Sunday, March 26, 2006

If "bahasa" came from the Urdu "bhasha", shouldn't our national language be Hindi?

It’s one of life’s great mysteries.

A reporter in a local language paper is presently in a tizzy over the protection of “filem nasional” (ironically, a phrase rooted in the English “film” and Latin “nato”) for the sake of the preservation of the national language.

“Bahasa jiwa bangsa” is his battle cry. (In English, “Language is the soul of a people”.)

Interesting this, because I’ve just been told that even the word “bahasa” has its origins in “bhasha”, the Urdu word for language.

My last article on the matter was met with some vitriol, by some folks who pointed out to me that Malay is the fourth most spoken language in the world. Well, in that case, there’s naught to worry about, is there?

But that wasn’t, and isn’t, my point. The hidden poison in this insane cinematic and linguistic crusade is this:

Malaysian films that are in Malay can enjoy several privileges that their Chinese and Tamil counterparts cannot. Tax rebate on tickets sales is just one of them.

Recently, the reporter who has been leading this crusade in the newspaper for which he writes has taken to making racial slanders against the non-Malays, in order to prove his tenuous point. What I want to know is, how can the editors and the heads of that newspaper allow such writing to see the light of day, at a time when the government is trying its damnedest to foster unity among the races?

This writer has been allowed to write on the same point every week, his articles getting more and more racist each time, and enjoys total impunity. When will it end? How long will it be before he stirs enough racial furor to cause a riot?

Back to the issue at hand, I’d like to point out to the powers that be, that the Malaysian film industry is coming perilously close to a brain drain.

Ho Yuhang, arguably the most internationally awarded filmmaker in the country, with accolades from Nantes, Manila, Rotterdam, Pusan and Jeonju, was given money to make his third feature-length film, “Rain Dogs”, by Andy Lau.

I myself have been courted by some Singaporean film authorities, and even financiers, to make films about their country, in any language I like, without unnecessary repercussions. Can someone tell me why I should not take up their generous offers?

A local ministry has offered 50 million ringgit in loans for anyone who wants to make films. Why hasn’t anyone with any decent track record taken up the offer?

Ho Yuhang says he has effectively dismissed that loan as an option because he hears the filmmaker is more or less asked to guarantee that his/her film will make money. But in all honesty, who can guarantee such a thing? Why, even Spielberg has his misses.

Furthermore, Yuhang has had officers in various government departments caution him about the content of his films.

“They want me to show only the sunny side of this country. How lah? To me, the naked truth is sunny, but what if it’s ugly to them?”

James Lee and Woo Ming Jin, on the other hand, did not opt for the loan, but have acquired instead some small grants from FINAS. There is hope yet.

But to be honest, I don’t really care to debate at length about the etymology of any language, and neither do I want to engage the afore-mentioned reporter in a discussion about racial equality.

I just want my friends who are, like me, just struggling to make films we won’t be ashamed of, to get tax rebates on their film sales, regardless of their race or the language they use in their films. Why? For the simple fact that it’s getting embarrassing for me to discuss such matters with them when we go out for teh tarik together.

I want to be able to stand next to them – the Indians, the Chinese and the “others” – and be able to hold my head up when our films are being released.

I’m tired of hearing statements like “You Malay, so you can get loans lah!” and “Tax rebates for Melayu only mah?” being hurled at me, especially when at least some of the allegations they make are true.

I would like to know that when my films make it, they make it by the grace of Allah, by the talent He blessed me with, and because of the hard work I put into their making.

And NOT because of the colour of my skin.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Singapore Straits Times review of 'Gubra'

quill and inkwell
Originally uploaded by yasmin the storyteller.
"MALAYSIAN writer-director Yasmin Ahmad's big, benevolent heart is on ample display here.

Her third feature embraces characters with a sympathetic eye. Her greatest accomplishment is in enveloping the audience with a warm and fuzzy blanket that is no less comforting for its acknowledgement that the world can be a cold, harsh place.

Named after the colloquial Malay word for "anxiety", it is nonetheless told with great assurance.

Fans of her last movie, the interracial romance Sepet (2004) will be pleased by the return of protagonist Orked (Sharifah Amani Al-Yahya) and her kooky clan.

But Gubra is different from the lightweight sentiment of Sepet. The director states her intent at the opening, which quotes from the Quran, "In the name of God, the most loving, the most compassionate".

Gubra is not just a love story. It is also a meditation on what it means to love, to live and to have faith.

It is a measure of how far Yasmin has come as a film-maker and storyteller that these issues are dealt with deftly, in the guise of simple stories.

The narrative is split between the comfortable middle-class world of Orked and the lower-income kampung environs of muezzin Pak Bilal (Shahili Abdan aka Namron).

Orked is married to Arif (Adlin Aman Ramlie), who is much older than she is. Arif on first encounter is the dependable rock.

Pak Bilal, a happily married man, teaches by living what he preaches - a spare life whose keynote is kindness to every living creature, from a stray dog to a single mother, Temah (Roziwati Mohd Rashid), working as a prostitute to support her young son.

These characters find themselves in almost Sandiwara-style soap opera dilemmas. Orked discovers her husband is cheating. Temah tests positive for HIV.

What grounds these characters is Yasmin's unerring instinct for heartfelt emotions.

Her technique has matured with some subtlety. The sequence in which Temah discovers her HIV-positive status is told entirely without dialogue, through acting and nimble editing.

But what is remarkable is also Yasmin's singularly non-judgmental eye. Her camera remains mostly still, observing her characters as they endure emotional upheavals in carefully framed tableaus.

There is genuine curiosity and engagement in her gaze. Thus she invites the audience to be engaged as well.

Stay for the little stinger sequence after the end credits, which can be read as both a sunny promise of all the possibilities that love opens up in this world and all the hurt that being open can bring you.

An auteur is the omniscient dictator of a film world. But Yasmin is more akin to the good shepherd who watches protectively over her flock. And what a bountiful harvest she presents us with."

(Writer Ong Sor Fern gave 'Gubra' a 4 out of 5 stars rating.)