Rotterdam Selection ‘Fire on Water’ Examines Malaysian Tamil Cinema



Malaysia‘s Skyzen Studios has unveiled the first trailer for Sun-J Perumal’s sophomore feature “Fire on Water” (“Neer Mel Neruppu”), which premieres at the International Film Festival Rotterdam‘s Harbour strand.

Set over 20 years, the film follows Karthi, an aspiring filmmaker who has performed the gamut of roles in commercial television and film, from assistant director to editor to sound recordist. He is increasingly disillusioned with the lack of opportunities to make a realistic feature film in Malaysia, until he meets a kindred spirit.

After writing a script in 2010 that he set aside, Perumal made his feature debut with “Jagat” (2015), exploring the Malaysian Indian community’s struggles post transition from rubber plantations to urban life, which won best film at the Malaysian Film Festival.

“This film script is a bittersweet reflection on my 20 years in the television and film industry,” Perumal told Variety about “Fire on Water.” “Many younger directors who entered the industry a decade ago are still facing financial hardship, lack of recognition, and limited creative freedom. Seeing their struggles mirrored my own earlier experiences. This is why I felt compelled to tell this story. The challenges faced by filmmakers, while significant, pale in comparison to the broader issues confronting our nation.”

“It’s an auto-fiction, a tapestry of my life stories interwoven with threads of some invented characters, some imagined events, and some distilled truths,” Perumal added. “Most importantly, the story features a compelling character-based drama that, despite its cultural specificity, has the potential to resonate universally. Crafting this story wasn’t driven by a desire for conversation, but by an intuitive conviction that it needed to be told.”

“Fire on Water” is made in Tamil, an ancient language that originated in India and remains prevalent in Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka. Tamils form approximately 7% of Malaysia’s population. The Tamil film industry, known as Kollywood after the Kodambakkam area in Tamil Nadu capital Chennai, where the studios are concentrated, is one of India’s largest and a huge cultural influence in the region.

“Ratha Paei” (1969) is acknowledged to be the first Malaysian Tamil film. “Naan Oru Malaysian” followed in 1991. There was a drought until 2001 when digital filmmaking tools made film production significantly cheaper, leading to a surge in made-for-DVD film productions between 2004 and 2011, with some 100 independent features being made.

Perumal says that one of the most significant contributions to fostering minority filmmakers in Malaysia was the 2012 policy change by the Ministry and FINAS (National Film Development Corporation Malaysia), which extended the mandatory screening rule for local films to include non-Malay films, effectively encouraging minority filmmakers to aim for theatrical releases and boosting their visibility. Since then, barring the COVID-19 years, 8-10 Malaysian Tamil films are produced each year.

“The public’s preference for mainstream Kollywood films raises concerns about the importance of preserving our own cultural identity and fostering a healthy domestic film industry,” Perumal said. “The challenge lies in the prevalence of cheap imitations of mainstream Indian cinema. While this approach might capture some attention, it hinders the development of a unique Malaysian Tamil cinematic identity. We, the smaller group seeking to forge a distinct Malaysian Tamil film identity, believe that genuine success lies in embracing our own stories and perspectives, not in mere imitation.”

Perumal says that there is a non-Tamil audience in Malaysia for local Tamil-language films. He cites the example of his own “Jagat,” where half the audience was non-Tamil. Some Malaysian Tamil films have proven popular when released in India, Sri Lanka and Singapore, Perumal said, providing the examples of “Poochandi,” “Adutta Kattam,” and “Vennira Irravuggal.”

Post Rotterdam, “Fire on Water” will release theatrically in Malaysia. “Social streaming platforms are blurring geographical boundaries, allowing audiences to enjoy content without judging filmmakers’ nationality. I believe this trend will propel Malaysian films to reach even wider audiences on a global scale,” Perumal said.

“Fire on Water” is written by Perumal and Sivanantham Perianan and produced by them for Skyzen Studios. The cast includes Karnan Kanapathy, Rubini Sambanthan and Rupini Krishnan.

Watch the trailer here:


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