Plural Identities: Reinventions & Revisions in Malaysian Cinema
Feature by: Vinita Ramani

August 2005 has been an eventful time, with the Screen Singapore Festival in Singapore [1] and the Southeast Asian Cinemas at the Border Conference at Thammasat University, Bangkok (August 15-16) [2] . The following article is a personal perspective on the issues that have arisen in both spaces around the issue of national cinema, culture and identity. I've kept it specific to Malaysia and Singapore (pre-independence) since this was also the Festival's focus. The conference itself saw the most intriguing tensions arise in the context of how one can define "Malaysian" cinema. Suffice it to say, I am not an expert in Malaysian cinema. However, the debates proved to be useful in contemplating the larger issues and I have kept my responses specific to two films and what I have read so far.

Ask P. Ramlee: Pluralism and Malaysian Identities

When he was asked about his two most recent films, Tokyo Magic Hour and The Year of Living Vicariously (2005), filmmaker Amir Muhammad summed them up rather aptly as "Malaysian" films first, however else they may be categorised and understood.

Made in the same year, one is ostensibly a eulogy and a visual poem tracing the beginnings and demise of a relationship (Tokyo Magic Hour). The other film is a documentary located in the context of Indonesian filmmaker Riri Riza's new production Gie (2005), where students and various people on the set comment on the state of their country.

Though apparently confusing at first, one realises Muhammad's decision to define them as "Malaysian" films is neither an attempt at being cryptic, nor stylishly postmodern. Instead, it shows that the efficacy of film history isn't lost on the filmmaker. Put in simpler terms, it seems like Muhammad is paying tribute, quietly and unequivocally.

So who is receiving the kudos?

Some pieces clicked into place during the Screen Singapore Festival's screening of P. Ramlee's Labu Dan Labi (1962). The film is a riotous comedy in which two servants, Labu (M.Zain) and Labi (P.Ramlee), lead lives of miserable subservience to Haji Bakhil (Udo Omar). Bakhil (which means "stingy poker") is a caricature tyrant who hoards his wealth, refusing to part with it even when his daughter needs a little extra cash to keep her sewing business going. Labu (the cook) and Labi (the driver played by P. Ramlee) drift off into a world of fantasy one night, lying out on the porch and conjure up scenarios in which the master-servant relationship is reversed.

The film then segways into the various possibilities their fantastical imaginations create. Suddenly, Labu is a souped-up magistrate and Labi is a doctor. The two meet in a snazzy jazz bar where a cool-looking band play sexy numbers (and the acquiescent guy serving the drinks is Haji Bakhil).

Songs include Consuela Velasquez's Besame Mucho, now made famous by Cape Verde chaunteuse Cesaria Évora. Models representing every ethnic group (Anglo, Chinese, Malay and Indian) strut down a catwalk and the dramatic emcee keeps the mood up. Labu and Labi break into a hilarious, satirical version of rich, established aristocrats - complete with English-accented Malay and plenty of English words thrown in for good measure.

As if this sequence weren't absurd enough, Ramlee's comedic but wry narrative takes us through every cliche imaginable. The two men play out Tarzan in the jungle (an almost Animal Farm like parody of our animalistic, primordial need for power); the classic western; noir and melodrama complete with marriages, murder attempts and jealousy.

The audience can either dismiss it as the mad desires of two servants or an excuse for Ramlee to engage in some freewheeling warm-ups in various cinematic genres.

What stood out most dramatically at the end of this great comedy is P.Ramlee's message that in the end, it is a Malaysian film. In it, Malay characters can be anywhere and anything - both in an economic and cultural sense. They can become what they desire and also parody the outcome. Gin and tonic, sexy baju kurong, status and prejudice - it is all there and it all evokes laughter.

In an article called P.Ramlee Bridges the Ethnic Divide (January 21, 2005, New Straits Times), Muhammad says just as much in response to the growing tendency in some circles to reify Malaysian (and Malay) cinema - a dubious act of "reclaiming identity" if there ever was any. He critiques one particular writer, Ayu Haswida Abu Bakar's take on Malay cinema. To quote from the article:

"Malay cinema is described as "kuat dibelenggu oleh budaya India" (tightly shackled by Indian culture) and our audiences "dibuai momokan imaginasi pengarah India" (lulled by the spectre of Indian directors' imagination) before our hero P. Ramlee came along and "berjaya melenyapkan pengaruh budaya India" (successfully wiped out the influence of Indian culture) from local cinema".

