David and Goliath – Daulat and the Malaysian Political Film (part 1)

In the first of three parts, Hassan Muthalib contextualises Imran Sheik’s film in the Malaysian political film genre.

Politics has no relation to morals. – Niccolo Machiavelli, philosopher and writer

David toppled Goliath on 9th May 2018 in Malaysia. It was a phenomenon like no other, when a political party that had ruled unbroken for 61 years was routed in the 14th Malaysian general election. History was made in local politics, but history was also made in another area: films. Documenting an important or topical event on film is no big deal in the West, but it is something unusual for local cinema, and it had never been done before.

In the space of less than two years since the elections, an unprecedented four productions related to the event came out – three features and a pilot for a television series. They were ‘Rise: Ini Kalilah’ (co-directed by Saw Teong Hin, Prem Nath and Nik Amir), ‘M for Malaysia’ (a feature-length documentary by Ineza Roussille and Dian Lee), Imran Sheik’s ‘Daulat’ and a Shaiful Yahya-directed television pilot, ‘Babi!’.

Within the almost-two years of Pakatan Harapan (PH) rule, the opposition threw all manner of hindrances and obstacles into the path of PH, with the aim of weakening and tarnishing its image. At the early stage, a senior politician of the opposition made a cryptic remark: that the new government might not complete its full term. It obviously indicated that plans were already in the works to cause a collapse of PH.

It begins to be clear now that clerics and those who were supposed to be above politics also had a hand in those nefarious plans. The rhetoric bandied about was this: Islam and the Malay race were under threat, no matter how ludicrous it sounded. The delayed swearing-in of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad as the new Prime Minister was already an indication that certain powerful people were not happy with PH.

Obviously, Imran Sheik saw the elements of drama being played out as the stuff of great narrative, and so he crafted a fictional story – repeat: fiction – and came out with ‘Daulat’. It tells the story of a political party, MUNA, that shockingly lost the general elections. The deputy president, Suri (Vanida Imran), then crafts a devious, Machiavellian plan to win in the next elections.

Imran was not to know that many of the events he concocted in his political thriller paralleled the actual manipulations and machinations behind the scenes that were taking place at the time of making his film. He completed the shoot in July 2019 and finished post-production by December. By the end of February 2020, however, PH, a democratically-chosen government, had collapsed and was replaced by a government chosen by politicians. David had been toppled by Goliath (with his gang of miscreants), in a dramatic chain of events that was something straight out of a narrative film. Truth has proven to be stranger than fiction.

On 6th April 2020, ‘Daulat’ was streamed for free on iFlix, a Malaysia-based streamer, after an unsuccessful session with the Malaysian Censorship Board. Obviously, the disclaimer about it being fiction (repeated twice at the start of the film), and that it has no similarities to Malaysian politics didn’t work. The Board still wanted to make cuts at important places which, of course, would have affected the story.

This situation is similar to that faced by many Malaysian filmmakers over the years, with some films even being banned. One film, ‘Lelaku Komunis Terakhir’, made by Amir Muhammad in 2006, had been passed but was then banned. It seems that the title had upset certain quarters. The fact that no communists were in the film didn’t matter! And none of the complainers had even seen the film. U-Wei Haji Saari’s ‘Isteri, Perempuan dan Jalang’, released in 1993, suffered the ignominy of having the word ‘jalang’ snipped off! It was deemed too sensitive, but in 2009, the film ‘Jalang’ (by Nazir Jamaluddin) sailed through without a hitch, even though its poster was not ‘syariah-compliant’.

I dare say the Censorship Board knows its job(?) but sometimes, there are political considerations to be taken into account (including calls from ‘upstairs’). ‘Daulat’ is a work of fiction, but its storytelling was probably seen as dangerously close to the truth. Anyways, the disclaimer is now a guide for film reviewers and critics so as not to equate the film’s story and characters with the bizarre and ridiculous events in Malaysian politics (as if that is going to stop them!).

The film itself succeeds in forwarding an entertaining story, with its film dynamics bringing about an adequate form that allows for a reasonable discourse of its story and treatment. It is all the more interesting with its lead character, Suri, being a woman, and in a very strong role. Suri devises a cunning plan to win in the next elections by using whatever it takes, even to the point of being ruthless and manipulative. Women are certainly not what they were! On the other hand, it gives a new meaning to the saying: “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”

The structure hinges on three scenes that give the film a good balance: Tun Malik (Dato’ Jalaluddin Hassan) taking the oath as the prime minister at the beginning, Suri fervently makes her obeisance at the portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli (the Renaissance philosopher and writer) in the middle of the film, and her taking the oath as the new prime minister at the finale, after deviously disposing off the president of her own party, Dato Seri Hassan (Tony Eusoff).

