Salaam to the south
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, back when he was still living in Iran, made a film called Salaam Cinema. It shows many Iranians auditioning for a film. It offered a charming glimpse at the hopes and dreams of ordinary, movie-mad Iranians. OK, I must confess: I never actually saw Salaam Cinema, but that’s not going to stop me from commenting on it.
This is a prelude to saying that I spent the last weekend quite agreeably holding auditions in Johor Bahru. Now, I blush to say that this was the first time as an adult I had ever been to JB. Well, I had no reason to go before this, did I?
So we had the auditions and were pleasantly surprised when almost 100 people turned up, despite minimal publicity. Many of them are involved in theatre productions and performed their lines with booming gusto. One had played Datok Onn and Hussein Onn in different plays and would soon, I am sure, get a crack at the third generation. Of particular interest were the young man who did uncanny impersonations of Que Haidar and Ako Mustapha, as well as the teacher from a religious school who acted out his own monologue in which he begged his step-mother to beat him. (Don’t ask).
Along the way, we chatted with the people who came. Quite a few worked in Singapore and had to wake up at 4 to cross the border; others were thinking of moving to KL; some spoke of the changes, the good and bad, their city had undergone.
The last time I had been in JB was in early childhood, and I always managed to be asleep as buses passed the city on the way to the checkpoint for Singapore trips, so I was not quite sure what to expect.
It does have some of the characteristics of a border town -- a place of flash and transience and opportunity -- that is as much a mental as physical state, beloved of certain people. Do Singaporeans see it the way we see Golok? Although I remember an entertaining chapter in Rehman Rashid’s A Malaysian Journey that described JB as somewhat dodgy, it must have cleaned up in the meantime -- or I wasn’t looking in the right places. There is even a waterfront eatery that seems to have been uprooted by tornado from Hartamas.
The movie we auditioned for is set entirely in JB. I am not sure if it will be the first, but it’s safe to say that previous JB movies, if they exist, do not number in the dozens. I certainly don’t recall seeing any, which accounts partly for my own lack of mental images.
My friend says it’s easy to differentiate JB folks form visiting Singaporeans based on how many colours they wear. And for sure there are local particularities that I might pick up on the more I go there. (We are shooting in September).
This is why it seemed particularly apt to cast, whenever possible, JB actors themselves. Aside from the fact that we will save on the accommodation budget (hah!) a local will be able to provide a certain verisimilitude, especially as this story is so specific to its locale.
But tell that to the KL-based aspiring actor who seemed quite peeved by our decision to hold auditions only in JB. He said that he was being deprived of an income and that we were being selfish! Not knowing him at all, I assumed he is the sort who thinks life owes him a living. But beyond that, there is also the sanctimoniousness of being in the centre.
I like living in the capital city, maybe because I am so used to complaining about it that I’m now too old to start complaining about a new place. In fact, I can’t really imagine living anywhere else in Malaysia. I used to think (oh, what will you think of me?) that anyone who chose to live outside KL simply has no ambition. My views have modified somewhat. But even now, if perchance I am flung into exile, I will always want to live in the largest city of whatever country I land in.
But increasingly it’s become apparent that so much of our media consciousness is KL-centric. (The fact that it’s Peninsula-centric is also obvious). It’s time I too started to listen more, which is why I took the chance to be involved in this JB movie. The writer/director grew up there.
So even though I am so KL-centred, it now gives me a twinge of sorrow that young people elsewhere, such as the ones who came for the auditions, feel the need to move to the capital. Yes, a reversal of my earlier stand; so sue me. Perhaps I have the selfish desire for KL to not become more congested, but it would also be great if most people can grow without being uprooted.
A particular concern of our educational and social policies has been the need to eliminate excessive “local” allegiances that might run counter to national cohesion. The worst-case scenario would be the mushrooming of separatist groups.
Simply put, it’s easier to rule if everyone thinks about the same things.
But the absence of community involvement, seen most blatantly since the elimination of local council elections, breeds something sad as well. If you do not take some pride in your immediate surroundings, chances are you won’t want to contribute much. And it’s precisely in the specific local communities that interesting stories can be found, and these can be fed to a wider audience, with all sorts of nourishing results.
And the stories are there, of course. Traveling around Perak two years ago for the making of Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, it was great to see how some people, mainly ethnic Chinese, went out of the way to document their own communities, either by building small museums or simply through discussions, often with no governmental support.
Johor has some of the same push, although it appears more top-down. There is even an annual Johor novel-writing competition! I don’t know of other states that have one. It was initially open only to Johor writers, but the doors have been opened to anyone who wants to write about Johor. Last year’s highest-placed entry was by Faisal Tehrani, who’s from Malacca but who would never let a small fact like that get in his way. May the contest survive for many years, and may other states follow suit.
Johor is not just the birthplace of Umno and Mawi, but Adibah Amin, Faridah Merican and Yasmin Ahmad, as well as the illustrious extended families of Ungku Aziz and Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, so the nation’s discursive landscape already owes quite a bit to the state. But it’s always good to know more, and this is an admonishment I address squarely to myself first.