Tuesday, February 15, 2005

How non-Indian was P. Ramlee?

written by: Amir Muhammad
(NST, 21 January 2005)

* Jurnal Skrin Malaysia: vol 1 (Universiti Teknologi MARA, 2004)

Now here's a thing: a local journal on cinema. I have the first issue right here in my throbbing hands, and it isn't from my excitement but a design choice that the cover is in two shades of orange.

This is a good thing; the orange, too. It's time to introduce other ways of talking about movies. There are all these subtexts waiting to be elevated as text; all these discursive terrains to be traversed by the hardy academic, with dictionary in one hand, the collected Kant in another hand, and a blow-torch in another, and if you were paying attention you'd notice this guy has three hands! Movies need to be (to use an academic-type word) problematised.

There are some worthwhile things in here, but let's just talk about the one that irritated me the most. Ayu Haswida Abu Bakar, who teaches film theory and Malaysian cinema at UiTM, has weighed in with "Penarik Becha: Paradigma dalam Sinema Melayu." (The Trishaw-Puller: A Paradigm in Malay Cinema).

Penarik Becha was P. Ramlee's first film as director, a melodrama of a poor but honest trishaw-puller whose romance with rich girl Azizah did not run smooth. Its depiction of class conflict had pathos and romance; it became a big hit. It was the first film to be directed by a Malay to make a profit, as local movies in the first two decades were mainly directed by expatriate Indians.

Ayu Haswida says Penarik Becha represented a radical new way compared to previous Malay-language movies. I don't think such a total epistemological break did occur. Although most of the previous Malay-language films were adapted from Indian films, many of the latter's conventions still surface in Penarik Becha, not least of which is the incorporation of songs.

The essay sees filmic and storytelling conventions entirely through ethnic terms. It's as if there is this untouched (and untouchable) entity called "pure Malay cinema", and Penarik Becha was the first to show the way. But since Malays started directing films rather late (when cinema itself was more than half the age it is now), influences would be inevitable. Same thing goes for novels. Any quest for a pre-ordained, essentialist `purity' is special pleading at best and jingoism at worst.

After all, P. Ramlee's first big role as actor was in "Bakti" (1950) which was adapted from an episode in Hugo's Les Miserables. One of the songs, "Satay", had an echo of Handel, of all people.

But wait…"Bakti" was directed by an expatriate Indian, L. Krishnan. These people are the bogeys of Ayu Haswida's essay. You half-expect John Williams' "Jaws" theme to pop up whenever Indian directors are mentioned.

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. So it's no wonder that such a loathsome specimen would include non-Malay cultural elements! The country had just emerged from British colonialism and a brutal Japanese occupation then, but sharp Ayu knows who the real enemies are. She even says that the Malay directors of the 1950s should be considered "generasi pengarah pertama" (the first generation of directors) in the Malay film industry, a nifty bit of historical revisionism.

But wait… The special genius of P. Ramlee (although I prefer his songs to his frequently preachy and sentimental films) is that he could internalize so many elements and make them inimitably his. Even his very name – using his father Puteh's initial in front of his own, Ramlee – was inspired by South Indian movie stars.

From essay you'd think he had heard nothing except "irama traditional seperti inang, joget, zapin dan sebagainya" all his life, but he used everything. According to Ahmad Sarji's hagiographic but fact-filled "P Ramlee: The Bright Star", influences for his songs include the waltz, samba, beguine, andante, bolero, mambo, rumba (`Bila Larut Malam') and twist (`Bunyi Gitar'). The band he formed, Panca Sitara, was influenced by The Platters. And his best film as director, "Ali Baba Bujang Lapok" is such a riot of cultural influences as to be surreal. He was very Malay, which means he could be very much anything else.

The essay, slight and casual though it is, is a symptom of intellectual malaise. It is as misguided as French film snobs who think their `Nouvelle Vague' (New Wave) films of the 1960s were a bulwark against American cultural imperialism, when they were actually directly influenced by the post-war pop of, yes, American pulp fiction. Or like those people who believe that the coming of Islam in the 15th century represented a total change in the Malay world-view -- something that even now hasn't been fully achieved, thank God.

Although there is a great deal to be said about ethnicity and cultural specificity, seeing everything through racial blinkers does no favours to scholarship or P. Ramlee. Many fine artists (and even some fine fine artists) are from UiTM. The writer should reflect on the 21 qualities required of all its graduates which I saw pasted on the wall when I last visited, which include being progressive, innovative and critical, global, analytical, rational, open and far-sighted.


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