Hassan Abd Muthalib considers the road less travelled by Mahadi J. Murat.
Every portrait that is painted with feeling
is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.
– Oscar Wilde
Mahadi J. Murat’s latest film, ‘LuQman’, comes after a long hiatus. His three previous films have been ‘Roda-roda’ (1986), ‘Wanita Bertudung Hitam’ (1992) and ‘Sayang Salmah’ (1995). Prior to this, the longest break between these films has actually been between the second and third ones. Due more to funding opportunities than choice, he has made only four feature films in a career spanning four decades that has seen him become a journalist, photographer, writer, film director, lecturer and academic. Currently he is the director of the Centre for International Islamic Culture of the International Islamic University Malaysia, as well as the chairman of the Institute of Arts and Media Studies Malaysia.
‘Wanita Bertudung Hitam’ won multiple awards at the 11th Malaysian Film Festival, and this was followed by ‘Sayang Salmah’ which swept the awards at the 12th Malaysian Film Festival in 1995, in the categories of Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Story, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress and Best Poster. It was also awarded at the 41st Asia Pacific Film Festival in New Zealand, as well as the Kuala Lumpur World Film Festival in 2003, and selected for film festivals in Singapore, Belgium, Hong Kong, Nairobi, Venezuela, France, Indonesia and Morocco.
Mahadi made his debut with ‘Roda-roda’, a film that showed the exuberance of youngsters on their BMX bicycles that was excellently photographed by Mahadi himself. Mahadi’s camera was a dynamic participant in the dramatic action. Parts of the comedy and characterisation in the film appear to be inspired by the early works of film director Hafsham, who began the comedic shift in contemporary Malay cinema. Perhaps it was also an homage to Hafsham, who depicted Malays as people who were humourous, well-mannered and easy-going. The youngsters are not just frivolous but are also working at a cattle farm after school. (This is unlike the contemporary treatment of young people in some films, who are coarse and ill-mannered with violent language and actions.) In a sense, Mahadi and Hafsham were like George Lucas with his seminal film, ‘American Graffiti’, where young people were shown to be mild-mannered and in search of their identity. But unlike Lucas, whose depiction of adults was negative and distanced from the youngsters, Hafsham and Mahadi (in line with Malay culture), had adults who were in tune with life, and who interacted with the young.
In early Malay cinema, non-Malays were stereotyped, spoke broken Malay, and were commonly used as comic relief. Not so in contemporary Malay cinema, beginning in the late 1970s. In his first two films, ‘Adik Manja’ in 1979 and ‘Mekanik’ (1983), writer, actor and director Hafsham had non-Malays interacting positively with Malays and speaking flawless Malay. Mahadi also had non-Malay participation in ‘Roda-roda’. He supported that multi-racial element with a song and music sequence involving the lead characters that had the mention of Bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian nation, i.e, being united) in the lyrics. And like Hafsham’s depictions of men, Mahadi’s men (read: Malays), also have an incessant eye for the women!
Mahadi also used a comedic element from Aziz Satar’s ‘Si Badul’ (1976), where, in one scene, a policeman issues a summons to Badul, the lead character, who has broken a traffic law. When confronted, Badul tells the policeman that he was just ‘pusing-pusing’ (going around on his bicycle). The policeman gives him a pen and tells him to ‘pusing-pusing’ on the summons sheet (to put his signature down). This scene gives a light touch to the image of the police, making them look less authoritarian and more human (as George Lucas did in a similar scene in American Graffiti). Seeing these films today, one is brought to exclaim: “Ah, those were the days!”
In ‘Wanita Bertudung Hitam’, Mahadi’s storytelling takes on a decidedly darker note. The ‘darkness’ here is one that is present in the mind of the lead character (played by Ramona Rahman). It is visually depicted on the screen through the frequent use of chiaroscuro lighting and gothic images. (This device is also seen later in ‘Sayang Salmah’.) The film also introduces a subject close to Mahadi’s heart, which is the arts. It is his observation and comment on those who are frivolous and insincere with their involvement in it. In his stylistics, he makes reference to the traditional performing arts, specifically, wayang kulit (shadow play). In one of the night scenes at the beginning of the film, a chase is depicted through the prominent use of shadows that give the scene a macabre feel, and in effect, foreshadows the tragic story that is to follow. The shadows are also a reference to Carl Jung’s shadow archetype, the dark side to which the heroine in the film has given herself to. She had not listened to the remonstrations of her father, who was a failed musician himself. He is reminded of his dire experiences in the industry, and so had advised her, unsuccessfully, not to leave the village to become a film star in the city.
