There’s a certain quality about the books written by Amir Muhammad. They tend to be very readable, easy to pick up and get going. The conversational style of writing and the informality helps to make things smoother. I mused whether he wanted to make a more formal publication about Malaysian cinema (we can never have too many of those), but he himself didn’t think he’d be the man doing that; to him, the informality and subjectivity is key.
Here’s a quick example. In his review of ‘Mat ¾’, he wrote in a way that many of the younger generation (and a fair amount of their parents, too, I suspect) would be able to relate to: “The experience of watching Mat ¾ is very similar to the feeling you get from puffing on certain banned substances. Keep this to yourself.” It was that last part that makes it feel as if he’s sharing a secret with you, an intimacy easier to forge between the author and his reader rather than a filmmaker and his audience. Why? Well, the experience of reading a book is of course far more private compared to the (supposed) experience of watching a film with others. But I digress. That would be another issue, another time.
There are, however, other things I’d like to discuss, but I’d have to get into what the book is actually about first. That shouldn’t take too long, because ‘120 Malay Movies’ is about…well, 120 Malay movies. “The idea: to watch the movies in chronological order, so that I could trace how things changed (or not) over time,” he wrote in the introduction. This turned out to be somewhat problematic, given that the availability, desired quality and information of certain films are not as easily obtainable. So, while it would have been good to start of with ‘Laila Majnun’, released in the 1930s and recognised as the first Malay-language film, the book instead starts in 1948 with ‘Cinta’.
Amir also addresses the somewhat contentious issue for some of what constitutes a Malay film, rather than Malaysian film: “…more than half were made before Malaysia was even created. Plus, they were made in Singapore.” Going beyond the obvious, he believes in the idea of the term Malay being more than racial or ethnic one. He wrote of Putera-AMCJA’s People’s Constitution written in 1947, which basically defined anyone born in Malaya as Malay. “This idea didn’t catch on, which doesn’t mean it never will.”
Leading on from this, ‘120 Malay Movies’ is filled with political remarks. That’s not to say that there’s something controversial in each and every chapter, but it is there. Even the very first line of the introduction is actually a set of quotations from ‘3 Abdul’:
“Demokrasi apa?” “Demokrasi terpimpin.” “Terpimpin kepala hotak kau!”
While the above is a quotation from a comedy, he won’t be afraid to call a spade a bloody agricultural tool, either. He blasted a National Film Development Corp of Malaysia (FINAS) book entitled ‘Malaysian Films: The Beginning’, which stated that Indian directors of the early Malay films may not be familiar with the rituals of a Muslim funeral: “More bollocks. Did the folks at FINAS not realise that most of the films that were later directed by Malays didn’t customarily have prayers recited at death scenes either…Isn’t there such a thing as dramatic license?”
Local academicians (“the kind with PhDs from Universiti Teknologi Mara [UiTM]”) also bore the brunt of his ‘anger’, as he rubbishes their claim that Malay cinema only began when Malays started to become directors in their own right. While I could understand and might even agree on some of his points, I wish he had been kinder; I only just registered for my PhD at UiTM myself.
Of course, in charting the changes of the nation through its films, contexts of social and political dimensions cannot be dismissed. Amir’s observation of the religiously-titled and -themed ‘Iman’ (released in 1954) included Parti Islam Semalaysia (PAS) formation three years earlier. “I’m sure the individual PAS members who saw ‘Iman’ would have enjoyed it.” When ‘Cinta’ was unveiled in the cinemas, he noted that Malaya had just entered into a state of Emergency. While it may not be necessarily related to the film itself, it is a refreshing approach that offers us the kind of context that can help with our appreciation of the film.
His extra interpretations of the shots themselves could also be enlightening to those who are familiar. The inset shot of a clock tower in P. Ramlee’s first directorial effort, for example, could well indicate the coming of a man who is now ready to lead: “That means that, after being the lead in several movies by now, it is ‘time’ for P. Ramlee to become a director.” The statue of Stamford Raffles and Hollywood posters being more prominent than those of local films could also indicate a tendency to worship the West, still. You may or may not agree with these assessments, but for my part, it’s always interesting and usually enjoyable to check out other people’s interpretations of movies I know.
It helps that he uses contemporary terms to communicate his ideas, with the terms and slang words helping to ground ‘120 Malay Movies’ in its zeitgeist. For example, the female lead of ‘Sumpah Wanita’ did not want to get married because there wasn’t anyone worthy, “not because she’s a closet Ellen fan.” Other examples, like the word ‘MILF’, also popped up more than a few times.
And no, it does not refer to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
On the note of raciness, I need to quickly mention how surprisingly racy some of the older Malay movies were. It was something I noted when I watched ‘Madu Tiga’ again with a friend a while back, and this book’s even more expansive and comprehensive approach confirmed this. “Come join me for a swim” and “Come up to my room for a while” are the kind of dialogue that would set alarm bells ringing these days, but I wonder whether that is my own self-censorship instincts kicking in. I myself would prefer not to use such sensational approaches to storytelling, but you get the idea. In doing so, Amir managed to show how far we have progressed/regressed in the development of our mentality as a whole. Comparisons are also made with other films of the era from far-flung countries: “’Madu Tiga’ is a sparkling bedroom farce, the likes of which Hollywood would never make.”
Beyond the politics and the sex, this book is very enjoyable also because it’s very funny. I laughed out loud at some parts, which garnered some quizzical looks on the LRT. Then again, if the old Chinese ladies had read that Nordin Ahmad likes to stroke his cock (his champion chicken, that is), she might have reacted in the same way. “S. Roomai Noor plays a cowboy,” he writes at the start of the ‘Nasib’ chapter, “he’s tasked with herding cows.”
Amir would have his favourites as well, with a certain fondness for the siren Siput Serawak. Her last film reviewed in the book was also greeted with much fanfare. “We have travelled with her for almost two decades!” he wrote excitedly. “Thank you, Siput!” And so it is. In reading the book, I feel as if I myself had gotten to know the actors in the films better than I did before. It’s not quite as intimate as it was for Amir, but there is a certain sadness when he noted these last appearances.
It was especially so with P. Ramlee, the biggest star of them all. I feel that it is only appropriate that the book would end with his ‘Laxmana Do Re Mi’. Not unlike the big man himself, this book remained easy to read, enjoyable and informed. It made me want to watch more of these films, to form more of my own opinions, because I have not seen most of the films selected. One could argue mitigating factors, but at the end of the day, this book shamed me on that front. I myself am not ashamed, because I am inspired to make a bigger effort on that front. To wit, Amir noted that P. Ramlee listed his real address in one of his final films, an effort that could be read as “an invitation for us to be a part of his home.” Amir Muhammad’s ‘120 Malay Movies’ made it an easy choice for me to accept that invitation.
Now that he doesn’t take the LRT, Fikri doesn’t read as much. You can read Norman Yusoff‘s ‘12 Malay Movies‘, written in some response to Amir’s book.
Featured image credit: Social Solutions Collective