Production Talk with Raihan Halim on 'Banting'

Think 'Bend it like Beckham', but Singapore-style. A girl in jihab wants to pursue her dream of becoming a professional wrestler. That's one notch up from kicking soccer balls! 'Banting' is a feature film by filmmaker Raihan Halim and is the first commercial Malay film to be made and released in Singapore for a very long time, since 1975 in fact. Raihan has made quite a leap in his filmmaking endeavour since his early short film 'Sunat' which means circumcision. Here is the story.

Raised in a strict household, Yasmin finds the missing passion in her life when she begins to secretly take professional wrestling lessons. But when her secret is threatened to be revealed, Yasmin will have to clothesline, pile-drive and slam her way through to keep her dream going and realize what she’s really meant to do in life! 

Set in the exciting rough and tumble world of professional wrestling, Banting chronicles a young Malay woman’s struggle to live her dreams.

We catch up with Raihan himself to learn more about his first feature film journey.

Could you explain the movie plot in 140 words or less?
Banting is about a girl in hijab who wishes to pursue her lifelong dream of being a professional wrestler. In the course of her adventures (and misadventures), she'll have to contend with her strict mother who wishes her to forget her ridiculous dream.

Where do you draw your inspirations from? Any particular catalyst that fuelled this film idea?
I draw my inspirations from many, many sources — real life or otherwise. I am mostly inspired by the hijab girls in my life, friends who pray five times a day, living life as a good Muslim but are still being "normal" by listening to punk music and watching Michael Bay movies. One of my influences was a book called "Does My Head Look Big In This?" It's a YA fiction but features a lead character who wears the hijab. I loved it so much that I wanted to make something like that. Add my lifelong passion for professional wrestling in and voila: Banting was born!

Any secret (or not so secret) unconventional passions of your own?
I love watching food shows! Love it! Love it! Love it! Food shows like Chopped, Diners, Drives In and Dives, Iron Chef -- man! I love them all! I scour the internet for any chance to see some sort of food shows. And I enjoy having a meal watching a food show before me. It's weird but man… that's one unconventional passion of mine. Yep, you read it right. It's a passion!

Could you share some interesting anecdotes of the production process?
Production was tough. Some interesting anecdotes including Izyan Mellyna's (Banting lead actress) audition process. As my audition room was booked for another meeting, Izyan was forced to audition in the middle of a working office. There she was, acting her whole heart out and there are phones ringing, fax machines whirring and people talking. But somehow, she held our attention. She was that awesome. She's probably one of the best decisions we've ever made for the film. We grew really close since I first casted her. Today, Izyan is no longer my star. She's my sistah!

Banting went through over 8 months of editing. And the people who were there with me every step of the way include my Producer, Asra Aman, Associate Producer Sulaiman Salamon and the awesomus maximus editor Huda Azzis. They helped me crafted the story and whittling the running time down from 2.30hrs down to the film's current running time. In every single edit for any of my TV shows, we'll have what we call: Newton Night. On Newton Nights, I'll go down to Newton Circus to get epic BBQ seafood and we'll feast. This is a mini celebration of sorts for either a long night ahead or something awesome had happened. We have about 4 Newton Nights with Banting. It's really epic!

Are there stereotypes — about one’s country, culture, religion, gender, or even about niche sports — that you hope to question or dispel?
My greatest wish is to dispel stereotypes about Muslim women in the world. I am pissed that every time I catch a "Muslim" film, they always revolve around terrorists, wife-beating, rape and such. Blech! I wanted to show a different side of Muslim women. One who is fun loving, funny and has a lot of positive attributes. I saw an episode of No Reservations where Anthony Bourdain went to Iran and he met this awesome lady who wears the hijab. She brought Bourdain home to meet her family and she introduced him to her flatscreen TV, collection of Grey's Anatomy and other modern fixtures. She basically dispelled Bourdain's preconceived notion that Iranian women are docile and are backward thinking in their ways.

