by Norman Yusoff

Last month (May 29) marked the 39th anniversary of the death of Malaysia’s much celebrated, iconic figure of the silver screen and music, P. Ramlee. Undoubtedly, many films that he directed and starred in have remained popular courtesy of our TV stations that have helped popularise them. Some of his best-made films propelled P. Ramlee to the forefront of Malay cinema. The golden era of Malay cinema of the 1950s and 60s was markedly synonymous with P. Ramlee’s films at the expense of other directors’ works. However, Malaysian audiences, particularly the younger generation, may have preferred and loved his comedies over films of other genres. It is not known to what extent Malaysian audiences favoured his ‘serious’ films, for example Semerah Padi and Antara Dua Darjat, albeit his ‘serious’ films have been acknowledged and praised by film critics, historians and scholars, both locally and internationally, for their thematic and aesthetic significance.

When it comes to old Malay movies, I must admit that P. Ramlee’s films – including his well-loved comedies – are not my personal favourites. I loved a few of his films, e.g., the fantastic-horror film Sumpah Orang Minyak for their elements of generic and cultural hybridity. Sumpah Orang Minyak (1957), which dealt with an oily man (a supernatural rapist), echoed the Faustian theme of a pact with the devil, reminiscent of the intriguing The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I personally always preferred Hussain Haniff’s films due to his work being more cinematically discerning; for example, the quality of his scenery, precision acting, camera angles and lighting. Hussain was a master of mise-en-scene as opposed to P. Ramlee, whose primary concern was with the emotions expressed and evinced by the human face and voice. I cannot help but admire Hussain’s rebellious and anti-feudal spirit and disposition, elements of which percolate through most of his films. As well as Hussain’s work, I appreciate several films directed by M. Amin, Jamil Sulong and Salleh Ghani.

The popularity of P. Ramlee’s films began to wane when he moved to Kuala Lumpur (due to Singapore being expelled from the Federation of Malaya in 1965). The film studio he was attached to, i.e., the Merdeka Studio, was not as well-equipped and well-managed as that of the Shaw Brothers in Singapore. As noted by film historians, the commercial and artistic debacles surrounding most of the films he directed in KL were possibly attributable to vagaries of audience taste. This was a time when local moviegoers (particularly Malay moviegoers) started to prefer the Hindi language (Indian) films and Indonesian films, which were currently flooding the local cinemas. It is, I believe, regrettable that P. Ramlee’s attempts to experiment with new approaches, e.g., making films drawing upon global genre cinema, met with failure. This tendency can be discerned in a few of his films such as Enam Jahanam (Six Plunderers, 1969) and Dr. Rushdi(1970), both of which were commercial and critical flops. The former adopted some conventions and sensibilities of Italy’s ‘spaghetti’ westerns, and of Japanese ‘noodle westerns’ by Akira Kurosawa, while the latter referenced Hollywood crime films injecting some Hitchcock-ian elements of suspense and enthralment. By focusing on these two films, I aim to refute some accepted claims that P. Ramlee’s films – unlike earlier Malay films directed by Indian and Filipino directors – showcased cultural purity and authenticity.

Enam Jahanam is a unique P. Ramlee film, albeit its production values and aesthetics can hardly match films made in Singapore (such as Semerah Padi). In Enam Jahanam, P. Ramlee deconstructs the western genre: its plot resembles the western professional plot with its structure of arrival/involvement, accomplishment of mission, and departure, and employs the western genre’s archetypal motivator, i.e., revenge. Some of the film’s formal strategies lay bare the parameters of the conventions of purba-pendekar films highlighting the traditional Malay warrior pendekar.

The storyline revolves around six bandits known as ‘Enam Jahanam’ (‘six plunderers’) who commit robbery, murder and violence in the small town of Pekan Saroja. After managing to nefariously accumulate considerable wealth, the bandits plan to put an end to their criminal pursuits, each seeking to start his life anew. Before they disperse, the bandits aim to rob one last time. They enter a textile store run by Tantari (P. Ramlee) who is absent at the time. Their subsequent brutal rape and murder of Tantari’s wife Masmera (Noor Azizah) are accidentally caught on film by a cameraman, who had been taking photos of Masmera. Based upon a photo that reveals the identities of the six bandits, Tantari, who is a trained pendekar (traditional warrior), embarks upon a journey of vengeance (on horseback) seeking out the bandits who are now scattered in different towns and killing them one by one. Along the way, Tantari meets another pendekarnamed Damburi (Yusof Latif), a horseman who is armed with an occult ‘cowboy’ gun which was given to him by the Sultan so that he could ward off pirates and bandits. Damburi offers to be Tantari’s buddy and helps him throughout his journey of vengeance.

