Solo Exhibition By Khairuddin Hori
28 February - 28 March 2011
MAT RAMLEE: AN APPRECIATION, A LOOK BACK
By Timothy P. Barnard
The role of Malay film, and its icons, is a complicated one in Singaporean art and culture in the twenty-first century due to the society’s relationship and understanding of its past. Between 1940 and the early 1970s Singapore was home to film studios that produced works of art, entertainment and – often – unending silliness that is still appreciated beyond its own borders. The more than 250 films produced during that era still resonate in all aspects of society, with references appearing in song, language, and any other form of communication. Collectively, these films constitute one of the great texts produced in Singapore.
The complications related to these films lies in the politics and culture of Separation. When Singapore became an independent nation in 1965, the role of Malay language film in the nation-state became an anomaly. Originally, these films were a vehicle for owners of theatres to have local product for their audiences in a period when Malay – as is still true – was the national language of Singapore and Malaya, and a tool for unifying disparate ethnic groups. Following Separation, the Malay language, and its films, would be seconded as the society focused on English as a unifying tool of communication, and economic and security issues took precedent. It was also during this era that other forms of entertainment – principally television – made cinema going less popular.
Two studios produced almost all of the films created in Singapore between the 1940s and the early 1970s. The first studio, Malay Film Productions (MFP), was located on Jalan Ampas and was an offshoot of the Shaw Brothers’ theatre and amusement park business. MFP began production in 1940 and 1941 with eight films. Although it closed during the Japanese Occupation, production returned in 1947 and MFP dominated the market until the mid-1950s. By that time there were several other studios – such as Nusantara – operating, but the main competitor to emerge was Cathay Keris, which began producing films in 1953. By the late 1950s both of these studios were producing up to twelve films a year. This era, between 1956 and 1964, was a “golden age” for local cinema. Cinemagoers could attend films that not only entertained their audiences, but also touched upon issues and debates in society. It was an era in which artists – in front of and behind the camera – poured their ideas and hopes into film, reflecting the possibilities that Merdeka (Independence) and Merger held in their lives.
Film production in Singapore went into decline by the early 1960s due to a variety of factors. The industry had been beset with labour strikes, and work in other industries – such as journalism – often drew away talent. Administratively, the studios had difficulties replacing charismatic figureheads who migrated or passed away. At MFP, there was a shift of film production to Kuala Lumpur after Run Run Shaw moved to Hong Kong in 1959. The death of Loke Wan Tho, the head of Cathay, in an airplane crash in 1964 was one of the key turning points at the other Singapore-based studio, which went into further artistic decline following the death of influential director Hussain Haniff. The last film made during this era was in 1972, although production had slowed considerably by the mid-1960s as much of the talent migrated to active studios in Kuala Lumpur or sought employment in other industries.
The two Malay film icons featured in this exhibition represent this era of film production between the 1940s and 1970s. Their works are known to an audience disparate in age and geography, with their films more easily accessible today; they are shown on an almost continual loop on Malaysian cable channels, while in Singapore and Indonesia their works are usually seen on VCD. In many respects, P. Ramlee and Mat Sentol are honoured more today than during their filmmaking heydays. Their legacy in the artistic community and larger society is a thread that connects Singapore to its pre-Independence past. The actual content of their contribution, however, is often obscure – just as the artist Khairuddin Hori has aptly depicted.
P. Ramlee is the dominant icon of Malay cinema. Born in Penang in the late 1920s, P. Ramlee arrived in Singapore as MFP was renewing production following the Japanese Occupation. He began his career as a musician in the studio band, dubbing the singing voice of other actors while also occasionally appearing as a supporting actor. Ramlee soon grabbed the attention of those at the studio, and the wider audience, and quickly became a star. By the early 1950s he was featured in a variety of roles, and his numerous talents – singing, songwriting, acting – soon made him the biggest star in the Peninsula. By 1955 P. Ramlee parlayed his fame into production. He used his position to force the studio to allow him – and his nationalist friends – to write and direct films. Beginning with Penarek Bechak (The Trishaw Driver – 1955) Ramlee directed a series of comedies and dramas that were not only profitable monetarily but also artistically.
Among the most important films of this era was Semerah Padi (1956). The film tells the story of a community in Sumatra in the pre-colonial era. Using a standard plot of a love triangle, P. Ramlee subtly touches on a variety of issues such as the lack of cultural boundaries between Indonesia and Malaya as well as the role of Islam as a unifying belief. The themes present in the film, which many seem to have forgotten amidst the love triangle and the distance of time, leave Ramlee as an icon that reflects back upon the audience. Khairuddin has captured this phenomenon through pixelation. It suggests not only the blurring of such themes in Ramlee’s work – as well as many of the films of the era – but also the willful amnesia of his cultural and social milieu. Ramlee and his colleagues were making films that challenged the audience’s understanding of a variety of subjects, ranging from elitism and poverty to the role of the individual and religion in society. That Ramlee is mostly remembered for his wonderful singing voice, or his mastery of mise-en-scène in his films, is a shame. The audience should look beyond its own uncertainty over his status, beyond his star power, to bring more clarity to his contribution to the cultural and political debates of the time.
When Ramlee moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1964 it was an end of an era in Singapore-based film. It was also the beginning of the influence of Mat Sentol, who faced a period of declining budgets and audience. Mat Sentol had been involved in film production for years, usually appearing as a background player. With the industry in flux by the early 1960s, Mat Sentol parlayed his unique talents into farce, when he began headlining a series of “Mat” films. The first film – Mat Tiga Suka (Crazy Mat) – was made for $10,000, cheap even in that era. The film was originally planned as a pilot episode for television, but the production was more than the fledgling Television Singapura could afford. By the late 1960s and early 1970s Mat Sentol starred in a dozen films in which his “Mat” character fell down, was misunderstood, and eventually backed into a successful conclusion; all were made on extremely limited budgets. Although rough around the edges these productions have a charm that overproduced films of today rarely have.
The limited budget that Cathay Keris provided for the “Mat’ films required innovation. Mat Sentol responded through the development of his own unique form of special effects, often appearing to be hand-drawn cartoons to depict explosions or flying objects. His appearance on the edges of everyday life in the works of Khairuddin Hori reproduce how Mat Sentol would appear in his own films. His presence in our lives, as is true with his films, is one in which he is both part of the scene and outside of it.
The role of Malay film in Singaporean art and culture is often forgotten. In a city- state that focuses on the future and economic development, the presence of artists from an earlier era is often blurry, or a startling, out-of-body presence in our collective memory. These works force us to imagine, and revisit, this earlier era of production when artistic debates were centre stage in the most popular form of entertainment and when the artists had to work with increasingly slim budgets in a newly independent state. May it shine a light, and reconsideration, of their position as pioneers of the Singaporean art scene.
Timothy P. Barnard is an Associate Professor, Department of History at the National University of Singapore
- Khairuddin Hori