THE month-long appreciation of Tan Sri P. Ramlee on Astro entitled Di Mana Kan Ku Cari Ganti (Where Can I Find A Replacement?, a plaintive tune from his great songbook) will culminate with a first ever major documentary on the legendary entertainer on the channel History this Sunday.
The most-awaited original production on the unforgettable Malaysian star, P. Ramlee, was unveiled to the media last week and it brought laughter and tears to those present at the preview.
Especially those who personally knew P. Ramlee, such as veteran actress Mariani Ismail (P. Ramlee’s sister-in-law), Datuk Aziz Sattar (P. Ramlee’s close friend and fellow actor) and his son Sazali Ramlee.
We all know about P. Ramlee, the inimitable, charismatic and multi-talented actor, singer, comedian, songwriter, screenwriter and film director who captivated his audience with his talents and charming persona in the 1950s and early 60s.
The accomplished musician and composer from Penang, whose real name was Teuku Zakaria Teuku Nyak Puteh, played the ukulele, piano, violin, trumpet, guitar and accordion. He directed and acted in 66 feature films and had more than 350 songs to his credit – many of them huge hits by those days’ standards – winning awards locally and internationally.
Behind those extraordinary talents admired around the region, most people don’t really know what he was like in private.
P. Ramlee, produced by Pesona Pictures and directed by Datin Paduka Shuhaimi Baba, gives a rare insight into the man who continues to capture the hearts of many long after his untimely death on May 29, 1973, aged 44.
The documentary notably showcases exclusive footage of heartwarming interviews with people who have since passed away, such as the love of his life, Puan Sri Saloma, his son Nasir, and close friends and stars Datuk Ahmad Daud and Datin Saadiah.
Also interviewed were Sazali, Mariani and Aziz as well as veteran actresses Datuk Sarimah Ahmad and Hashimah Yon.
Shuhaimi and her team at Pesona had been planning to document P. Ramlee’s work for a long time – 12 years to be exact.
“We started our research in 1998 by talking to his friends and family and those who had worked closely with him. We thought it might come in useful for future references, since there wasn’t any documentary done on Tan Sri P. Ramlee before,” the 59-year-old director told newsmen after the documentary’s screening at Hilton Kuala Lumpur.
“That’s how we managed to speak to the late Datuk Ahmad Daud, Datin Saadiah and also Nasir, who was very excited about the project. Unfortunately, Nasir didn’t live to see this documentary today,” she said. (Nasir passed away in December 2008 at age 55.)
Another trusted friend of the icon that the team got to interview before his passing a few years ago was Kwek Chip Jian, who was the manager at Studio Jalan Ampas in Singapore. Kwek apparently inspired the P. Ramlee song Kwek Mambo.
In the documentary, Kwek talks about their friendship during their days working at Studio Jalan Ampas.
Shuhaimi says her team had all the rare interviews in hand when they heard about the P. Ramlee project commissioned by AETN All Asia Networks, which owns and operates the channel History in Malaysia, and Finas (National Film Development Corporation).
“So we went to pitch for the project and here we are. I’m still pinching myself because I just can’t believe that we’ve finally documented P. Ramlee’s life and work for the public,” she said at the event also attended by Michele Schofield, AETN All Asia Networks vice-president of programming and production.
Shuhaimi also roped in composer Sharon Paul to re-score eight of P. Ramlee’s popular songs as background music for the documentary.
It took Shuhaimi and her 15-member team eight months to put all the materials together.
“It was a learning experience for us, working with international viewers in mind. After discussions with History, we worked on the script and trimmed our three hours’ worth of materials down to a 90-minute biography,” said the Pesona Pictures managing director whose movie credits include 1957 – Hati Malaya, Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam (PHSM) and PHSM 2, Waris Jari Hantu, Layar Lara and Selubung.
Through making the programme, Shuhaimi has come to know the man better.
“He was an optimistic person. When things didn’t work out his way, he would take it positively and laughed it off through his movies.”
In P. Ramlee, viewers will see that in the late 1960s when his appeal started to wane in the face of competition from Indonesian, American and Hindi colour films, the television and a new generation of stars, the entertainer attempted to reinvent himself.
Sadly, those attempts were met with disdain and incredulity. The public made it clear that his time was over. He descended into depression.
At the last Asian Film Festival he attended, no one bothered to allocate him a seat and he ended up sitting at a back row with a friend.
Rejected by banks, denied of his cherished dream to direct his first colour film and finally booed off the stage in his last stage appearance, P. Ramlee died of a heart attack, broke and broken.
Shuhaimi adds that unknown to many, during his difficult years P. Ramlee was forced to open a shop renting out mahjong tables to raise money to finance his movies.
“This is the true story. It’s not to make him look bad but that’s the reality. He had a very difficult life after he left Singapore. Nobody was willing to help him in his movie-making despite all the promises made to him (to get him to return to Kuala Lumpur then).
“Now Malaysians are commending him for his great work, not quite knowing the struggle he went through, especially in the last few years of his life. I really hope his story will give us, the new generation of moviemakers, some lessons to learn,” she concluded.
As his friend Aziz recalled: “P. Ramlee once told me, ‘Ajis, after I die, I will live on for a hundred years.’”
Finally, in death P. Ramlee has attained the immortality he sought but failed to achieve in life.
P. Ramlee premieres on History (Astro Channel 555) on Sunday, 9pm. Encores: Nov 1, 10pm; Nov 6, 7pm; Nov 15, 10pm. It’s available in dual language (English and Bahasa Malaysia) with subtitles in Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese.
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