ONE of the most important cultural figures in Malaysia today is a person who passed away almost 30 years ago. His work, however, can still be seen throughout the country, and his popularity is confirmed by the continued presence of his films and music on television and radio in Malaysia and Singapore, while VCDs of his films are easily available. Most Malaysians would have little difficulty identifying his picture or voice. His name is P. Ramlee. Born Teuku Zakaria bin Teuku Nyak Puteh on March 22, 1929, in Penang, Ramlee was a multi-talented artist who would come to dominate the Malay-language film and recording industries in the 1950s and '60s. Ramlee came from a traditional Malay family and started his singing career in Penang. Arriving in Singapore in the late 1940s to work as a backing singer in the films produced by the Shaw Brothers Organisation, he slowly broke into the film industry, initially playing bit parts. By the early 1950s Ramlee had established himself as a charismatic singer and actor, whose popularity led to an increasing role in all aspects of filmmaking, where he left his mark on the cultural and social history of Malaysia and Singapore.
Malay filmmaking and Singapore
Malay language film production in the 1950s was centred in Singapore. The two main studios producing films for the Malayan market were Cathay Organisations' Cathay Keris and the Shaw Brothers' Malay Film Production Studios. These two studios eventually produced over 200 films in the 1950s and '60s. Although there was little difference in the stories, acting and quality of the two main studios, Cathay Keris was perhaps best known for its pontianak (vampire) series while the Shaw Brothers was the home of P. Ramlee. Between 1948 and 1964 Ramlee would eventually appear in 43 films for the Shaw Brothers. Working from their Jalan Ampas studios, Ramlee directed 16 of these films, and directed one other film (Pancha Delima - 1957) in which he did not appear. In addition, he often wrote the scripts, while also composing and performing the music that would appear in the film.
The film world that Ramlee worked in was a multi-ethnic environment. Initially, Chinese studios hired Indian filmmakers and technicians to shoot stories starring Malay bangsawan (traditional theatre) performers. Many of the early films had a distinct Indian cultural flavour, with the songs and dances often associated with Indian film. As Malay films grew in popularity, however, there was a movement to have more Malay control over their content. This was related to larger movements involving nationalism, modernity and culture in Malaya during the 1950s.
Questioning modernity and traditions
The golden age of Malay film production occurred during a period of monumental social and political upheaval, as residents of Malaya had to deal with a communist insurgency, modernisation, and questions over the future relationship between Singapore and Malaya. Among Malay intellectuals one of the most important organisations was Asas 50 (Angkatan Sasterawan 50 or Generation of the Writers of the 1950s), whose members were artistes and writers who wanted to question many of the basic assumptions in Malay society. The members saw themselves as frontline warriors promoting a modern society, but also questioning some of its basic elements. Their critique of British rule and modernisation, as well as ''feudalistic'' elements of Malay society, resulted in a period of artistic renaissance among the urban-based Malays of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.Spearheaded by the Singapore Malay Journalist Association, and the work of Asas 50, there were strong nationalistic feelings that were expressed in the desire that Malays should direct their own films, which should represent ''true'' Malay society and culture at that time. As Ramlee once proudly proclaimed: ''My art is not for money, my art is for society.'' To this end, he tried to portray the ''common'' man and the problems he encountered in a rapidly changing community.
In the early 1950s Ramlee portrayed the young hero in a series of films that quickly solidified his status as a rising star. This popularity was supported by his growing status as a musical artiste. Ramlee recorded more than 350 songs, many of which were integrated into his films. He used his growing popularity to secure the right to direct a film on his own. This was the beginning of the most productive period of Ramlee's career, from 1955 to 1963, during which he made many films that are considered to be classics and he was able to address the issues that confronted Malay society.
The first film Ramlee was able to control fully as a director, screenwriter and actor was Penarek Becha (1955), which portrayed the difficult life of a trishaw driver in a modernising society. He went on to mix his unique brand of humour, song, and drama into a series of internationally award-winning films, including Anakku Sazali (1956), Bujang Lapok (1957), Sergeant Hassan (1958) and Ibu Mertuaku (1962).
Penarek Becha, 1955
In all of these films, Ramlee focuses on the problems that many Malays were experiencing in balancing a traditional life with the pull of modernity. For example, the main female character in Penarek Becha, Azizah (played by Saa'diah), must negotiate her position between the demands of urban society, represented by her father and the material riches surrounding her, and the kind trishaw driver who shows her the communal spirit of the kampung. In this respect, Ramlee was able to capture many of the complex and ambivalent feelings that Malays were experiencing during the 1950s. In the process, he effectively dealt with many of the same issues that the more literary Asas 50 had. He had, however, conveyed the message to a much larger audience, while also entertaining them in a style that was uniquely his own.
Move to Kuala Lumpur
Despite his success, Ramlee always felt that his artistic potential, and the monetary rewards due such a star, were limited by the studio system in Singapore. In the early 1960s there was a series of strikes against the Singapore studios with employees asking for higher wages and better working conditions. In 1964 Ramlee moved to Kuala Lumpur, where he was to be an integral part of the new Studio Merdeka. The loss of such an important star, and the continuation of the labour disputes, led to the closing of the Shaw Brothers' Malay Film Production studios in early 1965.Ramlee made 20 films for Studio Merdeka, but they never reached the quality or popularity of his work in Singapore. By the early 1970s film production in Malaysia and Singapore had almost come to a halt. Television had spread throughout Malaysia, while Hollywood, Hong Kong and Bollywood productions became the staple diet at local cinemas. When Ramlee died in May 1973, much of the energy and charisma that he had brought to Malay film production also passed on.
Ramlee's legacy as a multi-faceted artiste, however, continues to entertain countless people throughout Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. While we can laugh, cry and sing along with the films and music of Ramlee, these forms of entertainment also reflect the changes Malay society faced in the 1950s and '60s, thus providing a window into the past.
* Timothy P. Barnard is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of Raja Kecil dan Mitos Pengabsahannya and his research focuses on Malay social and cultural history.Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.
Notes: STF -: Through the lenses of movie cameras, one man captured the turmoil and excitement of a modernising Malay society in the 1950s and '60s. In this week's Millennium Markers, TIMOTHY P. BARNARD looks at the socialogical aspects of the works of P. Ramlee.
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