Although the film generally retains the ideological tensions of the western genre in terms of a wilderness/civilisation dichotomy, Enam Jahanam can be seen as engaging with specific cultural concerns, e.g., the designation of pendekar(such as Tantari and Damburi) as pivotal figures bent upon maintaining the Malay feudal order. Among the signifiers that identify Tantari as Malay (or from somewhere in the Nusantara world) are the weapon tekpi (a three-pronged truncheon with Hindu-Buddhist origins, with which he is armed), the songkok (replacing the ‘cowboy’ hat) and the mee rebus that he savours in a cafe. Another unique attribute of the film lies in the protagonist’s romantic pursuit (with a flashback showing how he met his wife Masmera) while, towards the end, the film offers a twist in the form of a romantic comedy. While elements of romance have remained the buttress of Malay films, the romantic twist that Enam Jahanam offers evinces the hero’s willingness to compromise ‘individualism’ and be integrated into the social community.

In some ways, Enam Jahanam borrows some iconographies from the western, e.g., its use of landscape and its placement of the characters (horse-riding warriors) in the landscape. For example, the film utilises different sites of landscape showing Tantari, after his wife’s death, embarking upon his journey on horseback. Tantari’s sense of loss and despair are aptly mirrored in the barren, deserted landscapes captured in extreme long shots to the strains of P. Ramlee’s melancholy song Di Mana Kan Ku Cari Ganti (‘Where can I find a replacement’), a song taken from his 1962 romantic melodrama Ibu Mertuaku (My Mother-in-Law). The wandering hero seems a familiar figure bearing similarity to ‘the man with no name’ in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. This influence may come as no surprise considering that from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, spaghetti westerns (dubbed into English, and featuring Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef) were enormously popular in Malaysia and Singapore (spaghetti westerns influenced – and in turn were influenced by – action film genre of other national cinemas worldwide).

Stylistically speaking, Enam Jahanam draws inspiration more from Kurosawa’s films (such as Yojimbo) than from spaghetti westerns (in fact, in several scenes, the musical score reminds one of that of Yojimbo). Action scenes are rendered without long build-up (such as extreme close-ups and long shots) and spatial fragmentation; and, there is no stretching of time. Take, for example, the scene in which Tantari walks into a cafe, where a group of strangers ridicule, tease and laugh at him. When his patience becomes really tested, he brings out his truncheon (tekpi) and attacks them in one fell swoop. In this particular scene, individual shots are quite extended: each of the strangers is shown shivering and fatally wounded; there is no build up of suspense, just a series of ridiculous gestures on the part of the gang members who are terminated by the swift and violent action/killing (quite reminiscent of Yojimbo).

While Enam Jahanam provides an imaginary, utopian world which is more ‘controllable,’ Dr Rushdi features a dystopian world, an exploration of a darker aspect of the human condition. Due to its inclusion of adult themes such as lust, adultery and infidelity, Dr Rushdi has now been shunned by Malaysian TV stations. The last time I saw the film on our national TV was during my primary school days (a time when our TV stations were not yet firmly Islamised). The story revolves around Rushdi (P. Ramlee), a doctor, whose relationship with his wife Mariana (Sophia Ibrahim) is on the verge of collapse. Due to the demands on her husband’s time, Mariana leads a lonely, unhappy married life. In particular, her unquenchable sexual desires are hardly satiated by her husband. Unleashing her suppressed sexual feelings, she engages in an illicit sexual affair with Rozaiman (Ismail Mahmud), a conman who pretends to be a doctor. Rushdi’s discovery of their scandalous affair – when he catches them in a hotel room – results not only in ensuing bouts of depression but in Rushdi’s attempted suicide.

But, somewhat fortunately, Rushdi’s suicide attempt fails: he is saved by his beautiful, sultry nurse Muliani (Sarimah), who confides in him her suppressed longing and affection for him. Muliani invites Rushdi to stay with her; but, their cohabiting fuels neighbourhood gossip. The couple also fail to keep news of their relationship from the prying eyes of the print media, and this affects Rushdi’s clinic practice (since Rushdi is one of the city’s most well-known and sought after doctors). Rushdi becomes even more depressed when society ostracises and vilifies him. When one of his more problematic patients named Alimin (Ed Osmera) commits suicide, Rushdi fakes his own death to hide himself, placing his personal identification papers on the dead Alimin. He and his nurse Muliani place the dead body in his car, which they attempt to push it into the sea; but, the car bursts into flames when it hits the rocks on the shore. The news of Rushdi’s suicide reaches the public the next day when it becomes news headlines.

