Ask any Malaysian about Malay movies, the name P. Ramlee will surely be in the topic. P. Ramlee is regarded as a Malay entertainment icon and best known as a singer, actor, composer, screenwriter and director. In fact, I am a big fan of him and love his ‘Bujang Lapok’ series the most. But how exactly did Malay movies begin?

Photo by Rizal Halim

According to Rizal Halim, a renowned Malay movie director who made a name in Australia, “Leila Majnun which premiered in 1933 is probably the first Malay movie and had Islamic overtones. Malay movies were quite simple back then with a ‘bangsawan’ style but the real commercial success came with Malay Film Productions (MFP), Shaw Brothers Studio and Cathay-Keris Studio in Singapore. Both studios made Singapore the Malay movie hub in the early days,” he explained.

Photo by Francis Yip

The Golden Era

The 1950s saw many blockbuster Malay movies, especially romantic comedy and melodrama. P. Ramlee made his directorial debut in ‘Penarik Becha’ and some of his comedy movies like ‘Madu Tiga’, ‘Nujum Pak Belalang’, ‘Pendekar Bujang Lapok’ won critically-acclaimed awards in the Asian Film Festival.  These comedy movies about star-crossed lovers, mismatched love and celebration of friendship always had me in stitches. And of course, who could ever forget the catchy songs like ‘Menceceh Bujang Lapok’?

As an actor, P. Ramlee won Best Male Actor for his heartwarming father role in ‘Anakku Sazali’ at the 4th Asian Film Festival in Tokyo in 1957. While many P. Ramlee movies were produced by Malay Film Productions (MFP), the Cathay- Keris Studio differentiated itself with period drama like Hang Jebat and a series of satirical films like Mat Bond, Mat Lanun and Mat Raja Kapor in the 1960s.

Photo by Rizal Halim

From Singapore To Malaysia

“The ‘Pop yeh yeh’ bug hit the 1960s and P. Ramlee found himself struggling upon his return to Malaysia. Malay movies faced a rapid decline in the mid-60s and 70s as audiences decreased and production costs increased. Audiences preferred Bollywood movies,” explained Rizal. Filem Negara Malaysia (FINAS) was set up in the 1970s to break the monopoly of big players and there were also many independent Malay producers.

“Meanwhile, the 1980s was a comedy movie era for ‘Mekanik’, ‘Gila-gila Remaja’ and others while 1990s featured many independent movie directors like Shuhaimi Baba, Raja Ahmad Alauddin and Yusof Haslam. The Malay movies were mostly autobiographical and triad movies like those from Hong Kong,” Rizal pointed out.

The New Generation

The new millennium introduced us to a new generation of moviemakers. The late Yasmin Ahmad’s movies brought back the glitter of Malay movies with subjects that are close to our hearts in ‘Gubra’, ‘Mukhshin’ and interracial relationship in ‘Sepet’. “Today, movie makers want fast buck and produce their own Marvel superheroes like ‘Cicakman’ and ‘Badang’ but we still lack of that worldwide appeal.

Some film directors are still trying to find their voice in Malay movies. That is why I went to Australia to direct movies like ‘Lurking Woods’ and ‘Tainted Getaway’,” said Rizal. Whatever the future holds for Malay movies, I still love P. Ramlee classics the best.

Words by Francis Yip

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