TWO copies of Majallah Filem with their corners peeking out from the mid-section of a pile of vintage magazines catch my eye. Without a moment's hesitation, my hands reach out to dislodge them carefully. During the process, a quick search of the remainder fail to reveal more copies of this Malay film periodical that was very popular nearly six decades ago.
My heart skips a beat when I realise that the publications are rare early editions produced in 1960. Still in very good condition, their pages are filled to the brim with news of the latest movies that graced the silver screen at that time and also photographs of actors and actresses who were the biggest names in the Malay film industry then.
Flipping through the pages, I recall a recent news report about film director Anwardi Jamil's planned cinematic journey that will not only explore his father Datuk Jamil Sulong’s life and times at the Jalan Ampas Studio in Singapore, but will also enlighten young Malaysians about the Malay cinema’s heyday.
The two-hour historical drama, scheduled for screening in February 2020, is inspired by fascinating stories and true events about the Malay cinema’s stars and unsung heroes that the renowned filmmaker shared with his son over the years.
Entitled Showtime 1958, the two-hour long movie is set to feature several stories that took place during a crucial juncture where many Malay film industry artistes were forced to make tough choices concerning their collective future.
Set in late 1950s Singapore, the interconnected stories centre around a concert organised by P. Ramlee and Jamil to raise funds for Persama (Persatuan Artis Malaya or Malayan Artistes Union), which was organising a strike for better pay and working conditions at the Shaw Brothers-owned Malay Film Productions (MFP) studio in Jalan Ampas.
My interest piqued by the discovery of the two early Malay movie magazines, I decide to head home to learn more about this interesting incident after completing my usual circuit at the Kampung Berjaya Flea Market, Alor Star's most popular destination for those interested in antiques and memorabilia from yesteryears.
It doesn’t take long for me to start tracing the evolution of the Malay film industry with the help of my extensive collection of related magazines like Layar Perak, Berita Filem, Bintang, Majallah Filem, Mastika Filem and Utusan Film dan Sport.
The two and a half decade long golden age of Malay cinema began soon after the end of the Second World War with the surrender of the Japanese Imperial Army and the much welcomed return of the British liberating forces.
Movie magic swept through the length of the peninsula with the 1947 release of the first post-war Malay film, Seruan Merdeka, produced by Indian businessman K.R.S. Chisty and directed by influential Calcutta-born auteur, B.S. Rajhan who was also the director of the first Malay language film, Laila Majnun, some eight years before war arrived on the shores of Malaya in December 1941.
The 1933 movie release was adapted from a classic Middle Eastern folklore about the love relationship between the two main characters, Laila and Majnun. The film was first shown to packed audiences at Singapore's Alhambra Theatre in Beach Road for a week before moving on to Penang for a fortnight.
Sadly, no known copies of this movie are known to exist today although another version featuring Nordin Ahmad and Latifah Omar was filmed in 1962 and also enjoyed overwhelming response from movie goers.
Seruan Merdeka was a ground-breaking film as it was among the first to feature Malay and Chinese actors on screen together. Scenes of interracial cooperation to resist the Japanese aggressors fired up the spirit of camaraderie among viewers as they concentrated on the plot. Unfortunately, the film was deemed a commercial failure due to limited exposure and the very few number of cinemas in the country at that time.
Soon after, the Shaw brothers reopened their film production studio at Jalan Ampas which was closed during the Japanese Occupation and started the MFP to tailor-make movies for local audiences.
Some film historians speculate that it was Seruan Merdeka, which prompted Shaw Brothers to restart their movie-making business as the movie showed clear clues that there was a gold mine waiting to be discovered if the rapidly expanding market, filled with legions of Malay film buffs, was tapped in a well-planned manner.
By cleverly adopting the lucrative and vertically-integrated business models of successful Hollywood studios like Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Shaw Brothers began their reign of an almost unrivalled monopoly of the Malayan film industry. Within a relatively short period of five years, starting from 1947, the prolific Jalan Ampas studio emerged with 37 feature films, with Rajhan's iconic Singapura Di Waktu Malam taking the lead.
During those formative years, the majority of directors, like Rajhan, were from the Indian subcontinent and the films they directed overflowed with over-stylised acting as well as song and dance sequences. The local bangsawan or Malay opera actors found it difficult to adapt to these foreign styles and rifts became common between foreign and home-grown talent at MFP.
Conscious of the serious situation and its potential to derail Shaw Brothers' well laid out plan before it had the chance to come into fruition, Rajhan embarked on a series of talent-scouting trips which took him the entire length and breadth of Malaya with hopes of infusing his crew with fresh blood. He was unwilling to depend solely on the local bangsawan performers who found it challenging to even cross into the world of moving pictures.
During one of his many successful trips up north, Rajhan spotted a young musician who went by the name P. Ramlee performing at a village fair in Penang. The experienced director immediately recognised the charismatic singer-actor's potential and made no delays in hiring him. Ramlee made his screen debut in the 1948 film Chinta, playing the supporting role of a swarthy villain opposite screen siren Siput Sarawak.
MOVIE BUSINESS RIVALRY
Hot on the heels of Shaw Brothers' quest for the hearts of Malay movie fans was rival Cathay Organisation's Cathay-Keris Films which had its studio at Jalan Keris in Singapore's East Coast area. As early as 1953, Cathay Organisation's chairman Loke Wan Tho realised his inability to take on MFP effectively on his own and decided to merge resources with Keris Film Productions' managing director Ho Ah Loke to form Cathay-Keris Films. The duo's joint expertise in filmmaking and extensive combined network of cinemas all over Malaya gave Shaw Brothers a run for their money.
