Mass appeal

  • Nation
  • Tuesday, 31 Aug 2010

Movies that highlight our multiracial make-up and celebrate Malaysian idiosyncrasies.

The Malaysian New Wave, as the local independent film scene is known, is probably the most multiracial period in local filmmaking. At the start of the new millennium, when the world had just breathed a huge collective sigh of relief at the anti-climactic, non-appearance of Y2K, new life was injected into the local film scene through the independent movement.

The first local indie films of the new century was started by former newspaper columnist Amir Muhammad, and theatre practitioner James Lee – armed with digital video cameras and shoestring budgets. The New Wave movement evolved into a multicultural juggernaut that grew from strength to strength at international film festivals.

Following Amir and Lee, others such as Ho Yuhang, Tan Chui Mui, Deepak Kumaran Menon, Liew Seng Tat, Azhar Rudin, Chris Chong and Woo Ming Jin brought about the most fertile period in Malaysian filmmaking, garnering attention at overseas film events. Very few Malaysians however, are aware of the fact that 64 years ago, the first ever multiracial story with a multiracial cast was also an independent film.

In post-WWII Malaya, after all other films were banned from the cinemas except for Japanese propaganda films during the Occupation years, an Indian businessman funded the making of Seruan Merdeka, directed by B.S. Rajhans for Malayan Arts Production.

The film told the story of Malays and Chinese in an underground movement to fight the Japanese Occupation and starred Salleh Ghani. It was the first film made after the war. Coincidentally, the last film made before the war, Menantu Derhaka, was also directed by Rajhans, who also shot the first local film ever made, Leila Majnun (1934).

Seruan Merdeka is largely regarded as the first political film to be produced in this country. Made in the atmosphere and euphoria of post-war times, it was fuelled by the feeling of unity. The producers consciously move away from the tried and tested formula of Malay films of that era to feature Chinese and Malay youths fighting for a common cause.

Unfortunately, the film was regarded a commercial failure. This was largely due to the monopoly by the two film giants of the time, Shaw Bros and Cathay Keris. The control and influence by these two companies meant that films not produced by them were relegated to limited screenings under their “closed-door policy”.

In a way, it can be said that Seruan Merdeka set the stage for future multiracial films to come. Later films, such as Selamat Tinggal Kekasihku (1958) directed by Datuk L. Krishnan, and Gerimis (1968) directed by Tan Sri P. Ramlee, attempted the same multiracial story angles but met with mixed results. Antara Senyum Dan Tangis from 1951 touched on multiracial issues. Detective movies Hantu Rimau (1960) and Sumpitan Racun (1961) paired a Malay cop with a Chinese forensics expert as a crime-solving duo.

Everyone chipped in

In its early years, Malaysian (or Malayan) cinema was already a multicultural endeavour. Directors were brought in from India while funds came from Chinese companies Shaw and Cathay, and Malays were the talents in front of the camera. Stories were adapted from Chinese, Indian and English literary sources. For instance, Selamat Tinggal Kekasihku was adapted from the Indian classic Devdas, and the first Orang Minyak film, according to its director Krishnan, was adapted from an English novel titled The Bat. Leila Majnun was a Middle Eastern love story.

From the post-war period right up to the early 1960s, Shaw imported many directors from India, among them B.N. Rao who directed the first Pontianak film. Later, the talents of Filipino directors who made films with a Hollywood style were also brought in. Lamberto Avellana, for instance, made the first local war film, Sergeant Hassan, starring P. Ramlee.

In the 50s, there were calls for greater Malay involvement in the film industry, chiefly from the Singapore Malay Journalists Association. These voices made clear the need for more representations of Malay culture in films, and Shaw had no choice but to begin looking for Malay directors. In 1952, it released Permata Diperlimbahan, directed by Haji Mahdi, which flopped at the cinemas. It was then that all attention turned to P. Ramlee, who was already enjoying a successful acting career.

His directorial debut, Penarek Becha (1955), became the highest-grossing film of its time, and confidence in Malay film directors was restored. Others followed suit, such as S. Roomai Noor who directed 1956’s Adam.

P. Ramlee’s films still remain very popular with everyone today. No one has been quite able to replicate his winning formula, at least not with the same level of success. The fact that his films appealed to people of various races made him a tough act to follow. Perhaps it was because the local cinema was still in its infancy and there was still an excitement in seeing local quirks and idiosyncrasies represented up on the big screen. P. Ramlee captured all that perfectly. Or perhaps, it was the socio-political landscape of the time.

Apart from Gerimis, P. Ramlee’s Sesudah Subuh (1967) also features a multiracial/multicultural cast. Amir Muhammad, in his book 120 Malay Movies (Matahari Books), calls it “the most multicultural cast we have seen.” The credits are even categorised into Keluarga Melayu, Keluarga Tionghua and Keluarga India (Malay Family, Tionghua Family and Indian Family).

Modern Malaysian films

In contemporary times, the only filmmaker to come close was Yasmin Ahmad. Though not a big hit, her cinematic debut, Sepet, was well-received. There were reports of people going for repeat viewings, and cinema halls filled with movie-goers of various races. Prior to her debut, several other directors had attempted multiracial stories, or at least, feature characters of various races in their films.

