United colours of Malaysian cinema

  • The Bowerbird Writes
  • Monday, 02 May 2016


OLA Bola proves that multiculturalism sells. People actually watch a film with a multi-racial theme.

There is a crying need for truly “Malaysian” films. Popular culture transcends race. If all else fails to unite us, hopefully popular culture will. Our people are drifting apart like never before. Politics, religion, language – supposedly vehicles to unite us – are in fact dividing us.

When we can’t even sit together in a coffeeshop, the least we can do is watch something that we can relate to. We have almost given up on TV stations providing stories on the diversity of our people. When was the last time you watched a multi-racial drama on local TV?

Looking back at the history of Malay cinema, one can see that despite the language and target audience, the involvement of non-Malays as producers, directors and crew members has always been recognised.

The first Malay movie, Laila Majnun, was produced in 1933 and directed by an Indian, B.S. Rajhans. Details are sketchy but the producer was stated as Morillal Chemical and Co of Bombay, Singapore.

Rajhans directed his next film, Menantu Derhaka, in 1942 under the banner of Tan and Wong Film Company.

Officially, Malay Film Productions started in 1947 and Rajhans was there to direct Singapura Di Waktu Malam. He was at the helm of eight more films before another director from India, L. Krishnan, came to direct Bakti in 1950.

Other than Rajhans and Krishnan, the key players in the fledgling film industry were S. Ramanathan, B.N. Rao, K.M. Basker and Phani Majum­dar. There were directors from the Philippines too such as Ramon Estella and B. Avellana.

Besides MFP, Cathay-Keris Film was the other film-producing company. Both were financed by Chinese businessmen.

It was only in 1952 that the first Malay, Haji Mahadi, was given the chance to direct a movie (Permata di Perlimbahan).

P. Ramlee directed his first film, Penarik Beca, in 1956. Another famous actor, S. Roomai Noor, helmed Adam that same year. The golden era of Malay movies was just beginning.

But the fact remains that Malay films have shown remarkable tolerance towards the participation of “others”. The truth is, significant financial involvement of the Malays happened only in the 1970s, in part because of the demands for equitable participation of Malays in the economic cake after 1969.

Malay entrepreneurs started to finance local films as it was trendy at the time for successful businessmen to get involved in films.

During the best years of Malay cinema, non-Malays were very much part of the construct in spite of the “Malay-ness” of its content. It is interesting to note that despite their inadequacy in Bahasa Malaysia, they produced some of the “most Melayu” of movies.

Majumdar directed Hang Tuah in 1956 and Avellana directed Sergeant Hassan in 1958. Both films are considered classics and solidified P. Ramlee’s reputation as the nation’s finest actor at the time.

Movies with multi-racial themes are hard to find. There were attempts later on by P. Ramlee to do so but by then it was too late, too little.

His Sesudah Subuh (1966) and Gerimis (1967), both produced by Merdeka Film Studio in Ulu Kelang, did not resonate well with the audience despite introducing non-Malay actors Vera Wee and Chandra Shanmugam. After all, Malay cinema had lost its lustre by then.

It took more than two decades before Teck Tan made waves when he directed Spinning Gasing in 2000. It was a real attempt to look at Malaysia through the lens of a camera. It was a wake-up call for a need to produce “Malaysian films”.

Santosh Kesavan, Ho Yuhang, Bernard Chauly, Amir Muhammad, Vimala Perumal, Namewee and others attempted to “Malaysianise” their movies with varying degrees of success.

Yasmin Ahmad was in a class of her own and helped redefine Malaysian cinema. As I have written previously, she single-handedly started a movement – Yasminism, which means striving to produce films with a Cause. Long before 1Malaysia became a catchword, Yasmin’s movies were truly Malay­sian at heart and in spirit.

She was the contrarian when other filmmakers were obsessed with their “roots” (meaning their own race). Yasmin directed simple movies about simple people trying to address an extremely complex issue – that of race and religion in the country.

She walked a cinematic minefield, grappling with issues that others would not dare touch. In a country steeped in racial sensitivities and historical baggage, Yasmin’s movies show freshness and ingenuity.

Just look at Sepet, Mualaff, Gubra, Muhsin and Talentime. We see nothing but the audacity to challenge using the power of cinema. Yasmin got away with murder, if you like, meandering through a maze of cynicism, scepticism and distrust that pigeonholed our worldview and prejudices, because she was Yasmin.

We knew she meant well and lived up to her reputation as storyteller extraordinaire of her people, not just her race. Yes, there was very little she could do to change her beloved country race relation-wise, but you can’t fault her for trying.

Thus, Ola Bola’s success is critical for the industry. Chiu Keng Guan first proved his commercial clout with The Journey in 2014. Ola Bola is a critically acclaimed movie and a commercially successful one too. We need many more such movies to help change our mindset.

Ola Bola is important to us for its subject matter – young Malaysians seeking glory via football. The boys in Ola Bola did not go to Moscow for the 1980 Olympics, but the spirit of oneness, togetherness and comradeship as Malaysians will be etched in our consciousness forever.

Yasmin would have been pleased.

  • Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
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