Tuesday 8 February 2011

For Tunku Abdul Rahman's 108th birthday, my chapter on his RAJA BERSIONG from 120 MALAY MOVIES

On the set of the movie.
Raja Bersiong (1968)

Directed by Jamil Sulong
Starring Ahmad Mahmud, Sarimah, Aziz Jaafar, Zaiton & Normadiah

This is the most expensive movie in this book .

It’s based, of course, on the same Kedah legend that was made into the 1963 movie. But this is in wide-screen colour, with a Japanese co-director and cinematographer, and a screenplay by the Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman (his second and last after Mahsuri). It cost ten times the average budget for a Malay movie but was a flop when released. It was one of the final nails in the coffin for Shaw’s investment in Malay cinema.

Its place in cinema history aside, I can’t help seeing this Raja Bersiong as the end of a different kind of Malaysia, too. This film used to be shown on TV but has been noticeably absent for years; I guess its depiction of religion is a key factor. The colour Raja Bersiong seeks to be more faithful to the Hindu-Buddhist roots of Kedah royalty, and there are numerous scenes of Malay actors going to the kuil (temple) to pray, which our censors no longer allow.

There is also a distinct Thai flavour to the costumes and dances, which might seem surprising until you realise that Kedah had strong cultural ties with Siam and became (a few centuries after the events of this myth) a Siamese protectorate.

While Malek Selamat in the 1963 movie starts off (and actually remains) a sympathetic king with an unfortunate addiction, Ahmad Mahmud here is a raging psychopath almost from the beginning. At the 10-minute mark, he is visited by a demon, and from then on, all bets are off. Crucially, he is shown as decadent and venal even before consuming the spinach soup which had traces of blood in it. When the next day’s soup doesn’t please him nearly as much, he badgers the cook (Normadiah) to find out why:

Apa lebihnya rempah
Apa kurangnya rencah
Gulai sayur bayam
Hari ni dan semalam?

When told by the trembling woman of the unintended secret ingredient, his eyes start to glow. He barks to his henchman to take a jailed traitor, drain him of blood, and then use that blood for his special spice from now on:

Kau pergi ke penjara
Pilih seorang penderhaka
Ambil darahnya
Buat rencah santapan beta

Yes, this is the first film we have seen since Panca Delima to consist of rhymes. (This time, I summarised at the beginning instead of translating.)

The anti-feudal theme is especially strong here. This might seem surprising because Tunku Abdul Rahman himself was of royal blood. The movie is also about the pressing need for a change in leadership; the king was out of touch with his subjects. Is there a deliberate self-critique by Tunku going on? Did he already know that there were people within the Establishment who were plotting to get rid of him?

We recall the words of the warrior Aziz Jaafar (whose girlfriend Zaiton would be raped by the horny king) urging an immediate coup d’état against the undead creature on the throne:

Tak guna berbicara panjang
Singkirkan raja dari sekarang

The priest urges a more peaceful — but, to secular ears, more batty — way out: they should consult a gajah sakti (sacred elephant). This elephant actually does appear in the end, and helps resolve a pressing issue of lineage. The new, worthy heir to the throne was born in the house of a commoner,
and this is a clue that democratic egalitarianism promises a better future.

This Raja Bersiong isn’t the intense character study of the first film but it’s splashy and enjoyable. Ahmad Mahmud and his queen Sarimah look great, and I love the way she maintains haughty decorum when it’s obvious to anyone that he is now a dangerous loony. Our interest dips a bit when he redeems himself in the second half, however.

What this movie made me realise is the extent to which the discursive terrain of Malaysia has been dominated by the south of Peninsular Malaysia. The Kedah kingdom started earlier than Melaka, but it is Melaka that gets privileged as the foundation point of our history. This despite the fact that two of our most influential Prime Ministers (Tunku Abdul Rahman and Dr. Mahathir) were from the north. What gives?

Is it because the Portuguese and therefore the West took over Melaka first in 1511, and the other states lost their feudal autonomy much later? The story in Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat would have been yawningly familiar to any local schoolchild, but I dare say that the story of Raja Bersiong got a big boost from the two movies. The task of investigating other aspects of Malaysian history and mythology is something well worth doing.

The colours are a clashing riot and must have looked much better on the big screen. As it is, there is no DVD or even VCD of this film in release. I had to watch a bootleg pan-and-scan version. The whole thing is also available on YouTube, of all places. This is the final irony of Raja Bersiong: despite its lavish cost, it is now on the same level as any video footage that a teenager with a bit of spare time can upload. In other words, it’s democracy in action.

* 120 Malay Movies is available in shops! Or you can order it directly from me by emailing info@mataharibooks.com

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