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A pioneer in filmmaking

Tan Sri L. Krishnan set up his own production company and post-production house in the 1970s.

Tan Sri L. Krishnan set up his own production company and post-production house in the 1970s.

India-born Tan Sri L. Krishnan helped to lay the foundation for the local film industry.

IF Malaya’s first movies seemed to have a strong Indian flavour, there’s a reason why. People involved in Malaysia’s film industry agree Tan Sri Lakshmanan Krishnan’s contribution is paramount.

The 94-year-old – currently residing in Thailand – is, after all, regarded as the father of the Malay film industry.

His brush with filmmaking began in 1947 when he became the assistant director at Kalaivani Film in Madras, India, where he had been born. When he arrived in Singapore, he went to work with Shaw Studios as a director.

His first film, Bakti (1950) – which he directed and wrote, loosely based on Les Miserables – showcased the then newbie actor P. Ramlee as his protagonist.

Ramlee would go on to star in three other Krishnan films. In an interview with The Star in 2012, Krishnan said when he first met Tan Sri P. Ramlee, the legendary artiste was “the ugliest chap with a bad acne problem”.

He added: “In India, we would typically pick singers to be the heroes in our movies and that was why I picked Ramlee. It was not for his good looks, but because he could sing.

“My boss was not in favour of my choice but I vouched for him. Who knew that this opportunity was what Ramlee needed to boost him into stardom?”

Krishnan (second from left) directing P. Ramlee (left) in a scene from the movie Bakti. — Handout
Krishnan (second from left) directing P. Ramlee (left) in a scene from the movie Bakti. —Handout

Krishnan is also responsible for discovering Datuk Maria Menado, who made her film debut in Krishnan’s 1951 flick Penghidupan, and Datuk Rosnani Jamil, whom Krishnan met at an event in 1951.

“He offered me an acting job then and there, telling me to go for the audition. I went, and somehow made it,” recalled Rosnani, 82.

The role was for the film Lupa Daratan (1952) in which she played the leading lady.

“I was surprised when he asked me because I’d never dreamed of becoming an actress.”

Rosnani, who was married to an esteemed director, the late Datuk Jamil Sulong, has also become a director, producer and screenwriter in her own right.

“Tan Sri is very proud of all I have achieved,” shared Rosnani, who met up with Krishnan in December when he was down in Kuala Lumpur.

“He believed in me and was encouraging when I told him I wanted to study filmmaking in London. (Later) whenever he introduced me to anyone, he would say, I am the artiste he discovered who became a director, writer and producer. I am truly thankful for him; he is a God-given angel in my life. It is because of him that I have done all that I have.”

Krishnan celebrating his 90th birthday with veteran film stars in Kuala Lumpur back in 2012. They acknowledge his role in shaping the country’s film industry.
Krishnan celebrating his 90th birthday with veteran film stars in Kuala Lumpur back in 2012. They acknowledge his role in shaping the country’s film industry.

Rosnani, who retired from the film industry after her release Mawar Putih last year, said her only regret is working under Krishnan for that one time only.

While she signed a five-year contract with Shaw Brothers, Krishnan had left the company to join Cathay Keris Films.

It was with Cathay that Krishnan ventured into making the first few Malaysian horror films – Orang Lichin (1957), Orang Minyak (1958) and Serangan Orang Minyak (1959).

Once his stint with Cathay was over, Krishnan moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1960 to work as a director with Merdeka Film Studio.

Again, he began looking at telling unique stories – this time it was themes that explored the early idealism of Malaysia.

Krishnan’s first film with this studio, which was also the studio’s first film, was Tun Tijah featuring actress Salmah Ahmad.

Merdeka Film would later employ Salleh Ghani and P. Ramlee in its pool of directors, launching the golden age of Malay films, which seems unattainable again today.

The prolific director’s other films with the studio include Keris Sempena Riau (1961), Selendang Merah (1962), Ratapan Ibu (1962) and Fajar Menyinseng (1963).

In the 1970s, Krishnan started his own production company, Gaya Film Berhad, and then later Gaya Color Laboratory (a post-production house).

Tan Sri L. Krishnan inspecting a film reel. — Photo from www.merdekaaward.my
Tan Sri L. Krishnan inspecting a film reel. — Photo from www.merdekaaward.my

Www.merdekaaward.my stated it was Krishnan who saw the importance of developing local talents in the film industry by propelling the idea of creating protective tariffs in favour of Malaysian-produced films.

This ultimately led to the ban on foreign-produced commercials, allowing local companies to make our own commercials.

In the 1980s, Krishnan worked more behind the scenes, serving as chairman of Cathay Organisation Malaysia.

Datuk Fauzi Ayob, director-general of the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas), acknowledged Krishnan’s involvement in Malaysia’s film industry and his role as one of the persons responsible for “carving the path for Finas to be established at Merdeka Studio complex.”

The legendary Tan Sri L.Krishnan played an important, vital role in the development of the Malay film industry from the 1940s, explained Fauzi.

“He creatively revolutionised filmmaking with his broad knowledge and great passion. As he directed more than 30 remarkable films, he has influenced several big actors including Tan Sri P. Ramlee, M. Amin and Datuk Rosnani Jamil as they eventually and progressively become great film directors too.”

“Tan Sri L. Krishnan is a pioneer of the Malay film industry,” said producer and director Datuk Yusof Haslam.

“He has directed many of our black-and-white films. We can’t deny his contribution.

“Krishnan and Shaw Brothers are some of the people who founded the industry here when there was none. We are thankful for what they’ve done for generations to come.”