Ms Bakar also presented a paper at the conference in Thammasat, titled "National Identity in Malaysian Cinema", where these same issues were once again raised.

Ms Bakar states, "films must portray Malaysia's dictum being 'Our film, our image'" (2005: 2). There are two implications to be drawn from this somewhat ambiguous statement. Firstly, there is an assumption that "our image" is cohesive and homogenous. What little mention of plurality there is in the paper, is only given a cursory glance at best. Indeed, Indian directors like P.L.Kapur, B.N.Rao, B.S.Rajhans or L.Krishnan are hardly mentioned, with the exception of Rajhans. Instead, Ms Bakar states, "Ironically, it was the Malays that took hold of the dying industry and began its restructuring" (ibid: 6). Unsubstantiated, this supposed economic fact is turned into a piece of historical revisionism, effectively denying the pluralism and cultural syncretism that was evident in the cinemas of Malaysia and Singapore at the time. [3]

The second assumption is of course, that film must conform to an apparently homogenous cultural reality. Ms Bakar only substantiates this by quoting herself: "The influence of popular culture must not be treated lightly as its powerful impact is piercing into our society amidst modernization and urbanization and ultimately into our cultural heritage" (2005: 8). This statement practically borders on alerting Malaysians to an impending threat.

Additionally, the idea that a government must play a paternalistic and interventionist role in determining the content of cinema as it ties into issues of "national integration" is dangerous at best.

In his essay tracing the historical development of cinema in Malaysia, M. Shariff Ahmad summarises that the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS) was set up to regulate film activities, "to monitor and guide the growth of the industry so that its economic profile could be clearly seen within the context of the overall economic growth of the country" (2000: 55) [4]. This somewhat broad objective likely has its attendant problems and advantages. If it is a tool to curtail pluralism in Malaysian cinema because this would be seen as a hindrance to the nation's attempts at integration and growth, this is both narrow-minded endeavour. It seems that this is how Ms Bakar interprets the role of such an institution.

Why belabour this point?

In a considerably better and more astute paper, Malaysian academic Norman Yusoff examines hybrid identities and pluralism, delving into the works of cultural theorists such as bell hooks and Stuart Hall [5]. Yusoff recognises how new Malaysian cinema problematises attempts to define a monolithic idea of "national cinema" and how some portrayals of inter-cultural relationships or ethnicity may be in line with the nation's ideas of multiculturalism, or a challenge to it.

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. [6]

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.

[1] Screen Singapore’s full programme can be found at www.screensingapore.com The festival ran all of August 2005, showcasing films from Malaysia and Singapore during its studio era in the 1950s-1960s, right up to the latest offerings from Singaporean filmmakers such as Djinn Ong and Kelvin Tong

[2] Details about the conference can be found at www.thaifilm.com

[3] In an interview I did with Maria Menado in August 2005 for an article, the actress told me that she had worked with the likes of Shammi Kapoor – the great Indian actor – and that there was a great deal of interaction, exchange of ideas and creative energy between the Indians and Malays. When I queried her on why this isn’t mentioned more in writings about Malaysian cinema, she said simply shook her head, rolled her eyes and said, “what to do?”

[4] Ahmad, M.S.: Malaysia in The Films of Asean, Edited by Jose F. Lacaba. ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information: 2000

[5] Yusoff, N: Representation of Multi-Ethnic Characters in Contemporary Malaysian Cinema. Also presented during the Southeast Asian Cinemas at the Borders Conference, 15-16 August 2005, Thammasat University/Thai Film Foundation.

[6] Adeline Kueh’s paper and research in this area makes for excellent reading. See Kueh, A: Pontianak and her Sisters: Representations of Monstrosity in Southeast Asian Popular Culture. The full paper can be found at: http://www.ahcca.unimelb.edu.au/events/conferences/WLB/kueh.html

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