In 1983, Othman Hafsham made the hit comedy Mekanik, which showcased the funny side of multiracial KL folk in a story about a mechanic who stumbles upon stolen money. Later, more serious issues were tackled in films such as Datuk Rahim Razali’s Tsu-feh Sofia (1986), about a Chinese woman who wishes to convert to Islam, and inter-racial love story/actioner Red Haired Tumbler Di Malaya (1994).

Inter-racial love stories continued with 2000’s Spinning Gasing (which was initially banned but later approved with cuts), Sepet and Datin Paduka Shuhaimi Baba’s Mimpi Moon.

Shuhaimi’s films have always featured multiracial casts, and she says Malaysian filmmaking has been multiracial ever since she got involved behind the camera. Her first film, Selubung, was inspired by the plight of the Palestinians and Malaysian humanitarian volunteers such as Dr Ang Swee Chai and Dr Alijah Gordon.

Through her experience with her early films, she found that a balance needed to be struck to achieve box-office success. A multiracial cast was not enough; the story had to appeal to Malaysians of all races.

“Multiracial and multicultural elements need not be so in-your-face,” she says. “It can also be in a story that all races can identify with, such as Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam.”

She believes that filmmakers cannot plan to have a multiracial cast in a movie or it would feel artificial; rather, they should write what is in their hearts and about what affects the people around them.

“It comes naturally to me because I work with Malay and non-Malay friends and staff,” says Shuhaimi. “I do make sure, where suitable, that the characters should be multiracial but I make it as natural as possible so that they don’t seem ‘planted’.”

For Othman Hafsham, it makes better economic sense to produce a “Malaysian” movie.

“In terms of economic returns, the gains would be greater for a Malaysian movie as all Malaysians would go to see it,” he says. “If it is a Malay movie, then only Malay audiences would go and see it.”

He said that in the 80s, there were already signs of young Malaysians going to see a Malaysian movie such as his hit comedy Mekanik. Unfortunately, no one took up the mantle after he stopped making films for a while. He is currently making Karipap-karipap Cinta, which he says is a story that can happen in any community.

“Lat makes very cynical, funny observations about Malaysians, and his work has already been accepted by Malaysians,” says Othman. “I believe as Malaysians, we must be able to laugh at ourselves.”

Teck Tan, the director of Spinning Gasing, says his film is a nostalgic yearning for those times when he was growing up in the 60s and 70s, when multiracial friendships were abundant and diversity was celebrated.

When the film was released, albeit heavily censored, Tan went into the cinemas to see what sort of people were in the audience.

“It was gratifying to see Malaysians of different races,” he says. “But, of course, they were mostly the young urban crowd as that was the target audience.”

Asked if Spinning Gasing had inspired others to also make multiracial films, Tan replies: “I’m sure many filmmakers were just itching to tell stories, whether multicultural or not, that were more reflective of our diverse Malaysian society. They all had their own sources of inspiration.”

The indie scene has recently become even more of a melting pot with cross-cultural efforts such as Chris Chong’s Malay-language Karaoke securing a place in the Director’s Fortnight section of the Cannes International Film Festival. Chong collaborated with singer-songwriter Shanon Shah to tell a story about a Malay mother and son living in an oil-palm estate. Tan Chui Mui, meanwhile, is currently working on her second feature, Year Without A Summer, which is in the Terengganu dialect.

Chong says the last four films he made before Karaoke were in various languages – Achehnese, Chinese (Mandarin), Tamil and Malay.

“For me as a Sabahan, it was never ‘my’ language or ‘your’ language’,” says Chong. “Malay was always commonly used along with Kadazan and Hakka. It was only when I moved to KL that I find language is so vehemently based on race and who owns it. It took awhile for me to adjust to the ‘war zones’ of language in KL.

“Just because we include other cultures in our films does not mean we embrace other cultures. It is most important to tell stories from your own experience, and that is up to each person’s willingness to be part of the faces and places around them.”

Shuhaimi feels the local Malay movie fans have somewhat liberated local cinema, and today, the local film industry thrives on stories other than the tried and tested ones. But if the fanbase broadens, then there will be more variety on offer in the cinemas.

“So Malaysians, have a heart for local films, drop your prejudices so we can continue to ‘groom’ new stories and new talents. Support local cinema,” says Shuhaimi.

Tan thinks Malaysian audiences are definitely ready for more multiracial movies.

“Malaysians are a pretty sophisticated lot,” he says. “Times have changed and there is a lot more open discourse in public, especially on the Internet. The challenge is for the younger generation of filmmakers to make their own waves.”

Hafsham reveals much of what inspired him to make a film such as Mekanik that celebrates all our Malaysian idiosyncrasies with much joyous laughter.

“I may be Malay, but I’m a Malaysian at heart,” he says proudly. “I have friends of all races, and since my schooldays in the late 50s, I’ve been thinking like a Malaysian.”

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