This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Art is emotion.
- Alfred Hitchcock
“Demokrasi apa?” “Demokrasi terpimpin.” “Terpimpin kepala hotak kau!”
- from 3 Abdul (1964), written and directed by P Ramlee*1 .
I started collecting VCDs of old Malay movies in 2007, and wound up with well over 200 titles. Most of the VCDs were legitimate releases but some were (oh, what will you think of me?) pirated. Then I started writing this book in the middle of 2008. The idea: to watch the movies in chronological order, so that I could trace how things changed (or not) over time. I was primarily interested to see how the world as shown in those ﬁlms was different (or not) from the one we have today. I would start from the very earliest ﬁlms — but, right away, some difﬁculties presented themselves. The ﬁrst Malay-language movie was Laila Majnun. Almost all books tag this as a 1933 release, but Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde in their book Latent Images: Film in Singapore prove that the movie opened only on 27 March 1934. Therefore, Laila Majnun is a 1934 rather than a 1933 ﬁlm. All feature-length movies in Malay that were released from 1934 to 1947 appear to be lost forever. These 20 or so movies had been consumed by the ravages of time (they were on easily ﬂammable nitrate ﬁlm) or the Japanese Occupation. Therefore, I began with the oldest surviving Malay ﬁlm, Cinta (1948). And I chose to end with Laxmana Do Re Mi. When I started this book, I went along with the prevalent
* My unliteral translation on page 285
120 Malay Movies 12 Amir Muhammad
idea that this was a 1972 movie; I liked the idea of ending with the year of my birth, for what is an ‘old movie’ but one made before one was born? It was only later, after reading Mustafar A.R. and Aziz Sattar’s Filem-Filem P Ramlee, that I realised . Laxmana Do Re Mi was released in May 1973. It thus should be known as a 1973 movie (albeit completed in 1972). About 360 Malay movies were made in that period. I couldn’t watch all of them, because a few dozen are lost! These include the ﬁrst colour movie Buluh Perindu (1953), the ﬁrst Pontianak (1957) and its sequel Dendam Pontianak (also 1957). Some key works by prominent directors are also missing, the most obvious being P Ramlee’s ﬁrst ﬁlm in Kuala . Lumpur, Si Tora Harimau Jadian, and Hussain Haniff’s Macbeth adaptation Istana Berdarah, both from 1964. Even among the VCDs that I had, some were of such bad quality that the actors sounded like they were speaking in tongues, with too many accidental ‘jump-cuts’ due to lost frames. So I had to ditch most of those, too. I therefore knew that this book would not take the form of a catalogue raisonné, or be an obsessively completist compilation. Then I decided I didn’t even want to write about every single decent VCD I had. My attitude was to watch (or re-watch) only the ones that interested me. I pretended I was an actual movie-goer at that time rather than an archeologist who would want to see just everything. So, for example, if I saw a few purba (period) movies in a row, I could watch a few contemporary ones to cleanse my palette, even if it meant missing some purba movies now considered important. I had a similar attitude to the movie stars. If I found the actress KB whiny and the actor JS smarmy, I would skip many of their movies. Yes, it’s a totally subjective selection. So I set a target of 120 movies. Why 120? Well, it’s my sarcastic way of saying that watching so many Malay movies in a row would be akin to one of the tortures in the Marquis de Sade book 120 Days of Sodom.
120 Malay Movies 13 Amir Muhammad
Luckily, I was proven wrong. Many of these ﬁlms were so fun that it was with some reluctance that I emerged from the experience of being submerged in them. Even the ones that weren’t so great were often interesting in some way or other. Perhaps I could have extended the book to 150 or even 160 titles. But then, what would the divine Marquis say?
A Potted History of the Malay Studio System
Old Malay movies were made by studios that usually controlled all means of production, distribution and exhibition. The three most prominent studios covered in this book are Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Production (which made 162 Malay movies), Cathay-Keris Film (which made 121), and Merdeka Film Productions (which made 90, including 30 after the period of this book). Shaw Brothers’ ﬁlm-making arm was set up by Shanghai-born Runme and Run Run Shaw, who were already ﬁlm exhibitors in Singapore and Malaya, in the late 1930s. Cathay-Keris started later, in the early 1950s, as a collaboration between Loke Wan Tho (of The Cathay Organisation, which distributed ﬁlms) and the entrepreneur Ho Ah Loke (who had produced Buluh Perindu). Loke’s father was Loke Yew, one of the ﬁrst prominent Chinese businessmen to have made an impact in British Malaya, back in the 19th century. These Singapore studios had actors, directors and crew under contract. The stars were paid regular monthly salaries and lived in designated areas, with their image and public appearances tightly controlled. So, for certain protracted periods of time, you could instantly differentiate between a Shaw ﬁlm and a Cathay one by looking at not only the cast but the recycled studio locations. At their peak (from the late 1950s to the mid-60s) audiences had new releases from these competing studios practically every month. This was the golden age of the Malay studio era.
