Here's My Story #4: Singaporean actor J Kishan on Tanglin, Hannah Montana, and why Gurmit Singh should move aside
I'll be the first to admit that we might not be producing the best content in Singapore, but I can tell you that it's changing slowly. Considering some of the scripts I've received and auditions that I've attended recently, I feel that we've got some really talented filmmakers coming up in the scene. The scripts are fantastic, whether they manage to pull it off is another ordeal, but Singaporeans need to watch more of our local content. For starters, I'll suggest catching up on Glitch, Yes Madam, and Kin.
My journey as a local actor hasn't been smooth sailing by any stretch of the imagination. It all started when I was 16. I was watching Hannah Montana. Miley Cyrus might have been 16 then too, but she was showing off on the television and I was just sitting on the couch. I freaked out and I asked an uncle if he knew anyone in a production role, because I had an idea for a script. I naively thought that if I got it made, I could become a star just like Miley.
My uncle suggested a production house, so I decided to call them. Picking up the phone was the toughest thing. I didn't even think of rehearsing what I was going to say. I told myself that I had turned 16 already, and I didn't want to waste any more time. On the phone, I rambled on and on about my ideas. The guy on the other line, Senthil Nathan, didn't know who I was, but he agreed to meet up the next day at McDonald's. He said that he had never met a kid like me, and he liked my energy.
He became my mentor immediately, and he charted out a plan of action for me. I didn't immediately get in front of the camera, but it was always at the back of my head. I got a little anxious. What if I couldn't act? The back-up plan was to join him on his film-making journey, so I worked behind the camera for five years, dabbling in all aspects of film-making.
I went on to pursue a degree in Mass Communications. In my first semester, a director noticed me. He asked if I wanted to try out for a role in Tanglin, Singapore's biggest TV show at that point. I went for the audition, and got the part. I took a six-month contract and quit school right after.
Things weren't moving as fast as I would have liked after six months on Tanglin, so Ministry of Funny's co-founder Haresh Tilani introduced me to the world of YouTube and Wah!Banana, one of Singapore's biggest channels with over a million subscribers. They've changed my life by helping me to channel my crazy energy into their slapstick videos.
Another person I owe my career to is Zoe Fan. She was the casting director for Yes Madam, a Chinese-language comedy series. She took a chance on me; she didn't see who I was, what I was, or what I produced. She saw me for what I could do, and loved me for it. The hardest part was to send it to Mediacorp, because I hadn't made a name for myself at that point, but she fought for me. Not many casting directors would do that today; they just listen to the broadcast stations and look at the numbers.
As I was an Indian comedian in this Chinese drama, I had to learn Mandarin in five days. They didn't even give me a script in hanyu pinyin. They got me a Chinese tutor and I had to learn my lines within those five days.
It would seem that I was on my way to the top, but there was a period where I was home all the time. I had to live off Koko Krunch, because I had told my mum to stop supporting me financially when I was 18. She obviously continued to support me, and there were a few relatives who called everyday to ask if I needed a job. I flunked every audition that year; all the talent scouts didn't want me, but I continued to be stubbornly determined to achieve my ambitions.
The initial struggles that I faced have prepared me for the struggles that I experience today. The struggle never ends for a local actor. Singapore's entertainment scene isn't in any way similar to Hollywood, where you can do one movie or a TV show, and then make enough money and become a big deal right away.
When I first started, the challenge was being casted solely for the colour of my skin. In the first couple of years, a few shows casted me because of my race. Thankfully, it soon changed and I began getting hired not because I was Indian, but for the energy and dynamism that I brought to the table. There's more to my identity as a performer than the colour of my skin.
Payment is one of my other concerns. Fighting for your own value is a struggle. I've never been on a show in Singapore that started with the line, "We have a high budget". It always begins with, "We've got a low budget, so please help us out". The question is, can they help me put food on my table? I used to negotiate all my own fees, but these days I'm thankful that my manager at Faces Talent Management takes care of it.
I also continuously work towards staying relevant. It's always about what I'm doing next, what's my niche, and how I'm challenging myself. Eventually, moving on to international platforms is going to be the real challenge.
I'll start shooting for my first serious role in October for a show called Caught Dead. I can't reveal the major plot points, but I can say that I'll be playing a disgruntled journalist similar to Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. The script is fantastic and it's a star-studded cast.
My ongoing passion project has been The Mama Drama Show. Some of my inspirations are Jimmy Kimmel, Johnny Carson, and Graham Norton. We don't have a show like that in Singapore. Besides, everyone knows how dramatic I can be. I put the 'd' in drama. We've done three fantastic episodes so far, which are available on Facebook.
Looking towards the future, there's nothing to be jaded about; I have the best job in the world. I plan my own off days, go on holidays, and I'm not bound to a desk.
A man is allowed to dream, so if I could work with anyone in the world, it would be Jim Carrey. In recent years, he has gone into a deep and dark place, but he has returned stronger than ever.
Locally, I would love to connect with Gurmit Singh. I recently bumped into him along one of the corridors at Mediacorp. His hands were full and I only managed to shake his elbow, but I've got this funny feeling that we would definitely get along. There's so much that I can learn from him. Gurmit, if you're reading this, I want to learn from you, but I also want to tell you — move aside because I'm coming up.
Keep up with Kishan by catching his comedic skits on Wah!Banana on YouTube, one-man talk show The Mama Drama Show on Facebook, upcoming drama series on Toggle, or simply follow him on Instagram to stay updated on all of his antics.
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