Tuesday 10 June 2008

In praise of BS

(Part of my regular column on old Malay movies. I define old as 'made before I was born lah.')

So there I was, watching Sejoli (1951) when I realized something: The six earliest surviving Malay films, from Cinta (1948) to Dewi Murni (1951) were all directed by the same man. His name was BS Rajhans.

His contribution actually goes back even further into the mists of time. He also directed the very first, now lost, Malay film, Laila Majnun, in 1933. But although no copy of it has existed after World War Two, it’s amazing how many scholarly descriptions are written of this film as if the scholar just viewed it yesterday.

And yet, do we have a Jalan BS Rajhans, Dewan BS Rajhans or even Anugerah BS Rajhans anywhere in the country? Don’t answer all at once!

Part of the reason for this neglect: he died in 1955, and so didn’t get a chance to imprint his image and personality onto the TV generation. But mainly, it’s because he was an expatriate Indian who never became a citizen, and so was always seen as an outsider.

This is a shame, as his jasa are there to see. The first successful film to be directed by a Malay was P. Ramlee’s Penarik Beca (1955); the previous ones were all by expat Indians and Filipinos. But the officially sanctified version of film history does not care to much document the films made from 1948-55.

In fact, one of the most offensively obnoxious pieces I have ever read was published in the UiTM film journal a few years back. The writer (a lecturer, God help us) went on about how P. Ramlee heroically rescued Malay cinemas from the clutches of the Indians, thus revolutionizing (and ‘circumcising’, no doubt) the entire medium. Her thesis is another type of BS. Anyone who watches old Malay movies in chronological order can see how the change from the ‘Indian directors era’ to ‘the P. Ramlee era’ was not nearly such a violent and easily classifiable rupture; they had much in common.

Anyway, on to Sejoli. The plot is a very busy one and spans two generations. First, we see Neng Yatimah stuck in an unhappy marriage. Her husband is such a louse and loser that she is left wandering the streets and has to give up her baby. This baby is raised by a rich couple, and grows up to be Kasma Booty, as some babies are wont to.

The big scene here is when Neng and the teenage Kasma meet for the first time. Only Neng knows of the family connection, which is where the poignancy comes from. The two women look and sound remarkable alike. In fact, you might think they are the same composite actress (Neng Booty?) separated only by fancy studio trickery, like mirrors or something. But they are two separate women.

If one were to wax poetic, one can see Neng as representing BS Rajhans and the other expat directors, while Kasma represents P Ramlee and the indigenous directors. Serupa tapi tak sama. The family ties are obvious to the viewer, but the younger one on screen is in a state of blissful unawareness.

Sejoli itself wraps up nicely with the family links clarified, and Kasma even snatches the charms of a young army officer (R. Ramlee, wouldn’t you know). The two generations are reunited..

Now, have we also come full circile? The Best Film winner of last year’s local awards was Cinta, which not only has the same name as BS Rajhans’ film, but was similarly directed by an expat Indian, Kabir Bhatia.

Kabir’s PR status is why he was not eligible for a Best Director nomination. Let us hope there are now no more silly distinctions based solely on nationality or place or birth.

(TELL magazine. June 2008)

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