In Dr Rushdi, P. Ramlee creates a bleak and pessimistic milieu replete with visual iconographies that often characterise gothic thrillers: a bungalow perched on a hill, thunderous storms at night, and waves relentlessly pounding the rocks – all of which become the film’s recurrent images. A combination of these qualities has made some Malaysian critics associate Dr Rushdi with the tradition of American film noir, apart from its downbeat emphasis on violence, anxiety, death, crime and compromised morality. The film’s noir-ish elements are found in many scenes that take place at night, wherein emphasis is on darker visuals and the use of shadows and silhouetted figures, tendencies that reinforce the film’s pervasive sense of darkness and tension. There is a soupcon of Hitchcock-ian themes such as identity-faking, with stories built around an ordinary person who stumbles into a dangerous situation. The story of a husband ostensibly avenging his wife’s infidelity by faking his own death when in truth he is running off with his mistress sounds familiar if one is well versed with American (or French) thrillers in general.

Dr Rushdi’s narrative was set during an era in which Malays were undergoing mental and cultural transformation as a result of the government’s affirmative attempt to create more middle-class Malays. In one scene, Rushdi advises Alimin, a depressed alcoholic lawyer, not to ruin his life because the country is in need of professionals like him. As bleak and existential as the film may sound, P. Ramlee might have anticipated the impending danger of progress and modernity which could not be detached from the allurement of destruction and death, a theme revived by more contemporary directors such as Dain Said (in Bunohan). Dr Rushdi’s highlighting of modern, middle-class anxieties says something about its modern subjectivity, which is both gendered and endangered. I read female characters (represented by Rushdi’s unfaithful, adulterous wife) in the film as signifiers of male dilemmas and anxieties. In this respect, Dr Rushdiis a hymn to the dark mysteries of male guilt, paranoia and emasculation.

All of these tendencies resonate with the film’s look and sensibility which are arguably more modern/Western/American (including the young Sarimah and Sophia Ibrahim dressed in what would now be deemed in Malaysia as unacceptable ‘revealing’ clothes). This certainly does not go hand-in-hand with Finas’ lovely slogan ‘Filem Kita Wajah Kita’ (‘Our Film Our Image’) which was bandied about for decades – a slogan that may connote a form of resistance to ‘cultural imperialism’ calling for cultural purity and authenticity. One aspect that strikes me is the characters’ inclination toward the use of peribahasa (Malay proverbs) from time to time, even when they are embroiled in heated argument. It is not known whether this indicates the characters’ struggle to affirm their ‘Malay’ selves. On the other hand, the characters tend to interject English sentences between Malay lines from time to time; for example, in the scene wherein Muliani bids farewell to Rushdi, who wants to leave her, she inserts something melodramatically in English: “Oh God! Why all these complications?”. The use of peribahasa may have been influenced by the theatrical forms of bangsawan andsandiwara; as well, it may be read as a form of riposte – if not resistance – to the encroaching decadent (Western) influences/ cultures, given that the story (and the film) is set in the early 1970s, a time well known for all forms of decadence and upheaval.

Although the film is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s films, Dr Rushdi is somewhat laced with a strong Indian melodramatic tradition. For example, take the scenes featuring Rushdi and Muliani in intimate moments that utilise music, emotion and repetition: the use of a syrupy, Indian-like musical score in the background and a melodramatic acting style (by actress Sarimah). This melodramatic moment is heightened towards the end when Rushdi wants to head off somewhere leaving Muliani behind. The scene depicting Muliani’s deep affection for Rushdi, her reluctance to let him go while at the same time she laments her fate is accompanied by dark night’s rain and a thunderous storm. Here, shared formulaic signifiers of Indian popular cinema (often filtered through the Malay cinema of the 1950s/60s) and American noir thrillers coexist comfortably, evoking a mood that oscillates between romanticised melodrama and mournful darkness.

While on the one hand, old Malay films (particularly directed by P. Ramlee) such as Enam Jahanam and Dr Rushdi still absorbed ‘foreign’ elements (as opposed to some critics and academics’ claims that P. Ramlee’s films managed to erase ‘foreign’ influences), on the other, both Enam Jahanam and Dr Rushdi are hardly slavish mimicries. This suggests that the many hybrid and cross-cultural influences inevitably and creatively brought to bear on Malaysian films are more complex than the ‘cultural imperialism’ argument may allow for, as evident in contemporary popular discourse in Malaysia. I would associate P. Ramlee’s cross-culturally generic or cinematic strategy with the 1920s Brazilian modernists’ Cannibalist Movement, a form of – to use an academic phrase – ‘cultural anthropophagy’ as an anti-colonialist artistic strategy, utilising what is useful in the foreign and expelling what is not. That said, P. Ramlee’s underrated works, e.g., Enam Jahanam and Dr Rushdi, deserve more contemporary, revisionist forms of appraisal and reading.


Norman Yusoff is currently researching and writing about Malaysian cinema. In his spare time, he enjoys viewing silent films and listening to Indian ghazals.


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