But the studio system, worldwide, was already wobbly by then. For example, the ‘vertical integration’ economic model of these companies was the subject of anti-trust legislation in the United States, which sought to break up unfair monopolies. It was considered unhealthy for any one company to control so much of an industry. (Locally, this could be seen by how smaller, short-lived companies like Nusantara and Maria Menado Productions had to swim with the two studios or sink altogether.) The case of the Malay studio system was fraught further by internal factors (such as union disputes about working conditions, especially at Shaw) and external ones that affected distribution and exhibition (the Indonesian Confrontation; the Separation of Singapore from Malaysia). Merdeka Film Productions was the ﬁrst studio in Kuala Lumpur; it was set up in the early 1960s by the entrepreneur H.M. Shah, who lured Ho Ah Loke away from Singapore to be his partner. When the Singapore ﬁlm-making branch of Shaw ceased operation in the late 1960s, many of the people employed there moved to join Merdeka. But by then, audiences were staying away from Malay movies, which seemed cheap and outdated. Merdeka wasn’t as well-equipped as Shaw and Cathay were in Singapore, and the bosses wanted to keep churning out movies at the old budget of $60,000 - 80,000 per title, almost always in black and white, which invariably seemed shoddy compared to not only Hollywood but also the colour imports from Indonesia. The most expensive studio movie was Shaw’s Raja Bersiong (1968), which cost $750,000 and took two years to make. Although it’s an entertaining ﬁlm, its box-ofﬁce failure helped to further hasten the demise of the studio system. The old way of making movies effectively stopped being viable in the mid-1970s. After that came the lamest period of local cinema, the late 1970s and the 1980s, when small independent producers tried to get ﬁlms going. It’s true that the cast and crew were now free to choose which company to work for, which media to speak to, and which neighbourhood
120 Malay Movies 15 Amir Muhammad
120 Malay Movies 14 Amir Muhammad
to live in, but this resulted in what Kierkegaard called, in a different context, the ‘anxiety of freedom’. Compare the ﬁlms made by A.R. Tompel in the studio era with the ones made by his son A.R. Badul in the post-studio era and you will get my drift.
Historical Events as Seen in Old Malay Cinema
1948 to 1972/3 was a dramatic quarter-century in this part of the world. Among the events that took place were the Emergency, otherwise known as the anti-communist war (1948-1960), the Independence of Malaya (1957), the creation of Malaysia (1963), the expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia (1965), the May 13 riots (1969), and the start of the New Economic Policy (1970). Some of these events literally shaped our boundaries; others deﬁnitely shaped the way we see ourselves. Although most Malay movies did not comment directly on these events, you can still get strong hints. Even lines like “The rubber prices fell again” or “My husband was killed by the communists” are indicators of the anxieties of the period. Some topics are more cinema-ready than others. The ﬁrst two movies to deal exclusively with World War 2 came in 1958 (Matahari and Sergeant Hassan), 13 years after the Japanese surrender. But, to date, there has been no movie to deal exclusively with, say, the Indonesian Confrontation or the May 13 riots. The failure of subsequent local cinema to engage with big events is a sign that cinema became less relevant as a discursive force. Historical events could also impact the way a ﬁlm was made, shown or received. The Indonesian Confrontation affected Malay ﬁlm distribution because a lucrative potential market was cut off. The only Indonesian co-production in this book, Bayangan di Waktu Fajar, could not screen in Indonesia until after the hostilities ended; back in Malaysia, it ﬂopped because people didn’t want to support anything from a suddenly hostile neighbour.
