Fikri Jermadi takes a walk down memory lane, drenched by Nadiah Hamzah’s afternoon rain.
“Fikri,” said my friend Shazana said one day. “You might want to check this out. Seems like you fit the list.” She showed me the link she had opened on the computer, a casting call for an actor. It is for a short film to be shot in New York fairly soon. In addition to the ethnicity and age range, it also called for someone fluent in English. I came across that same information myself; it had been making the rounds, maybe on the Malaysian Cinema Yahoo Group mail list, as well as promoted on a crowdfunding platform.
Then only a few years into my film sojourn, I had wanted to become a director, and was not especially keen on performing in front of the camera. However, in addition to being a cool opportunity, it seemed like a good way to find experience to feed back into the directing discourse. Alas, my lack of acting skills was allied with another, more considerable obstacle: I needed to already have a visa to visit the United States, as the shoot would commence soon.
The film was ‘Hujan Panas’, and it was directed by Nadiah Hamzah. The story centres on Zaki (Beto Kusyairy), a Malaysian travelling to New York for the first time. He’s in town to attend a business course of sorts, and has arranged to stay at Ferdy’s (Michael Rosete) place. Unbeknownst to him, Ferdy’s Indonesian girlfriend, Mira (Mariati Galatio), is also staying at the same place, though theirs appears to be a fractious relationship.
Why should this concern Zaki? Maybe it doesn’t, but it does, because he is a very conservative Malay Muslim Malaysian male (it’s telling that he responds in Bahasa Malaysia, even when Ferdy speaks to him in English). It informs the conflict if you know that the most conservative of such ideals mean that unmarried people should not be staying in the same place together, for fear of being tempted into sexual relations. Such close proximity is called khalwat, and it is seen as a pretty big deal in Malaysia.
Given how he practically flinched with discomfort the first time he met her, it is clear that you can take the boy out of Malaysia, but it’s a lot more difficult to divorce of such perspectives. We also see this when he sees Mira’s legs; as she pulls up her trouser legs to examing the knee she had hurt falling off a bike, Zaki turns away at the mere sight of skin. Then again, he is engaged to Nora, though he rejected a call from her at the start of the film, suggesting a heart and soul at unease with her, with Mira, with his place in the universe.
Nadiah should be in a happier position, though. I’m writing about this film partly because she has a film, ‘Motif’, coming out this week. Largely, however, I’ve been wanting to properly review this film for a while. ‘Hujan Panas’ is one of those seminal short films around the start of this decade, a key text which, if you are into Malaysian independent cinema, you must have at least heard of.
The story itself is an exploration of the self and how identities are manifested. In a sense, I wonder whether Zaki is a stand in for Nadiah. Certainly in her films I am aware of, there is almost always a key focus on lead characters being fish out of water. She herself was studying in New York at that time, and I feel like at least on some level, her experiences there must have formed the basis of her narrative explorations here.
Then again, it is New York. Long held as the shining beacon of light for migration, it is seen as a cornucopia of cultures and sensitivities, often clashing together in constructive (and less constructive) ways. It could be that Zaki’s attempts to hold on to his beliefs (as evidenced through his prayers and use of the tasbih, something a little extra Muslims do at the end of obligatory prayer routines, denoting his higher level of supposed piety) inflects something Nadiah herself has thought about: how to remain yourself in a vastly-changing and different environment.
Beyond the East/West dichotomy lies a Nusantara divide worth exploring. Having already been there for a while, Mira has a familiarity with the milieu both of them are in. Hers is a comparatively wild spirit to be contrasted with Zaki’s nervous conservatism. This reflect a Malaysian perspective on Indonesia, in which Indonesian art and attitude is greatly deified. Such romanticism is not for everyone, but it is certainly there.
I could, however, be reading too much into what is already an enjoyable short film on its own terms, even without the analysis above. In some ways, it plays like a typical New York film, in which strangers come together in the process of self-discovery. Like I said, New York is positioned as such in our collective imaginary, and on many levels, Nadiah follows that trajectory faithfully. It also helped greatly that Yuna’s ‘Penakut’ was featured as the main song on the soundtrack; in addition to being a great fit for the story, it was a popular song, helping to connect ‘Hujan Panas’ to the mood of the moment.
Graduation projects are ostensibly the end of the beginning, but the journey continues in the real world. For many, all roads lead to feature films. To that end, the journey of ‘Motif’ began with films like ‘Hujan Panas’, and it is only proper that we pay respects to the past (for the film is one worthy of respect) as we enjoy the present. I will write more on her career, but for now, congratulations Nadiah, and the very best of good luck with the film!
‘Motif’ is out in cinemas now. Click on the link for more details.
Featured image credit: Angel Navarro / Unsplash