WHEN I joined Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) as a researcher in 1977, I shared a room with the late Abdullah Hussain. He was already a well-known novelist and short story writer. He later became the country’s eighth Sasterawan Negara (national laureate). He was once the editor of the entertainment magazine Gelanggang partly owned by the great P. Ramlee. Naturally, he had a lot of stories to tell about his days in Singapore during the best years of Malay cinema.
Abdullah was married to a famous bintang filem (film star), Zaiton, who acted in many of P. Ramlee’s movies, among them Bujang Lapuk and Ibu Mertuaku. They divorced and both of them remarried. But there were times when Zaiton would call Abdullah regarding their two children.
When I met Zaiton recently, she remembered the young man who was always on the other end of the phone some 47 years ago. And she knew there were times when I wasn’t telling the truth about the whereabouts of her ex-husband. I have never met her in person until Saturday, the 6th of April at No. 8, Jalan Ampas, Singapore.
It is probably one of the most significant addresses in Singapore for millions of Malay film diehards. It housed Malay Film Productions (MFP) – one of the dream factories that saw its heydays in the 50s and 60s.
The other studio was Cathay-Keris Film. Between them, they produced 283 films. The two studios were competing to produce the best – redefining Malay cinema during its golden years.
There is little left of No. 8 Jalan Ampas today. There is an old brick building and what is left of a former studio. There are pictures and posters of old films and its stars exhibited on the walls.
The place is sandwiched between posh high-rise apartments. The historic place is at the mercy of its owners, the Shaw Organisation. Unless it becomes a museum or declared a Singapore heritage, like a lot of other landmarks, the buildings will be demolished to favour more apartment blocks.
Zaiton just celebrated her 82nd birthday, but she has not lost her beauty, lustre and exuberance. She carries herself like a primadona she once was. She’s affable and very accommodating. She occasionally shed tears listening to stories narrated about her fellow actors and actresses who have long gone. She is in fact the last of her generation from Jalan Ampas.
More than 200 people were gathered at Nostalgia@Jalan Ampas gathering, graced by Amrin Amin, Senior Parliamentary Secretary of the Home Ministry. Besides Zaiton, K. Fatimah and Sri Rahayu Sudarmaji were there, so too film historian and lyricist Yusnor Ef.
Sri Rahayu known to film buffs as “Ayu 20 sen” was the little cheeky girl who demanded 20 sen from Zaiton in the movie Bujang Lapuk to keep her silence. Comedian Wahid Satay too was there, although he was not a member of MFP.
It was a gathering unlike any other. To hear stories of the grand old days of Malay cinema from those involved was a real eye opener. The golden era of Malay movies is long gone. Malay movies sadly has not moved away from the mould set by the films of yesteryears.
In fact, not many contemporary Malay films are remembered the way the old movies were part of the psyche of the generation.
Sadly too, none of the local actors and actresses attained the kind of respect and adoration as those of Zaiton’s era. In fact, Malay films are still being compared to the excellence and grandeur of films directed by P. Ramlee, Jamil Sulong, Omar Rojik, S Karisman or those from Cathay-Keris studio like Hussein Haniff, M Amin and Salleh Ghani.
Actors and actress like P. Ramlee, Nordin Ahmad, Salleh Kamil, Aziz Jaafar, Normadiah, Latifah Omar, Jins Shamsuddin, Roomai Noor and Zaiton were simply irreplaceable.
Take the case of P. Ramlee. He was introduced by director B.S. Rajhans in Cinta in 1948, went on to act in 21 films before he was given the chance to helm his own film, Penarik Beca, in 1955. It was a film with a powerful message which resonates even to this day. P Ramlee was extremely talented as an actor, director, comedian, singer and composer.
The curtain has come down. For many years Malay films were in limbo. The Merdeka Film Studio that continued the Shaw Brothers initiative produced 88 films till 1976. But very few were worthy of mention. P. Ramlee came out with a few gems while at Ulu Kelang, but even the great man had lost his golden touch.
The gathering at Jalan Ampas last week reminded me of the need for filmmakers and artistes to adapt to the ever-changing creative landscape, especially in today’s world.
Even glory has a shelf life!
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.