120 Malay Movies 16 Amir Muhammad
Not many Malay movies commented on the 1957 Independence, because the ﬁlms were made in Singapore rather than Kuala Lumpur. But from 1963 onwards, there was a rash of ﬁlms that had optimistic scenes (which included not only entire songs but small things like hotel signs) about the excitement of being in a new nation. The ﬁlms that were made in KL also sought to boost the town’s image, to show that this new national capital wasn’t that far behind swinging Singapore! It wasn’t just ﬁlms with recognisably modern or contemporary backdrops that could reﬂect the times. An example would be Panglima Besi (1964), a purba movie whose anti-war theme certainly reﬂected the tense period of Konfrontasi, as well as lingering memories of World War 2 and the Emergency.
Stars are chosen for their charisma, which is another way of saying sex appeal. The gorgeous men and women of the studio era made the research for this book very painless. I chose (although it’s not such a difﬁcult choice) to respond to cinema the way Pauline Kael did, as can be seen in the titles of her books I Lost it at the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In most of the ﬁlms, the stars were bigger than their roles. So I took the unorthodox decision of identifying the characters in most of the 120 chapters by referring to the names of the actors/actresses instead of the names of the roles. It seems self-evident that a movie-goer, then and now, when describing what movie he or she just saw, would say, “P Ramlee . is a poor trishaw-puller who falls in love with Saadiah, who’s a rich girl” rather than “Amran is a poor trishaw-puller who falls in love with Azizah, who’s a rich girl.” I realise this runs the risk of conﬂating an actor with his role, but I think this elementary confusion actually makes movie-going pleasurable, because it creates cinematic shorthand. Most stars became identiﬁed with only ‘good’ or
120 Malay Movies 17 Amir Muhammad
‘bad’ characters; when we watch them, we remember all their previous roles. Just a split-second of being shown the glowering face of, say, Salleh Kamil or Mahmud June is normally enough to establish their bad intentions. The exceptions I make are for ﬁlms in which historical or known mythical characters are portrayed, or the rare moments where a new ﬁctional character becomes emblematic, such as Haji Bakhil or Kassim Selamat. It’s unavoidable that P Ramlee is the most cited name . in this book (ﬂip to the Index for proof). He dominated and came to personify the Malay studio era as not only actor but director, singer, composer and writer. The closest equivalent to such a multi-tasker in world cinema is India’s Raj Kapoor. Watching these movies in chronological order also enables us to keep track of the ﬂuctuations in P Ramlee’s weight: the . wiry youth blooms into a well-padded adult before slimming down and then ballooning again. This book looks at every surviving movie P Ramlee directed, but there are also . twoother directors who are represented by almost their full ﬁlmographies, K.M.Basker and Hussain Haniff, because I ﬁnd their work veryinteresting and they both similarly had ended their careers by 1973. There are also many other stars whose charisma blazed through the screen, and whose movies I always looked forward to. Chief among them are Siput Serawak, Nordin Ahmad, Latifah Omar, Saadiah, Ahmad Mahmud, Normadiah, M. Amin, Rokiah, Yusof Latiff, Saloma, Ahmad Osman, Sarimah and Mahmud June. Although frequently relegated to comic supporting roles, Siti Tanjung Perak, S. Shamsuddin and Ibrahim Pendek are usually delightful and have greater range than they’re normally given credit for.
Sex & Sexuality in Old Malay Cinema
The sensual portrayal of romance, as can be seen right from Cinta, is something to be celebrated. Village women in kemban sarongs and ﬂowers in their hair who cavort with bare-chested men may not have been strictly accurate representations of how Malay villagers behaved, but these fantasies were deﬁnitely pleasing to the eye. The Malay studio ﬁlms could be seen as sexually tame when compared to what was happening in Europe or Japan at the same time, but sex as represented by a sly pantun or a welltimed cutaway to a blooming ﬂower could do the job just as well. Among the sexiest pairings in this book occur in Cinta (1948), Aloha (1950) and Panggilan Pulau (1954) — and that’s just in the ﬁrst 20 chapters. In some ways, Malay cinema was more adventurous than Holywood movies of the time. Sumpah Orang Minyak and especially Serangan Orang Minyak (both from 1958) dealt with rape, still a taboo in American studios then. Another taboo-buster would be the sympathetic adulterers that we see from 1952 onwards, with the creative peaks for me being the cheating man in Cucu Datuk Merah (1963) and the cheating woman in Cinta Kasih Sayang (1965). Polygamy (which is outlawed in most other societies) is front and centre in Madu Tiga (1964), a sparkling comedy I defend although it runs the risk of sexism. Several other movies deal with polygamy in not such a ﬂippant manner, including Kasih Tanpa Sayang (1963) and Bukan Salah Ibu Mengandung (1969), both of which also take on the thorny topics of sexual infertility and impotence. Even incest is featured in Kasih Tanpa Sayang and Kalung Kenangan (1964) and provides a twist in Gelora (1970). The movies become raunchier as they go along, thanks to the gradual relaxation of social mores as represented by the sexual revolution. They also needed to be spicier to compete with TV So we get ﬁlms like Bukan Salah Ibu Mengandung, .
