Plural Identities: Reinventions & Revisions in Malaysian Cinema
Feature by: Vinita Ramani
But the fact that Yusoff must acknowledge in the paper that, “In the context of Malaysian cinema, the question of representation has been at stake lately, with the heterogeneity and hybridisation of the nation portrayed in films” (2005: 3), is itself rather perplexing.
Why is representation at stake the moment heterogeneity and cultural boundaries are simply shown as dynamic rather than static?
Via his analysis of three contemporary Malaysian films – Spinning Gasing, Sepet and Sembilu – Yusoff concludes that the “multiculturalism steeped in these films, through the manifestation of multi-ethnic representation, do contribute to a particular construction of (Malaysian) national identity that insists upon heterogeneity and hybridity” (2005: 17).
The question I’m simply left asking is whether it is the job of cinema to participate in the construction of “national identity”, or to read representations of intercultural and inter-religious relationships as a response to the nation’s concerns about multiculturalism and national integration.
2. Navigate This: Culture on the Move in Hussain Haniff’s Jiran Sekampong
Hussain Haniff’s film Jiran Sekampong (Village Neighbours, 1965) is a brilliant social drama that slowly unwinds in a kampong where issues of materialism, social status, class, even “caste” and sexuality emerge. The atmosphere always borders on the explosive, though Haniff keeps the tension subtle and even includes elements of parody to show how social mores and struggles for power brings out the worst in people.
Rohani and her mother live in a more rural part of town and they earn their keep with the elder woman’s domestic work at the home of a doctor. The doctor and his wife see themselves as relatively progressive, though there are lines that cannot be crossed – dancing to 50s rock’n’roll and young couples openly making out is of course, out of the question. Rohani’s suitor (approved by her mother) is Salim, a dedicated mechanic at a workshop.
Other families include Hassan and his father, who wishes his philandering son would settle down with a proper, nice and traditional Malay woman. Instead, Hassan is dating sexy, self-assuredly cosmopolitan and status-seeking Suriani. Schooled by her mother Cik Bedah, who buys the make-up and clothes to send out the message to the community that her daughter is no backward village girl, Suriani’s entire demeanour goes against what Hassan’s father wants in a potential daughter-in-law.
The cast of characters are complex and Haniff manages to weave their stories together remarkably.
In a critical scene, Hassan asks Suriani to dress in the traditional baju kurong and pay a visit to his home, convinced that his father will realise Suriani is not a mini-skirt wearing spoilt sexy brat. Suriani shows up and follows the appropriate code of behaviour, predictably impressing Hassan’s father. When his father asks, “who is that?” and is told it is indeed Suriani, he exclaims how wonderful she is, concluding his joyous approval with, “Stay with this Suriani and drop that other one you were seeing!”
It’s a bizarre bit of irony but Haniff’s inclusion of such a scene is telling and oddly anachronistic. Here is a moment in a Malay film where an incisive comment is made about cultural navigation, youth and identity as fluid. Suriani and Hassan’s little ploy is misconstrued by the father, wherein he sees the traditional Suriani and the modernised, overly sexualised Suriani as two different individuals. From our vantage point, we see a youth culture who must live in several different realities and navigate between them, without necessarily having to give up one identity in order to accept another. In other words, the pluralism isn’t just between cultures in a multi-ethnic context, such pluralism has to exist even when one interprets what or who a “Malay” person is.
Osman, a simple but impassioned fellow develops a relationship with Salmah, the doctor’s daughter. Osman’s mother is just as mortified as Salmah’s parents when they all find out about the young couple. Osman’s mother insists: “We’re a bohmoh (shaman) family and Salmah is from a doctor’s family. The two cannot mix!” Once again, Haniff doesn’t push the point too dramatically. The class differences are evident, but he makes it clear that socially, such differences are not always seen as hierarchical; that notions of superiority, inferiority and difference are complex and cannot be reified.
If stereotypes exist in the film – the macho man, the gossiping women, the status-seeking parents - almost everyone is subject to being portrayed in such a manner. In other words, Haniff shows that when passions run high, we become a caricature of ourselves.
The portrayal of gender dynamics, sexuality and power in itself are insightful and do not appear dated even 40 years after the film was made. Cik Bedah is the epitome of contradictions in a social context where she understands the worth of sexual currency, but dramatically deplores its consequences by accusing the daughters of other families of misbehaviour.
In a particularly daring scene, Rohani is raped by neighbour Encik Salleh – a leery landowner who spies on her visits with her boyfriend Salim. At the same time, we see Salim praying at the mosque. After Encik Salleh has left, Rohani remains mute, in a state of shock. The filmmaker juxtaposes this image with Salim at the workshop, intently working a lead metal rod through a hole.
Though the film ends on a positive note, this particular scene is the darkest and most powerful in the film. In how it overtly questions the role men play in women’s lives and the issue of sanctity or purity as religion would define it, Haniff manages a form of social commentary that is both subtle and remarkable.
3. Construction still not complete
Several other films struck me as cosmopolitan, witty and incisive in their portrayal of issues such as tradition, modernity and culture. However awkwardly done, or however wooden the acting may seem in parts, films such as Satay by K.M.Basker (1958) or Korban Fitnah by P.L.Kapur (1959), successfully touch on gender, sexuality and the ongoing attempts by a community to understand itself, knowing that self-knowledge has to be constantly re-defined and re-contextualised. Even Sumpah Pontianak by B.N. Rao (1958) starring the famous Maria Menado, takes the pontianak myth about the cursed spirit of a dead woman coming back to wreak havoc on the community, and reverses it. Here, Menado plays all three characters – the pontianak, the beautiful spirit of the deceased mother and the ugly hunchback who has been subdued by the villagers. But in every incarnation, she is powerful and her only intention is to protect her daughter and destroy anyone who cause harm in this regard. Though some theorists generally read the pontianak myths through a psychoanalytic framework to expose the ways in which femininity is constructed, I think there is some room in this case, to see how the traditional reading of the myth is somewhat subverted. 
I only say this in order to reiterate the essential point of my essay: namely, that cultures are not static, that traditions can be re-interpreted and that the little exposure I have had to Malaysian cinema from the 1950s – 1960s has clearly demonstrated to me how acutely aware the filmmakers and actors of the time were of this. Perhaps it had something to do with making films during a period of immense political changes. I have neither the expertise, nor the space within the parameters of this essay to explore the historical context to justify this statement.
The speculations aside, I think we can certainly learn something from Malaysian cinema in that period. If not anything else, let’s at least try to remember what P.Ramlee and his Indian compatriots of the era so obviously and humorously demonstrated to us: to be Malaysian (or Singaporean, or any nationality for that matter) can potentially mean one can be anything. Identities are always being constructed.