebrates via the creation of an app.
Ishvinder’s quest unravels the distinct relationship Sikhs had with the British military in the colonial days. The year 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the British arrival on our sunny shores. It is believed that the British also brought with them Singapore’s first Sikh men – mostly as sepoys or convicts from Punjab. The Sikhs sported a prominent image, not only due to physical markers like the turban and beard but also because of their legacy of courage and loyalty as evidenced by their historical battles.
In Singapore and Malaysia, Sikhs were also conferred the protector image as jagas or security guards. During my research for the film, some people I spoke to recall Sikh jagas setting up their menjas or traditional rope beds along five foot ways at South Bridge Road or Shenton Way at night. When the shop shutters dropped, the jagas emerged to cast their watchful eyes on gold shop fronts and other businesses. This led to a close relationship with their Chinese towkays or business owners, that later evolved to a spiritual one as Sikh images were carried over to protect the afterlife.
The Sikhs have contributed significantly to the development of Singapore, and South East Asia. So Singh In The Lion City is an important story to tell. And told even better via the lens of the Sikh Heritage Trail app. Thanks to the efforts of our fellow Singaporeans, Ishvinder Singh and Vithya Subramaniam, the app preserves our old tales, empowering History to interact with current maps and trails, people and communities, in new and interesting ways.
The global Sikh diaspora, especially in South East Asia will connect with the film, and in particular, Malaysia, since we share numerous pages in our history books. Mostly, I hope for Singh In The Lion City to inspire all migrants embracing new homes worldwide.
The film has been screened in international festivals across Delhi, Toronto and Singapore, and will be screening in Seattle at the end of January.