120 Malay Movies 18 Amir Muhammad
120 Malay Movies 19 Amir Muhammad
Dr. Rushdi (1970) and Gelora; two of them aren’t available on ofﬁcial VCD and one is heavily censored! A sign that we have regressed to a new puritanism, perhaps. Most of the creative personnel were men; there’s not a single female director in this book. But although there are many examples of passive, long-suffering female characters, there are also stronger, more independent types: the protagonist of Matahari comes to mind, not to mention the campier Nora Zain — Ajen Wanita 001 (1967). The ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ trope as shown in Dosa Wanita (1967) and Aku Mahu Hidup (1970) also examines conventional notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, with both those ﬁlms reserving their harshest judgements for social hypocrisy. There are also intelligent critiques of gender disparity in ﬁlms like Sri Mersing (1961) and Lancang Kuning (1962), both purba melodramas in which strong-willed women are punished for daring to make their own choices, and it’s obvious that the sympathies of the movies lie squarely with the women rather than those doling out the punishment. Even more adventurous would be Sumpah Wanita (1960) and Sayang Si Buta (1965) which daringly conﬂates the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ to quite a heady effect. We should also not forget the rapacious undead female in Hantu Jerangkung (1957) and Sumpah Pontianak (1958), which can be seen as morbid acknowledgments of female power, albeit of the screeching variety. As for sexuality, it won’t surprise you to know that things stay very hetero. Panji Semerang (1961), adapted from an old Javanese text, breaks from the mould by having a cross-dressing hero/ine who is the object of amorous attention from a king who mistakes her for a man. I identify Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat as being homoerotic although most would prefer to see them as rather intense ‘buddy movies’. I nevertheless make the claim that the ﬁrst gay male character is in Kaki Kuda (1958), which is also the raunchiest sex comedy we have; and the ﬁrst lesbian is in Nora Zain — Ajen Wanita 001.
120 Malay Movies 20 Amir Muhammad
Feudalism & Politics in Old Malay Cinema
Sex is well and good, but I think the dominant story of this book is the Malay response to feudalism. The earliest movies, like Cinta and Nasib (1949) are all set in purba kingdoms, in which the king or sultan is the ultimate source of not only political but moral authority. The monarch can simply do no wrong. The highest position that a villain could occupy is that of Bendahara, the equivalent of a Prime Minister. And then, from 1956, something started to change. In that year, Hang Tuah presented the ostensible hero as being a rather conﬂicted defender of the feudal order, as personiﬁed by an impulsive and gullible sultan. Tuah starts to wonder whether he’s doing the right thing, as evident in the ﬁnal question that he aims squarely at the audience. This same story was presented in a much more blatantly anti-feudal way in Hang Jebat (1961) which boldly presents the archetypal rebel as a hero and the sultan as a weak-willed despot. Sultan Mahmud Mangkat Dijulang (1961) and Dang Anom (1962) also pick the myths most likely to paint royalty in the worst light possible. In the ﬁrst, the sultan is so vile and greedy that he has a woman killed just because she ate a fruit from the royal orchard. In the second, a different female commoner meets a nasty end because she won’t succumb to royal horniness. The comedies Musang Berjanggut and Nujum Pak Belalang, both from 1959, also poke fun at the fallibility of sultans. In fact, the heads of state here are very easily fooled, and they literally have to get down on their hands and knees in front of commoners. It’s not just the purba movies. The contemporary drama Antara Dua Darjat (1960) is an almost hysterical denunciation of the feudal vestiges of the 20th century. Even a republican like myself found this a wee bit heavy-handed. What was going on between 1956 to 1962 to create this unprecedented rash of anti-feudal ﬁlms? They can best be
120 Malay Movies 21 Amir Muhammad
