Right Till the End: A Man with a Tender Heart

by Chew Tee Pao, Senior Archivist, Asian Film Archive

My first encounter with Rajendra Gour (1940–2023) was when I was interning at the Asian Film Archive (AFA) after my undergraduate studies in 2009. I fancied myself amid-20s cinephile with a modest grasp of my country's cinematic heritage. Little did I realise that my tenure at the archive would humble me with the depth and diversity of early filmmaking in Singapore, continually expanding my knowledge about the local film industry. Part of my job as an archivist is to share these insights with the world, and among the stories the AFA uncovered, the short films of local pioneer experimental filmmaker Rajendra Gour stand out. His narrative is one that the AFA often recounts as it illustrates the importance and significance of film preservation.

The AFA began preserving Rajendra Gour's short films in 2006, three years before I joined the Archive. Originally from India, Gour pursued Film Editing at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) before settling in Singapore in the mid-1960s to embark on a new chapter of his life. He spent decades producing content for various platforms such as the Centre for Production and Training for Adult Education Television, the Ministry of Defence, and the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, before retiring. He became an active volunteer for several social organisations and was a motivational speaker for seniors, focusing on topics related to active ageing. What a remarkable life indeed!

Gour joined the AFA as a volunteer in 2006 and through his interactions with my colleagues, his role as a pioneer of independent short filmmaking in Singapore came to light. His works had travelled to international film festivals, as evidenced by local news articles from that time. Gour’s place in history as the earliest known independent short filmmaker in Singapore was thus embraced.

For decades, Gour had stored his 16 mm film prints at home, wrapped in newspapers, where they underwent varying degrees of decay and deterioration. The time he spent with the Archive led to the transfer of these prints to the AFA. Unfortunately, by this time, a few reels had become unsalvageable and had to be disposed of. Sadly, Gour’s first short film Mr. Tender Heart (1965), which screened at the Commonwealth Film Festival in London, remains lost. Hearing these anecdotes from my predecessors, former archivist Karen Chan (now Executive Director of AFA) and Tan Bee Thiam (AFA's founder and former Executive Director), and subsequently sharing them with successive generations of interns and collection staff, I felt an inexplicable connection to Gour's narrative, as though I had always been a part of it.

My formal acquaintance with Gour began fifteen years ago when he visited the Archive in 2009, armed with ideas to enhance the audio quality of his films using newly sourced music and narration. Though retired from filmmaking, he remained eager to present his works in a more polished manner. Unfortunately, due to limited resources at the time, we were unable to achieve his aspirations. Nonetheless, his support for AFA never wavered, allowing us to use and screen his works while trusting that we will look after and treat his films with respect.

Rajendra Gour and Chew Tee Pao, January 2023. Photo: Chew Tee Pao

The first of Raj's (as he was affectionately addressed by all of us at AFA) films I encountered was Labour of Love—The Housewife (1978), an expository yet experimental documentary infused with satire. Digitised from a VHS tape that was in surprisingly good condition, the film was included in the AFA’s 2008 DVD compilation Singapore Shorts Volume 2, around the theme of 'family'. The film primarily centred on his wife, Kamlesh, exploring the trials and tribulations of the Asian housewife’s societal role and contribution. He interspersed candid and tender moments of his wife with their young children, Bhararti, and Sanjay, occasionally embellishing with re-enactments that added an ethnographic dimension to it.

Rajendra Gour. Still from Labour of Love—The Housewife, 1978. Photo: Courtesy of Asian Film Archive

Raj's final 16 mm work, a follow-up to Labour of Love, titled My Child My Child (1979), provided a maternal perspective. The film captured the gamut of emotions of a mother (played by his wife) from the joy she experienced of her child in her womb to the wistfulness she anticipates from the day her child would eventually leave her to start a family of his own. Screened at film festivals and on television in the United States and the United Kingdom, both films garnered recognition for their poignant portrayal of familial bonds.