At that time, Ho was already a well-known maverick producer who made his first foray into the industry back in 1925 by buying a cinema in Ipoh and cycling great distances all over the countryside to screen his reels of film to villagers who had no ready access to cinemas.
Through his lucrative involvement as film distributor, Ho became the proud owner of several small theatres by 1940. In 1952, he opened a studio in Tampines Street, Singapore and called it Rimau Film Productions. After just one film production, the name was changed to Kris Film Productions.
The Loke-Ho partnership created a buzz in the industry right from the start. They produced the widely-acclaimed Buloh Perindu, the first Malay film shot in colour, during their first year of collaboration.
I read with interest an article detailing the challenging times faced by screen artistes in 1957. This could probably be the turning point in the Malay film industry that Anwardi plans to retell in his upcoming production, Showtime 1958. A few moments later, the transpiring events that led to that crucial moment slowly start to reveal themselves.
It was just around the period when Malaya's Independence, and the form which the new government would take, was being debated in London, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, that matters related to politics and labour issues began taking centre stage in the minds of the Malays, including those involved in the film industry.
FIGHT FOR RIGHTS
They founded Persama in 1954 with P. Ramlee as the first president and Salleh Ghani and Jamil as the other main office bearers. The goals of Persama were quite common to those of most trade unions in Malaya at the time. Their activities, however, were often more public due to the industry in which they worked.
Clashes among Persama members from opposing camps of artistic talent and technical workers were quite common in matters related to bread and butter issues. The latter, consisting of cameramen and prop makers, were more interested in wages and work hours while the former wanted improvements made in film quality and production.
By February 1957, Persama was well organised enough to confront Shaw Brothers' executives to make demands. The approximately 150 MFP Malay employees, with the exception of P. Ramlee, each received a monthly wage of less than $300. Although they received bonuses for each film and lived in the staff housing complex in Boon Teck Road, they never received any raises once their initial salaries were agreed upon. As a result, there were employees who had been receiving the same salary amount for more than 10 years.
Under those circumstances, Persama representatives made four basic demands: an agreed salary scale for all MFP employees, bigger bonuses for each completed film, prompt payment for overtime and half day off on Saturdays and a complete off day on Sundays.
The reply to those demands was received on March 3, 1957 together with the employment termination of three prominent Persama members, Musalmah, Omar Rojik and H.M. Rohaizad, from MFP.
Musalmah was an actress whose home on Tembeling Road served as Persama headquarters. Rojik, who was a journalist in the 1940s, had worked his way up to assistant director and supporting actor prior to the termination. In the early 1960s, after his reinstatement, Rojik became one of the leading MFP directors specialising in dramatic politically-inclined films. Rohaizad, meanwhile, was an assistant director and prominent Persama member. As the protest dragged on, two of the most vocal agitators, S. Kadarisman and Syed Hassan Safi, who were MFP assistant directors, were shown the door on March 5, 1957.
The multiple terminations and Shaw Brothers' refusal to negotiate led to a retaliatory strike that began on March 16, 1957. More than 120 MFP employees picketed in front of the Jalan Ampas studio. In a show of solidarity, film stars picketed at Queens Cinema in Geylang, including Ahmad Mahmud whose film was being screened there at that time.
To garner more support, protests were organised at popular gathering places for the Malay community, including the Happy World Amusement Park, Pulau Berani and Al-Islamiah Madrasah at Pasir Panjang Road.
During that crucial juncture when things were at an impasse, Cathay-Keris' Ho allegedly took advantage of the situation by sending food supplies and encouraging notes to the strikers with the ulterior intent of luring actors, directors and technicians to his studio where better remuneration and equipment beckoned.
Although the strike was finally called off on April 7, 1957 with the timely intervention of Tunku Abdul Rahman and one of his senior aides, Senu Abdul Rahman, the damage had already been done. Tensions among the Malay staff and resentment over labour issues continued to linger at MFP for many years. Within the span of a few years, most of the Shaw Brothers' Malay production employees moved to Kuala Lumpur. By 1967, it was curtains down for the final time at MFP.
Although Cathay-Keris survived the 1957 crisis largely unscathed, stiff competition resulting from the introduction of television and the loss of the Indonesian cinema-goers' market due to the 1963 - 1966 Konfrontasi led to a marked decline in demand for Malay films and, to that end, the retrenchment of 45 studio staff in 1965. By 1972, Cathay-Keris produced its last film, Satu Titik Di-Garisan, marking the end of Malay film production in Singapore.
Putting the magazines back into their storage boxes, it suddenly dawns on me that the Malay film industry had definitely achieved a lot during its relatively short reign of 25 years. The result was the prolific production of more than 250 Malay films and it had spawned a formidable line-up of celebrity Malay stars, many of whom are still remembered with fondness to this day.
The golden age of Malay cinema was symbolic for a generation of film audiences who witnessed the transition from an oral storytelling tradition to a more dynamic and entertaining art form on the silver screen.
At the same time, the continued popularity of these classics make certain that they still enjoy a fair bit of airtime on television as well as during the occasional film festival screenings. As a result, the present generation of young Malaysians are still kept in the know about the time when Malay movie magic ruled the silver screens all over Malaya.