appreciated in the context of Malay intellectual and literary works, by the socialist-minded Kassim Ahmad and Usman Awang, that sought to educate ordinary people to be free from repressive, outdated ideas of authority. The creation of a new nation-state would necessarily be a time to re-evaluate old ideas and decide which ones to discard. These progressive movies are a sign that cultural life at that time was in an exciting stage of ferment. The almost republican sentiments of those ﬁlms became more nuanced in Lancang Kuning (1962) and Raja Bersiong (1963), which painted the sultan neither as total hero or total villain, but as men who should be judged by their actions. It’s unfortunate that in the ensuing decades, there have been attempts to revive the automatic moral authority of the Malay monarchy. A relapse into total feudalism would be disastrous. Our politics as represented by the Alliance (later Barisan Nasional) shows undoubted hallmarks of feudalism. This is probably aided by the fact that the ﬁrst Prime Minister happened to be a member of royalty, although subsequent PMs have similarly shown no qualms in using undemocratic laws to silence dissent. A hallmark of a feudalist government is one which keeps telling the people to be ‘grateful’. The actor-directors S. Roomai Noor and Jins Shamsudin became active in politics, but there aren’t many references to actual political parties or activities in the movies themselves. Mogok (1957) seems unusual now because it has a backdrop of industrial action; strikes were certainly not an uncommon feature of life then, and the strong role of trade unions was even spoofed in Ali Baba Bujang Lapok (1961). There’s even a joke about UMNO in Pendekar Bujang Lapok (1959) that provided much joy to anti-Establishment types on the Internet decades later. Once again, the purba movies can also be read as political; for example, there’s a distinctly power-to-the-people sensibility in a speech given by the hero in Dua Pendekar (1964), which warns the
government to be more helpful to the people if it wants to retain their support. Speaking of politics: Tunku Abdul Rahman was probably the ﬁrst head of government in the world to write two screenplays that got produced while he was in ofﬁce: Mahsuri (1959) and Raja Bersiong (1968). Both stories were myths from his home state of Kedah, which raises the interesting question of federal versus state identity.
Religion in Old Malay Cinema
There are a few movies set in a vaguely pre-Islamic era, starting with Cinta where the characters worship a stone idol. The most lavish depiction would be in Raja Bersiong (1968), which (unlike the 1963 version) makes it clear that the myth took place when Kedah was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom. The reason this movie is hardly shown on TV anymore is because we are now not allowed to depict Malay-Muslim actors taking part in non-Muslim religious rituals. Four movies in this book detail the coming of Islam to the Malay world: Iman (1954), Semerah Padi (1956), Isi Neraka (1960) and, most controversially, Noor Islam (1960). The fact that their release dates roughly coincided with the string of anti-feudal titles shows that they, too, were part of a re-evaluating process that an incipient nation was going through. Islam in all four cases represented a punitive justice system that is applicable to all, regardless of social rank. Even a king or a headman’s daughter should not be spared from the extent of the law if they went against religious strictures. The fact that Islam is foregrounded in Malay cinema so early might seem to go against the conventional idea that Islamist awareness in Malaysia started only in the 1970s, partly as a response to the political agitation in Iran. (Although the Islamic opposition party PAS started in 1951, it would not be a mainstream political force in its ﬁrst decade.)
120 Malay Movies 22 Amir Muhammad
120 Malay Movies 23 Amir Muhammad
Perhaps Islam, in this instance, can be seen as a strategy of anti-colonial or post-colonial resistance, as an assertion of fundamental difference from the colonial order. This is seen most explicitly in Noor Islam, which shows Islam as a religion of the underclass that is rising against a complacent and rickety system upheld by the rich and powerful. But then again, although Iman and Semerah Padi were big hits, their championing of hudud laws didn’t make people more likely to vote for PAS. Although religion isn’t foregrounded so blatantly, the bifurcated structure of Raden Mas (1959) enables it to be set in both the pre-Islamic and Islamic worlds. The story spans two generations and the continuum also acts as a neat summary of the continual evolution of Malay (or, in this case, Malay/ Javanese) society. Comedies like Nasib Si Labu Labi (1963) puncture the idea that men who have gone on the Haj pilgrimage are necessarily the most upright of people; and a few more like Ahmad Albab (1968) poke fun at the Arabian settings that are often complacently taken as shorthand for Islamist propriety. These movies healthily show that it’s the substance rather than the form which should take precedence if we were to judge someone’s true religious credentials. The privilege customarily accorded to males in cases of polygamy are also critiqued in Seniman Bujang Lapok (1961) and Bukan Salah Ibu Mengandung. Even when all the characters are seemingly modern Muslims, atavistic superstition in the form of black magic can still exist, as seen in Gerimis (1968) and Sial Wanita. The latter ﬁlm, in particular, takes a stand against backward beliefs that are contrary to the progressive spirit of Islam.