These family-centric films were not the only works Raj had made. Initially, he turned his lens inward only after settling down and expanding his family. As a young, new migrant in Singapore, he produced the experimental Sight and Desire (1968), a 20-minute work thought lost until its recovery from the FTII storage. This vividly colourful exploration delved into the existential nature of perception and won a Bronze Award at the Golden Knight Malta Film Festival in 1968. Raj later used the 16 mm duplicate trims and outtakes from Sight and Desire to assemble Eyes (1968). This film continued his exploration of perception and offered a fresh perspective on human suffering and the lack of understanding among mankind, as seen through the 'eyes' of the people of the world. Eyes is a testament to Raj's innovative spirit and experimental vision.

Rajendra Gour. Still from Eyes, 1968. Photo: Courtesy of Asian Film Archive

Sunshine Singapore (1972) was the first film where Raj turned his camera toward his newly wedded wife and the spaces they inhabited in Singapore. The capture of these public venues became a beautiful personal time capsule—a whimsical assemblage of sunny Singapore’s changing sights. Through the manipulation of lens flare accompanied by evocative music, the film weaved a narrative that merged the mundane aspects of daily life with a profound sense of familiarity.

Rajendra Gour. Still from Sunshine Singapore, 1972. Photo: Courtesy of Asian Film Archive

The practicalities of life led Raj to put aside filmmaking and the films were simply stored in his home, until they became part of the AFA collection in 2006. Since then, his works have enjoyed screenings at various film festivals and archival conferences, shedding light on Singapore's rich short filmmaking history. Between 2018 and 2022, the AFA progressively restored the five short films of Rajendra Gour using the surviving 16 mm film elements he had deposited. During the restoration process, Raj maintained frequent correspondence with me, sharing his memories and experiences of making the films. The collection of the five restored short films premiered at AFA’s Singapore Shorts in 2022, where Raj also shared candid anecdotes with local audiences. These restored films, together with Aku Mahu Hidup, a Cathay-Keris Malay Classic that Gour wrote the screenplay for and that AFA restored, became a focus programme at the 2023 International Film Festival Rotterdam. Through the almost two decades of preservation and restoration, these films were given the opportunity to be screened internationally, enabling both Raj and Singapore’s cinematic legacy to live on.

Raj's passing in October 2023 left a void. His departure went beyond the loss of a respected friend but of a cherished individual whose stories and legacy have become intricately woven into my professional journey, fuelling my filmic passion from early adulthood to the present day. It is only now that I realise and understand the profound impact and extent that my work has on my personal life.

Rajendra Gour's 16 mm camera receipt. Photo: Courtesy of Chew Tee Pao

Recently, Mrs. Gour shared with me Raj's 16 mm camera along with the accompanying receipt, lovingly kept. This first camera represented Raj’s love for film and filmmaking that endured until his final days. Just a week before his passing, he expressed to me his admiration for the burgeoning young talents that were making the news for contributing to the growth of Singaporean cinema.

Rajendra Gour. Still from Sunshine Singapore, 1972. Photo: Courtesy of Asian Film Archive

Whenever I see sunlight filtering through the leaves of a tree, I'm always reminded of and grateful for the tender heart of Rajendra Gour.

About Chew Tee Pao

Chew Tee Pao has been with the Asian Film Archive (AFA) since 2009. As Senior Archivist, Tee Pao plans AFA’s preservation strategies, oversees the development of film collections, and curates various film programmes to showcase these collections. He also selects and oversees AFA’s film restorations, including works like Mike de Leon’s Batch ’81 (1982) and Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Bambaru Avith (1978), which was selected for Cannes Classics in 2020. He has delivered presentations on AFA’s advocacy efforts and the issue of film preservation. His publications include an article on NANG magazine (Issue 8, 2020) and a co-written chapter on 'Independent Digital Filmmaking and Its Impact on Film Archiving in Singapore' for the book Singapore Cinema: New Perspectives (2017).

This piece is originally written as a tribute to Rajendra Gour, Singapore’s pioneer independent and experimental short filmmaker, in accompaniment with the screenings of Eyes (1968) and Labour of Love—The Housewife (1978) in the M+ programme 'Asian Avant-Garde Film Festival: Encounter the Unexpected'.

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