Zaedi Zolkafli

(Zaedi Zolkafli is the founder of FelixEntertainmentDotCom and The P Ramlee Cyber Museum)


The Jakarta Post
May 14, 2004

Early Malaysian Films Emerge as Savory Multicultural 'Rojak'
By Paul F. Agusta

During a recent visit to Kuala Lumpur, The Jakarta Post film contributor, Paul F. Agusta, had the opportunity to meet with several important figures in Malaysian cinema to discuss developments on the movie industry there. He will be sharing what he discovered in a series of three articles, of which this is the first, on the history and current state of moviemaking in our neighbor to the north.


The history of Malaysian cinema is a surprisingly rich dish of multicultural input reminiscent of the spicy Malay fruit salad known as rojak. Malaysian film mixes a variety of elements deriving from cultural sources as diverse as the British Isles, China, India, and Malaya (as Singapore and Malaysia were known collectively in the early 20th century).

From its bright beginnings with Laila Majnun (1933) produced by Motilal Chemical, a Bombay-based supplier of cinema projector lamp carbons, through the long-lasting influence of the Shanghai-based Shaw Brothers, up to the introduction of the Hollywood inspired studio system in the post-World War II era, Malay cinema functioned to spotlight the various cultural roots that were to define what it would mean to be a Malaysian in later years.

"The invention of cinema is the most momentous event. Cinema is a gift of God. It provides a window to humanity. We must be aware of its history," Hassan Muthalib, Malaysia's highly respected film historian and theorist, said one early April evening over steaming mugs of teh tarik at a busy roadside stall on Jl. Wisma Putra in Kuala Lumpur.

Malay cinema is indeed a window into the soul of the culturally diverse populace of the land that became known as Malaysia.

Proof of this lies in the source material of early Malaysian films. A prime example of this is the Persian-Arabic folktale that inspired Malaysia's maiden cinematic voyage, Laila Majnun, as well as the first few productions by the Shaw Brothers that adapted traditional Chinese tales into a Malay setting, and the Indian influences of early directors, such as B.S. Rajhans, S. Ramanathan and L. Krishnan.

The early movies produced by Run Run Shaw and Runme Shaw, starting in 1938, such as Bermadu (Polygamy) and Mata Hantu (Ghostly Eyes) that carried heavy references to traditional Chinese stories failed to connect with the psyche of the Malay audience, so the enterprising and groundbreaking duo quickly rectified this problem by borrowing more familiar Indian themes and stories, as well as by involving Indian directors in their productions.

The result was a blend of storytelling and musical themes, which better pleased their target market.

Even the Japanese occupation proved auspicious for the development of Malaysian cinema, through still another injection of diverse cultural information. The screening of powerful groundbreaking films by Japan's master directors Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa and Yasugiro Ozu greatly influenced post-war filmmakers in Malaya, in particular cinematic deity, P. Ramlee, whose legacy continues to inform contemporary mainstream productions.

With the exit of the Japanese occupying forces and the influx of the Americans, the influence of the Hollywood studio system made itself felt. The greater efficiency economy and productivity inherent in this imported system allowed the Malaya filmmakers to open the door to what was to be known as the Golden Age of Malay films between 1949 and 1975.

The Shaw brothers revived their movie making activities with a vengeance and opened Malay Film Productions, which brought in more directors from India. In order to gain even more headway into a market they had only begun to explore before the war, the Shaws allowed these directors to write scripts as well as direct them.

These imported directors took popular Indian stories and translated them into English. These tales were then translated into Malay by local writers and served up with garnishes of lavish song and dance sequences. These films charmed the Malay public not only because they were highly entertaining, but also due to the striking similarities between the Malay and Indian cultures that the stories revealed.

The Shaw brothers had hit on a formula that was to inspire a number of other local studios like Lok Wan Tho's Cathay Organization and Ho Ah Lok's Keris Film Productions. These two companies eventually teamed up in 1953 to become the Malay film powerhouse Cathay-Keris Film Productions.

This new film business entity was to give the Shaw brothers a real run for their money in the decades to come.

The sharp competition between Malay Film Productions and Cathay-Keris created some of the most spectacular and memorable movies in Malaysia's cinematic landscape, such as Panggilan Pulau (Call of the Islands), 1954 and Bujang Lapok (The Ragged Bachelors), 1957, from Malay Film Productions, as well as Cathay Keris Film Production's Chinta Gadis Rimba (Love of a Jungle Girl), 1958, and Dendam Pontianak (Curse of the Vampires), 1957.

This vying for the hearts of Malaysian moviegoers also made households names of gifted Malay actors, such as Aziz Jaafar, P. Ramlee, Hashimah Yon, Fatimah Ahmad and Umi Kalsom, in both Malaysia and Indonesia.

--I-box: Check this two websites for more information about the earlier film development in Malaysia:

* www.felix-entertainment.com -- Legendary Malaysian Actor/Director P. Ramlee.

* www.shaw.com.sg -- Run Run and Runme Shaw of the legendary Shaw Brothers Film Productions, pioneers of the Malaysian film industry.


Zaedi Zolkafli

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