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Caught in the Act

Busker Roy Payamal channels his lack of talent towards entertaining people on Singapore's streets.

Written by Catherine Rhea Roy |
Updated: August 9, 2016 12:06:37 pm
SINGAPORE MINSTREL 759 Stills from Singapore Minstrel that shows Roy Payamal, the artiste

Roy Payamal’s audition on Asia’s Got Talent last year was not ideal. He was rejected by a judge even before he began his act, and the other three dismissed him before he finished. But what shines through is the busker’s unflappable confidence, his mental agility to dodge the barbs and meet them with indignant retorts laced with some humour. While he is no great talent, he possesses personality and a que sera sera attitude to life that makes him endearing.

Payamal was in Delhi last week for a screening of the film Singapore Minstrel at the Singapore International Film Festival, organised by the Singapore High Commission and the India Habitat Centre, which concluded on Sunday. The documentary, which explores Payamal’s life busking on the streets, is the debut of director Ng Xi Jie. “The film has been directed by my girlfriend of four years. She has captured my life, how I see the world as a busker, which is different from how a person working in an office would see the world,” says Payamal, 51, whose roots reach back to Kerala through his father, who relocated to Singapore years ago and married Roy’s mother, who is Singaporean Chinese.

As a street performer, whose repertoire includes mime, dancing and circus tricks, Payamal has spent time with homeless people and slept with them on the streets, not only in Singapore but also in countries abroad. Payamal doesn’t remember doing anything else, he began with small feats like learning to balance badminton rackets on his palm at six years, and by 12 he could do chairs on his chin. “For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to entertain people, I wanted to be the star of my show. It has been 30 years now since I started,” he says. And while he did work with theatre groups, he gave up the stage for the streets which is where he found fulfillment as an entertainer.

“In Singapore, you need money to watch a play or go to the theatre. I want to perform for all those people who don’t get to engage with performance or entertainment. My purpose is to bring it away from the stage and onto the street, make it available for everybody,” says Payamal, who changes his show depending on the audience he is performing for.

“If I’m doing a show for a commercial audience, say at mall, I don’t do anything that’s too arty, and if I’m performing at a museum I give myself the liberty to get abstract and do something more contemporary. On the streets I do a mix of both,” he says. He has experimented with costumes, as Ouch The Clown or dressing up like Charlie Chaplin, to wearing a G-string and painting his entire body, which he doesn’t do too often because “cleaning up is nasty.”

Payamal has garnered quite the fan following with his outlandish costumes and shape-shifting abilities, and after years of trying to entertain an unforgiving audience, he has emerged a bonafide local celebrity, as recognisable as any other fixture on the urban landscape of Singapore.

Payamal’s honesty is refreshing, and he is under no delusion about his skills or his show, “My ideas are not original, but I’m just open about anything, I love what I do, people like it, and I have to make money,” he says, with a laugh.

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