For me, Banting is more than just a Malay film. It's a Singaporean film. Anyone who watched Banting would clearly see that the cast is extremely diverse. We have Chinese, Indian and even a Japanese! This is extremely important to me. I always get upset when I watch some of the Singapore films and I keep on seeing Chinese in every single scene. Come on, man! This is Singapore! There are so many opportunities to cast non-Chinese actors for roles but somehow, the minorities are relegated to ether 1) Comic relief or 2) Quota for the filmmakers to say: "See! I have a non-Chinese there, leh!" I am extremely upset when I watched some local movies where the filmmakers clearly have the chance to cast non-Chinese for the roles but decide not to. Singapore is a melting pot of races, culture and language. I want to embrace this.

How do you feel this film will be something the community at large will be able to connect to?
I do believe that audiences — Malay or otherwise — can connect with the film. I mean, I didn't grow up in a middle-class Chinese family and I didn't have a maid. But holy crap did I connect with Ilo, Ilo. That film is just so epic! For Banting, the film is about chasing your dreams. It's not a groundbreaking story. In fact, the oft-treaded story lines can be traced to films like Bend it Like Beckham, Billy Elliot and even Cool Runnings. Dreams are worth pursuing and you should not let anything stop you from achieving them. My wish is for audience to look beyond the language of the film and see the film as what it is: A movie about reaching for your dreams.

How did you stay true to capturing the spirit of pro-wrestling? Was it ever a consideration to cast a pro-wrestler?
Nope. I never once wanted to cast a pro-wrestler. For me, it's all about casting the best damn actors and then send them for professional wrestling training to make them "look" like wrestlers on screen! We stayed true to the sport by hiring the awesome people of Singapore Professional Wrestling who helped trained all the girls to be ready for their big fight scenes. It's so painful to see the girls get battered day in and out but I'm telling you: these girls are just so damn power, man! They just look so pro at it. I tried to perform a wrestling move. And I had a headache for a week. So for them to actually do it time and again, without complaining. It's so awesome!

Any underlying message you want to convey to audiences?
I made Banting not because I want to inspire people. But if the course of the film, someone — just one person — decides, "Hey! I have a dream! I want to pursue it!" Then I'm a very happy man. For me, the film started out as a story about dreams but ended as a story about mothers and daughters. The final scene of the movie never fails to make me feel emotional. And I hope that the audience sees the power of that scene, all thanks to Izyan and Mastura Ahmad's acting. For the young ones, I hope that the film inspires them to pursue their dreams. And for the parents, I hope the film give them a sense to allow their children to make their own mistakes and give them the leeway to pursue what they want in life.

What are your hopes for this film?
I had always hoped that with Banting, I get the chance — as small as it is — to show that we have different kinds of stories to tell here in Singapore. If I could — and I did — make a different kind of Singapore film, I'm sure that there are hundreds of others who are looking to make different kinds of stories too. So come on. Only Jack Neo can make a Jack Neo movie. Only Anthony Chen could make an Ilo, Ilo. And only Raihan could make Banting. So I hope that new filmmakers would stop emulating other filmmakers and just come out with their own original material and kick as while they're doing it.
 What has been different about this experience, as opposed to that of your previous works? What can we expect next?
Banting just takes a damn long time to complete! We took a year to write it and go through pre-pro. We shot for 23 days. And we edited for 8 months! That's a marathon. And this is coming from a guy who makes a drama series, man! It's tough and it took a lot of stamina. Most of all, it took a lot of discipline to not second guess myself. Watching the film close to a thousand times now, I got very sick of my own work. But it's just a testament of the people that I get to work with: Asra, Sulaiman, Huda and especially my wife who was there cheering me on. I love my collaborators and I can't wait to start on a new adventure with them again.

Next? I'd be lying if I told you that I have nothing in mind for my next film. I have a rough plan of what's coming up for myself and Papahan Films. But we are trying to push ourselves to do something different. There's no point in repeating your success (or failure for that matter), right? I've said this in an interview before. Though I've yet to confirm it, there is a chance that my next film would be another "Ban". "Ban" something else.

Find out more about 'Banting on its 
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Official website
Company website

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