Ethnicity in Old Malay Cinema
The Malay studio movies of Singapore featured a predominately Malay cast even though the city by that time already had an ethnic Chinese majority. This might explain the peculiar phenomenon today of these ﬁlms being culturally claimed by Malaysia instead of Singapore. Most young Singaporeans would not be very aware of these movies, while most Malaysians would be familiar with the more famous titles. Singapore is fond of starting its national narrative in 1965, the year of its Separation from Malaysia. This means that the ‘real’ Singaporean ﬁlm industry somehow started only with the Chinese-language ﬁlms of the 1990s; the 1970s and 1980s offered very slim pickings. This is a shame because, despite the ‘Malayness’ of the studio movies, they are a part of Singapore history. There were racial (Malay-Chinese) riots in Singapore in 1964 and in Kuala Lumpur in 1969, but the movies, obviously mindful of censorship, did not foreground or even acknowledge them. Small hints of racial tension actually pop up in purba movies. There’s a dark-skinned Indian who is subjected to merciless teasing by the Malays in Mahsuri (1959) which is ironic considering that early Malay civilisation owed a great deal to the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms that are now part of India. Just as the Chinese-majority Singapore has trouble coming to terms with its Malay cultural past, so too do Malay Malaysians get squeamish when it comes to acknowledging their own Hindu-Buddhist cultural heritage. Another hint occurs in Tajul Ashikin (1963) when budding Malay merchants are drowned out by the more ostentatious Chinese. This shows the Malay fear of being ‘displaced’ in their own land by new arrivals who seem to be much better at business. Although ameliorativeaction policies were necessary to bring the mainly poor Malays up to par with the rest of the population, right-wing demagogues have seized upon this insecurity to keep Malays
120 Malay Movies 25 Amir Muhammad
120 Malay Movies 24 Amir Muhammad
continually paranoid. This focus on ethnicity has made Malaysians less conscious of having a common history and shared destiny. The wisest statement on the melting-pot of Malaysian society occurs in Ali Baba Bujang Lapok. The deliberate mish-mash of cultures in the movie is emphasised with unexpected poignancy when a Chinese trader adds up not only his age but that of his father to answer the question of how long he has lived in the area. This blurs the line between ‘immigrant’ and ‘native’ and it is precisely this blurring that must continue until all Malaysians feel they have the same stake in the nation. I chose to call this book 120 Malay Movies because more than half of the movies were made before ‘Malaysia’ was even created. (Plus, they were made in Singapore.) So what they had in common were the language and ethnic milieu they showcased. But I believe ‘Malay’ can mean something wider than mere ethnic parochialism. Recall that the People’s Constitution as drawn up by the leftist Putera-AMCJA coalition in 1947 deﬁned ‘Malay’ as anyone who was born in, or chose to become a citizen of, Malaya. This idea didn’t catch on, which doesn’t mean it never will. Two movies here foreground interracial love stories: Sesudah Subuh (1967) and Gerimis. The ﬁrst ﬁlm has a twist ending which reveals the relationship to be a kind of sham, but the second roots squarely for the couple to stay together, and we are rewarded with an ending of idyllic happiness. Both movies, however, show the non-Malay woman (willingly) making concessions to her Malay male partner.