‘Sayang Salmah’ is a little more complex than ‘Wanita Bertudung Hitam’. Its story connects family with community, as well as to the political situation, and the struggle for independence in the early 1950s. Mahadi also raises questions of identity and belonging, including that of another struggle, one that is an insidious aspect of Malay culture: brutality and the fatalistic. As in the novel ‘Salina’ by A. Samad Said, Mahadi has an uncouth Malay who abuses his wife (played by Sofea Jane), while living off her earnings (as a cabaret dancer). She takes the physical beatings, and silently accepts all that happens to her.
Chiaroscuro lighting and gothic elements recur in ‘Sayang Salmah’, but this time, they are used to depict the dire circumstances of the lead character (Sidi Oraza), at the hands of various antagonists. Everyone, even his own brother (Azhar Sulaiman), and sister-in-law (Norish Karman), are against him. Earlier, he had faced problems with his father (Jalaluddin Hassan), who desired his family to be progressive, and become the ‘Melayu Baru’ (modern Malay), and be of benefit to society. But his father was, in fact, somewhat confused about it all, and was more Western in his leanings. Echoes of these element have already been (negatively) portrayed in the character of the ferry owner in P. Ramlee’s film, ‘Pendekar Bujang Lapok’ (1959), and in the aristocratic antagonist in ‘Antara Dua Darjat’ (1960). In his stylistics, Mahadi’s takes an approach that also synchronises well with the theme of the film, i.e., the Malays must remain united in order for the race to progress, or lose their land and political power.
In a moment of rationality, the protagonist, Hassan (who has gone mad and is now caged), in a soliloquy, pleads for Malays not to be in discord, to be united for Merdeka (Independence); his sole struggle is for the Malays. Mansor Puteh also has a similar soliloquy by his protagonist in his film ‘Seman’ (1987). Seman, too, has failed in his struggle, brought about by the machinations of others. Though set in the 1950s, Mahadi comments on the situation at the time of the making of ‘Sayang Salmah’, when there was much rhetoric (with most of it being confused), about the need for Malays to become ‘modern’ Malays who were ‘progressive and forward thinking’. Similarly, in ‘Roda-roda’, he was supporting the Bangsa Malaysia concept with his positive inclusion of a Chinese woman (played by Lai Joo Lian), who becomes the life partner of the protagonist (Zami Ismail).
Self-reflexivity recurs in the films of many filmmakers who question their own role in the medium that they have chosen to be in. This can be seen films like ‘Straw Dog’ (Tsai ming-Liang), ‘Life of Pi’ (Ang Lee), ‘Tok Perak’ (Syed Alwi), ‘Seman’ (Mansor Puteh), ‘Layar Lara’ (Shuhaimi Baba), ‘Bunohan’ (Dain Said), and ‘Hanyut’ (U-Wei Hajisaari), to name a few. In ‘Wanita Bertudung Hitam’, Mahadi, too, subtly looks at the film industry and some of those involved in it negatively. The characters all represent certain players who do not really have their hearts in it, but are scavengers and predators who live off the gullible.
In his latest film, ‘LuQman’, Mahadi uses another traditional performing arts, mak yong (court dance), to tell his story. The protagonist’s father’s lament in ‘Wanita Bertudung Hitam’ and on his failed career as a musician, is echoed on Mahadi’s own lament in ‘LuQman’ – one that is related to his own, very personal life experiences. In this, I think Oscar Wilde has said it very well: that the portrait an artist paints is, in reality, a portrait of the artist himself.
In his approach, Mahadi appears to have preceded Ashgar Farhadi and his observation: that films should ask questions instead of presenting answers. Perhaps in ‘LuQman’, Mahadi is also posing questions as to why things happen as they do. And like some of the characters in his films, he, too, has accepted his place in the scheme of things.
Featured image credit: Daniele Salutari/Unsplash