Fireproof – Bako

Adi Iskandar considers how Thigayu Govindan’s film is a potential trial by fire for some of its audience.

I saw ‘Bako’ as a part of Pesta TUT, a film programme put together by the Freedom Film Network and Engage Media, focusing on films which have at one point or another been denied the opportunity for mainstream exhibition by the Malaysian Film Censorship Board (LPF). Therein lies the clue to the pronunciation of Pesta TUT; short for Tak Usah Tutup-Tutup, it is the sound heard when you censor a swear word on television.

To that end, I am surprised that Thiyagu Govindan’s film is even made. The story centers on its two main characters: Usop (Wan Hanafi Su) and Bala (Ravin Rao Santheran). They are morticians working at a crematorium. In the course of ‘Bako’ their job is to cremate a deceased fireman (Dinesh Ramachandran), famous during his career as being fireproof.

Though that pushes the envelope, what makes sure that the letter gets posted to the authorities is that Usop is an apostate who does not believe in god. This is a big no-no in Malaysia, especially for Malays whose identity are officially conflated with that of Islam. Bala, on the other hand, is a pious Hindu, praying for the souls whose bodies he create.

Complicating matters is the fact that as their day progress, it does appear as if the deceased is indeed fireproof, with various mishaps throughout that leads to Bala quickly praying at small Hindu altar hanging on the wall. Usop’s dismissive glances at his young partner’s actions hints not just at his own attitude, but also at a relationship that is not without tension.

Staying with Usop for a while longer, watching Wan Hanafi Su in this role reminded me of the flak Shah Rukh Khan received some years ago. As a Muslim performing the lead role in ‘Asoka’, an eponymous epic about a Buddhist emperor, there were many in Malaysia who did not welcome such efforts, believing that such playacting may well lead to an actual sin. That made me wonder what kind of backlash Wan Hanafi Su would have been on the receiving end of if ‘Bako’ was not censured as such by the LPF.

More’s the pity, because while Thiyagu does poke the bear with his film, he does so while wearing kiddie gloves. One particular dialogue in the middle of the film between Bala and Usop exemplifies this. I enjoyed it, but much of the lines are stock standard for such discussions.

My past exposure to such arguments means that there’s little that is truly earth-shattering here, with Usop’s logic balanced nicely with Bala’s emotions. Others less convinced of their perspective and principles might feel uncomfortable, but that says more about them than it does about the film.

As a film, it works fairly well. My favourite is a lunch scene between the two of them. Upon the blaring of the azan, other Malays/Muslims rush off for their Friday prayers. Usop, on the other hand, did not display any compunctions in remaining rooted in his seat. Bala questioned him, but a glare from Usop was more than enough to shut him up.

This reminded me of Luhki Herwanayogi’s ‘On Friday Noon’, whose protagonist tries hard to overcome all the obstacles in making her way to Friday prayers. Many believe that missing it more than a few times in a row would equate to an eviction from Islam in the eyes of God. That is the context with which we should read Usop’s actions here.

The depiction of such apostasy is what lies behind LPF’s decision to refuse ‘Bako’ a general viewing permit, as it runs counter to the nation’s founding principles in the Rukun Negara. “Atheists are people just like most religious people,” said Thiyagu’s official statement. “Pretending they don’t exist is the height of disrespect. By banning this film, the Film Censorship Board (LPF) is being disrespectful of these people.”

Beyond such thoughts about spirituality, at the film’s core is a discussion about life and the fairness of it all. On the one hand, we have Bala, a young man barely getting started in his life, with a more optimistic view of the world; we don’t see them on screen, but his affection for his family is clear.

Usop, on the other hand, is someone at the end of his tether, tested by the vagaries of life in ways we don’t see on screen. These challenges may well have broken him, which is what we do see off him is a shell where a man once was. The graveyard in the film is key to understanding this, with a later scene in it playing a key role in Usop’s own arc.

Having said that, there inconsistencies in tone between numerous scenes. The film actually begins with an animated sequence, highlighting the bravery of the deceased fireman before his passing. While that was well done, it also felt a little jarring to major sequences from the film.

The same goes for the film’s comedic touch. Perhaps my sense of humour needs checking here, as I can imagine it working well to defuse the tension between Usop and Bala in some of the scenes. However, I am here for that tension, so some of the comedic beats did take me out of the equation a little bit.

It is not a slight against the actors and their performance. Wan Hanafi Su did well here without truly venturing too far beyond the comfort zone of his sudden eruptions of anger. Ravin Rao Santheran did well to hold his own on that front, with his sincerity acting as the emotional anchor of the story. It is a world away from his acting in ‘Kaalam Maari Pochu’, and it is good to see that range.

‘Bako’ is a film worth watching. It does run a little too long at nearly half an hour, but the journey to the well is worth it, as the water is not one you’d find in too many films out there. It does touch on key issues some may find troubling, but if that’s the case, then it would be good to look at the self in the mirror and ask some searching questions.

‘Bako’ is screening as a part of Pesta TUT, a curation of creative events with regards to film censorship, organised by Freedom Film Network and Engage Media.

Featured image credit: Miriam Espacio / Pexels

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