(The third of my year-long column in TELL magazine about old Malay movies. Unfortunately this month's issue has a rather frightening cover).
Dewi Murni (1950) has more double entendres than Austin Powers can shake a shaft at!
The first song, by village gal Kasma Booty, is a spirited paean to virginity. Her pals may want to drool over attractive kumbang who have panjang extremities, but she ain’t gonna give it up just like that: “Saya boleh lawan segala godaan!”
Osman Gumanti is a king who is out hunting. Hunting comes with its own sexual wordplay, since we get to hear of hungry buaya, and lovely deer that need to be trapped. I wonder if younger film-goers back then thought they had wandered into a nature documentary.
They bump into each other in the wilds. “Jangan panah!” she shrieks to him when she sees him (and his arrow, natch) running after her favourite deer. How’s this for his pickup line? “Saya … tidak akan menggugurkan bulunya,” he purrs to her.
How can she resist? And Osman takes her naiveté as a challenge. He tells her he thirsts for her asmara. Right on cue, she asks, “Asmara? Apakah itu?” And he makes sure she finds out pretty quick.
This takes place in a moonlit garden, but not before another song. The song is familiar: it was used in Mukhsin! But here, the lascivious intent is made plain: “Bunga melati di dalam taman, daunnya hijau banyak yang gugur…” Gugur is the cue for a discreet clincher in fade-out.
They get married. But wait, the film is only a third of the way through! What gives? Is the rest of the story a mere chronicle of happiness? No lah! It’s about how the path of true love doesn’t run smooth, dummy.
For starters, no one in the palace knows anything about this marriage. It is decided that Kasma should stay in the village until her father returns from his travels.
Osman returns to the royal household while awaiting his bride, but he gets caught in a web of intrigue spun by the Prime Minister. The PM wants to marry his own daughter to Osman, but Osman isn’t charmed by her – probably because she’s a really bad actress. The PM visits a bomoh – no, not to improve his daughter’s acting skills, but to make sure Osman literally forgets Kasma. It works! Soon, Osman is the king of amnesia.
Back in the village, sexual frustration drives Kasma batty! Much pouting and hair-tearing ensues. Even her good pals turn catty by talking about how her bunga is starting to layu. Whatever happened to sisterhood?
This is not the first Malay film to present a PM as a villain. Malaya in 1950 was still some years away from having an actual PM, of course. By contrast, filmic sultans and kings were put in a good light.
This is strange. What is royalty, anyway? An institution founded on the quaint belief, held by our ancestors, that certain families were descendants of God.
The post of PM would represent the highest position of authority that a commoner can achieve. Since most people who watch Malay films would seem to have regulation red, rather than blue, blood, I wonder if these anti-PM plots were a sign of masochism. As if to say: An ordinary person (like you and me) who gets to the top through ability rather than lineage is bound to be nasty!
But in 1950, the actual sultans were not heroes in Malaya. The British had taken advantage of succession feuds within royal families to install pliable heads of state. Just four years earlier, the sultans had signed agreement to the Malayan Union plan, which would have brought Malay states under direct British rule. Opposition to the plan came from all walks of life (including aristocrats, who would lose valuable rent money). So why is there no critique of royalty in Dewi Murni?
Maybe things, including perceptions, moved slowly in Malaya. Indonesia had been an independent nation for five years, and the Philippines for four, but Malaya was still not free. Hence, the sentimental yearning for some kindly King to come and save us. Not just sentimental, but erotic, as Dewi Murni shows. We needed – and perhaps still need – a royal wake-up call.