The film begins with the disclaimer that primes the audience for what is to follow, and it ends by subverting audience expectations by demolishing ‘the fourth wall’ of the film. At the close, Suri is taking the oath of office, but then stops abruptly and directly addresses the audience. She refers to all that which has gone before and frames a question: are the audience (read: the people) surprised that the leader they have chosen is an evil person, a devil incarnate, but that the people seem to be okay with it (meaning there were no public protests or agitation)? It is this final treatment of the film that raises the story to another level of meaning and interpretation.

Films about Politics in Malaysian Cinema
Films about politics are few and far in between in Malaysia. The earliest was ‘Matinya Seorang Patriot’ (directed by Dato’ Rahim Razali in 1984). It is about the fall of a senior political figure through the dissemination of photographs of his wife who was caught in a compromising situation. In a sense, Dato’ Rahim was already indicating how sordid Malay politics was going to become.

This was followed almost two decades later by Nam Ron’s ‘Gedebe’ in 2003. Based on a stage play, it was one of the earliest digital features, and is about punks and skinheads who scramble for territory. The opening scene of the two groups arranging chairs is an indication of the political nature of the story. A mad fight ensues with chairs (read: positions of power) being thrown about. The film reflects the situation at the time, involving a political party wherein two groups in it were at loggerheads with each other. It was replete with the numerous conspiracies, backstabbing and character assassinations that the said party is well known for.

‘Susuk’ (co-directed by Amir Muhammad and Naeim Ghalili in 2008) is a political satire masquerading as a horror movie (for reasons that are obvious!). The location shoot at Putrajaya for the beginning and ending scenes is a clue as to what the film is referencing, which is the ‘horror’ of the political situation in the country, when a premier who is neither a leader or a manager, relinquishes the reins and allows his son-in-law and the so-called Fourth Floor Boys to run the show.

Mamat Khalid’s ‘Apokalips X’ in 2014 is a graphic comic book satire of national politics at the time the film was made. Mamat articulated his concern for the country from the very beginning of the film, when stars fall from the sky and a nuclear explosion annihilates life (signifying the end of Malaysia). The characters who survive fight each other savagely. In dress, they are like Japanese (manga) comic book characters and carry samurai swords.

Their costumes and manner are signifiers of how distanced the Malay politicians in the country have moved away from their own culture, due to their greed for power. This is similarly explored in ‘Daulat’ through the inhumane behaviour of the characters, including a key player (a Malay) being seen consuming liquor and involved in sex.

‘Rise: Ini Kalilah!’ chronicles the events leading up to the momentous general election in 2018, and depicts the numerous hurdles and all manner of obstructions that the Opposition had to contend with before and during the elections. ‘Babi!’ is a pilot episode for an online streaming platform, Hooq, which has since ceased operations. The story of the latter begins the day after the ruling party’s collapse in the 2018 election. A senior leader of the party shreds incriminating evidence and prepares to abscond together with his family and his ill-gotten wealth.

‘Rise: Ini Kalilah!’, ‘M for Malaysia’ and ‘Babi!’ – as well as ‘Daulat’ – were conceived and made during the tenure of PH. In the New Malaysia, freedom of expression was tolerated. These films, therefore, would not have suffered at the hands of the Censorship Board. But with the exit of PH before its time, it’s altogether a different ball game. Imran was reluctant to allow the Board to cut scenes in DAULAT. He preferred to bite the bullet and, instead, have it streamed for free viewing on the Internet, beginning on 6th April 2020.

Such are the vagaries of making films in this country. Filmmakers’ investments and hard work go to naught, but they have the satisfaction of having contributed positively to the film industry with films that have something to say, and which are a record of what has happened in the country at a particular time in its history. Politicians come and go, and hardly anyone will remember them, but films and their makers will live on with their stories.

Read parts two and three, while part three will be published soon. Originally published as ‘Daulat’ by Imran Sheik: Truth is stranger – and more ruthless – than fiction’ on Academia. You can watch ‘Daulat’ here.

Featured image credit: LoveToKnow

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