Non-Malay vs. Malay Directors
The earliest Malay movies were all directed by the same man. His name was B.S. Rajhans (1903-1955). Born in India, he came to Malaya in the early 1930s and directed Laila Majnun (1934). He returned to India later in the decade but then
120 Malay Movies 26 Amir Muhammad
came back to direct Menantu Derhaka (1942). Although both ﬁlms are lost, most of the ones he directed from Cinta onwards remain. Raphael Millet in his book Singapore Cinema hails Rajhans as the “founding father of Singapore cinema” but it’s ironic that in Malaysia (which has, after all, culturally claimed the Singapore ﬁlms in Malay) no one mentions his name. This relates to the reluctance of local ﬁlm bureaucrats and even academics in Malaysia to acknowledge the work of the pioneer ethnic Indian directors (two of whom, S. Ramanathan and K.M. Basker, were even born in Malaya!) A particularly obnoxious essay in the ﬁlm journal of UiTM Shah Alam (a university open only to ethnic Malays) even claimed that Malay cinema really only ‘began’ when Malays became directors. This is bollocks. Anyone who watches the movies in chronological order would see that the earliest Malay directors actually built upon what the earlier Indian directors did; there is no obvious point of rupture. How can anyone watch Penarik Beca (directed by a Malay in 1955) and not notice the obvious thematic and stylistic continuation from a ﬁlm like Miskin (directed by an ethnic Indian in 1952)? Equally obnoxious is the FINAS book Malaysian Films: The Beginning. These are extracts from the chapter ‘Foreign Inﬂuence and Direction’: “Why were directors from India who knew little or nothing about Malay culture chosen to direct Malay ﬁlms? ... The Indian inﬂuence in Malay ﬁlms made in Singapore was pervasive ... Thus, in the Malay ﬁlms of the early 1950s, there were scenes contradictory to the culture of the audience. For example, the ﬁlm Putus Harapan ended with P Ramlee singing a . song ‘Tidurlah Permaisuri’ upon the death of Rokiah Jaafar. Customarily, in the Islamic community, the hour of death would be ﬁlled with prayers. In another instance, the audience were not too happy with the costume
120 Malay Movies 27 Amir Muhammad
of Latifah Omar in the ﬁlm Panggilan Pulau. These reﬂected elements of Indian culture which had been allowed to seep into the ﬁlms.” More bollocks. Did the folks of FINAS not realise that most of the ﬁlms that were later directed by Malays didn’t customarily have prayers recited at death scenes either? Ditto the matter of costumes (Latifah in that ﬁlm wasn’t even playing a Malay Muslim). Isn’t there such a thing as dramatic licence? There are even two suicide attempts in (the rather good) Bukan Salah Ibu Mengandung, the directorial debut of the FINAS chairman Jins Shamsuddin; why didn’t the book bitch-slap him for “scenes contradictory to the culture of the audience”? If the authors of that book insist on Islamist values, they should probably have checked out Iman, which was made in the same era. But it was by an Indian, so the title is missing from that book. But Isi Neraka, directed by a Malay, is (right on cue) applauded for its “Islamic values”.
Cinema in Old Malay Cinema
The people who made Malay movies didn’t live in a hermetically sealed world. One of the most popular stars, Saloma, actually got her screen-name from the Rita Hayworth movie Salome, which should give you an indication of how cinema makes national boundaries porous. Many of the scenes and even entire stories were adapted from ﬁlms in India, Hong Kong and Hollywood. (Wuthering Heights was a particular favourite, for some reason.) It was up to the genius of each creative team to localise the stories well enough to seem original. For example, the ‘mirror scene’ in Nasib Do Re Mi (1966) is done so well and so knowingly that it would be more accurate to say it’s a homage to, rather than rip-off from, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.
120 Malay Movies 28 Amir Muhammad
In studio movies, stories (even the blatantly adapted ones) tended to be crafted competently enough to provide basic narrative satisfaction. At its simplest level, this meant that we can be counted on to root for the good people and get angry at the bad ones; and not to be too bewildered by a particular event. Plot points and backstory tended to be repeated to make sure we get them. This type of skill should not be underestimated! Check out Shaw’s comeback to Malay cinema (through the Astro-Shaw company) with Nafas Cinta (1999) and you can see how much more sloppy and incoherent the newer ﬁlm is, despite its all-local creative team. The earlier ﬁlms tended to have a stagey quality but this was common in cinema the world over. Things became more adventurous with time, although the tight budgets and time constraints (each ﬁlm had to be shot in three weeks) would always inhibit anything too wild. Perhaps the most ‘cinematic’ director here is Hussain Haniff; his expressive use of camera and editing rarely made his work seem routine or predictable. I am particularly interested in how Malay movies referenced earlier Malay movies. Intertextuality would be inevitable in a small industry in which everyone else would be your colleague or rival (or both). Penarik Beca mentions Iman, Seniman Bujang Lapok promotes Panji Semerang, and Laxmana Do Re Mi mentions Anak Buluh Betung (1966). Even more intriguing is how a line from Masuk Angin Keluar Asap (1963) spoofs something we notice in Nasib Si Labu Labi (1963), made by a rival studio. Quite a few of the ﬁlmmakers would have been competitive enough to want to outdo the others. They might take something that ‘works’ in another movie and then seek to improve on it. This is the approach I have taken in structuring this book: I tend to show how a movie would build upon (or degenerate from) a movie that came before. This means that each movie is never a self-enclosed, solipsistic entity but a cultural product that is in conversation not only with its intended audience but with other cultural products. (I ripped
120 Malay Movies 29 Amir Muhammad
off this idea from Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, a book I never ﬁnished, although I now have the pleasure of having it in the Index of my own book.) Films, just like audience members, usually don’t live alone; they have parents, partners or children.
