STOP10: P Ramlee plays his role in 'Seniman Bujang Lapok'

Choosing a Southeast Asian film that had a great impact on me was a bit of a struggle. I can’t ever escape the spectre of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives nor easily ignore the lush beauty of Tran Anh Hung's The Scent of Green Papaya.
However, P. Ramlee, who might seem as a more distant figure these days, remains ever present for Malays. For me the film that seems most appropriate to talk about when we talk about Southeast Asian film is Seniman Bujang Lapok or erroneously known as ‘The Nitwit Movie Stars’, a film about making it in the film business during the golden era of films in Singapore.

For the uninitiated, P. Ramlee was a famous Malaysian savant who has served as an actor, director, singer, songwriter, composer and producer and made films both in Singapore and Malaysia. An observant hard worker, he started out as a backup singer for B.S Rajahn's films, and ever industrious, he even chipped in as a camera assistant. It was of little wonder that when his time came, his carefully crafted films, assisted by the Shaw Brother's expert crew recruited from around the region, often became a sum of more than its finely tuned parts.

Seniman Bujang Lapok is a repeat viewing in my household. So much so that we've bought several versions of it, from tape to disc after we physically wore out the tape from overuse. Though the need to watch it comes and goes without warning. We don't plan to watch it regularly with an event such as Hari Raya nor forewarn others of our urge to watch it. It just happens. A primordial urge in us suddenly awakens and senses the right time to watch it, akin to migratory fish sensing the seasons.

It is the fourth in the 'Bujang Lapok' film series and the final to feature P. Ramlee. They are not direct sequels and there are no references to previous films, though mostly the characters names, actors and personalities remain the same. They stand independently and everyone has their own favourite. Seniman Bujang Lapok is actually my second favourite, but its impact and context I think is more significant than any of the rest. It's even being played at the Asian Film Archive's State of Motion programme this year.

Ramli and his usual two friends, Aziz and Sudin, played by Aziz Satar and S. Samsuddin, are the eponymous ‘bujang lapok,’ loosely translated as old bachelors, and in this installment we follow their journey in auditioning to be movie stars at the legendary Jalan Ampas film studio.

P. Ramlee making a film about making films, was like a virus that opened my mind. And I sort of only began to understand that there were filmmakers – people who made films. Previously, I had no real notion that normal people like you and I could do this. I might have simply assumed these stories came down from the heavens. It just seemed illogical, that any person could craft such stories at the time. It still seems illogical now. 
Aside from being uproariously funny, the film also serves as a unique point of view on a lost golden age. A golden age many local cinephiles would hope we can return to – when Singapore was producing the regions finest films. But the films of the 50s and 60s coincided with great social, political and economic changes and the films often reflected Malay consciousness.

The film gave me a sense of how one practices Malay values in the face of modernity and the balance of social reformation that was needed. In his films, P Ramlee's characters would adopt the best of Western developments yet adhering to strict sense of morality as seen by Malays and Muslims alike. At home the trio wear the traditional 'kain sarong' but Ramlee is then chastised to change into trousers when applying for a job. But he flips it again almost immediately when choosing a form of transport to get to Jalan Ampas, choosing a traditional trishaw over a taxi due to its relative cheapness.

The characters even try to speak English, being educated by Ramli to lose the Malayness when they pronounce 'film studio' and 'shooting'. Yet seconds later Ramli bemoans that 'Bahasa tunjukkan bangsa', which translates to 'Your manners shows your roots,' but interestingly the literal phrase translates to your 'Your language shows your race'.  Good manners, polite language and being civil was and is still a subject of some pride for the Malay community.

This film-within-a-film is also a cunning look at the perils of film production, but it is played as a fun inside joke with plenty of heart as well as humor. It still keeps its film production observations accessible from the short-fused director, who admittedly is saddled with some incompetent collaborators in the three novice thespians, to the clueless studio manager who hires the trio in the first place. 

As a young director, the film hits closer to home now. I think I laugh on the side of the director, when previously as a child I found him a little mean and unsympathetic. Now, I feel for him when he passes out from stress. Twice.

What adds to the film's self-referential spoof is the use of real film sets, particularly of previous Malay films and the actors use of their real names, and additionally P Ramlee's main love interest being his wife Saloma.

The film flows well between humor and commentary whether it be at work or home and has a strong focus on the limits, fragility and mechanics of a community, which is apt for a story about a collaborative product such as a film, though never approached with any cynicism. As the three aspiring actors attempt to memorize their lines, they are beset by night time disruptions from their inconsiderate neighbours from the loud music of a dancing husband and wife, to a man fixing his motorcycle and a drunk trumpeter.

The film therefore also carries a commentary about civility, politeness and gentlemanly behaviour. In the final fight, Ramli and the antagonist, Sharib Dol engage in witty banter and chivalrous behaviour. Feeling imminently defeated, Sharib requests not to be dealt the final blow which is honored. He instead retrieves a rope and asks to be tied up as he surrenders. Ramli also provides his nemesis with water once done. In an earlier scene at Jalan Ampas, a security guard reprimands them for their lack of manners when speaking to him, by simply calling him 'Oi'. That lesson still needs to be taught these days.

The film sticks in my head with a strange touch of surrealism, done for humourous effect – from talk of a 'magic stone' that does nothing and a teleporting motorcycle. It would possibly be the strangest part of the film for foreign viewers in a story that remains completely grounded aside from these random instances. For me though, it proves that Malays and magic can never be wholly culturally separated no matter how much Islamization has taken hold of the Nusantara.

Whilst there is a strong yet curious social context in the film, as well as sly and possibly self-reflexive ideas on Singapore's local film production and business, it never pretends for a second to be more important than it is. The film is still a great family viewing and one of P Ramlee's best.

For me, the shine on the film has faded only a little after so many repeat viewings. Now I know how they are made, I cannot help but see what they are trying to do – which is more of a professional problem on my part. That said, the film is so well put together I have actually watched it twice now in a week just to write this article. The first for analysis and then, again purely for pleasure. 

Oh, and the tunes. The sweet sweet tunes.
P Ramlee's early passing was a tragic loss and the manner of his final years are regrettable. He died of a heart attack, shunned by the public who thought he was past his prime and penniless after giving away his final savings to a house visitor he felt needed it more. There was barely any money to afford his funeral. 

However, the region especially Malaysia and Singapore honor him now, though all of the titles, accolades, streets renamed in his honor, are a little too late, for the man who shaped our cinema. I hope if you ever think about Southeast Asian cinema, P Ramlee's role is not far from your mind.

Check out which other films made our list of the 10 Most Life-Changing Southeast Asian films.

Written by Rifyal Giffari

Rifyal Giffari is a director, Olympic homebody and lapsed wizard.  

*Not in order of proficiency.
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