Then and Now
So, what about my mission? Did I ﬁnd out how the world of those movies is similar (or not) from the world we live in today? I will answer with an illustrated anecdote. The ﬁlm Iman has a scene in which the Devil seeks to impress Ahmad Mahmud, who has just signed a pact with him. The horny fellow (I mean the Devil) waves his hand and promises to conjure up “mahligai yang paling indah (the most beautiful palace)”. Lo and behold! A structure rises from the ground, in a matter of seconds. On the one hand, you have to give the Devil his due: his method of construction doesn’t involve the exploitation of migrant labour. It also, aside from the puff of smoke in the beginning, doesn’t seem to involve much damage to the environment: no trees were felled. This structure is meant to be grand, imposing, and totally out of character with its surrounding area. There would be no love here, just diabolical ambition. (What do you expect when the Devil is your architect? He didn’t even consult the client, but went ahead and built just-like-that!) What I couldn’t help noticing is its similarity to the Prime Minister’s Ofﬁce in Putrajaya:
I Would Like to Thank ... A shy bloke named Kamal Hidayat maintains a site called Filemkita.com. Although he hasn’t updated it in years, it’s a pretty comprehensive resource for the older local ﬁlms. He didn’t get any funding for it; he did it as a hobby. Even the FINAS-funded Sinemamalaysia.com.my has fewer ﬁlms (from the studio era) in its database. If you don’t believe me, try checking how many of the 120 movies in this book are on the latter site. I can assure you they are all in Kamal’s. I don’t personally know most of the people in this book. This is because I am not in the habit of seeing or talking to dead people. I’d also rather not bother the ones still alive with interview requests. The way I see it, if I were one of them, I wouldn’t want to keep dwelling on movies I made 50 years ago. I’d rather concentrate on my gardening, grandchildren or diabetes medication. But, of course, these movies would never have happened without them, and also the unsung behind-thescenes people who shall remain unsung here because I couldn’t
120 Malay Movies 31 Amir Muhammad
be bothered to include the names of Continuity People or Dubbing Editors. But, seriously, I salute them, too! One of the people I did have the pleasure of knowing was Hamzah Hussin while he was at FINAS and when I used to go there often in the late 1990s. He was full of stories about the Cathay-Keris studio era, which he recounted with youthful and often naughty enthusiasm. I had not actually seen any of the ﬁlms he wrote by then (this was before the VCDs became available) and watching them after his death makes me wish I could continue talking to him. I’d also like to thank the earliest readers of this book for their advice and comments, most of which I incorporated but some of which I rashly discarded. Thank you to Richard Wong, Chet Chin, Eugene Chua, Julia Mayer and Ruysan Sopian. Thank you also to Liza Manshoor for working on this book for ... gosh ... it seems like years!
See you at the movies! Or the VCD store.
A Note On Spelling
Many of the names in this book are spelled in more than one way in movie credits as well as press and biographical material. This is because they were usually screen names and were not, for the most part, a matter of ofﬁcial record. I just went with whatever seemed nice to me! So you will get Mahmud June (instead of Mahmood June or Mahmud Jun); Rose Yatimah (instead of Roseyatimah); Malek Selamat (instead of Malik Selamat); and so on. Perhaps the most unusual choice I made was to stick to Siput Serawak (which is how her name appears in most of her movie credits) rather than Siput Sarawak, although, just to make things complicated, I maintained her daughter’s name as the more familiar-looking Anita Sarawak. For the movie titles, I usually chose the modern spelling that Malaysians started using from the mid-1970s onwards: hence, Cucu Datuk Merah instead of Chuchu Datok Merah. I did make the occasional exception; for example, I think Bujang Lapok looks better, and certainly funnier, than Bujang Lapuk.
Amir Muhammad July 2010
120 Malay Movies 32 Amir Muhammad
120 Malay Movies 33 Amir Muhammad