STOP10: Thank you Yasmin for the music in 'Talentime'

I heard about Yasmin Ahmad’s Talentime (2009) during my Malay Studies module in NUS. I watched it first without subtitles and deduced the plot piecemeal through bits of English in the film, and written reviews. Eurasian Muslim student Melur (Pamela Chong) enters her school’s Talentime competition, and mute Indian student Mahesh (Mahesh Jugal Kishor) is assigned to shuttle her on his motorbike from her home to rehearsals. They develop a mutual attraction which seems prematurely doomed due to their different faiths. There are a couple of distinct subplots involving fellow Talentime contestant Hafiz (Syafie Naswip) and his Chinese classmate, Kahoe (Howard Hon Kahoe), as well as some of the staff in the school.

Fortunately, music transcends language. Talentime boasts a remarkable soundtrack by Malaysian composer Pete Teo, which carries and elevates the film, adding notes of emotional resonance to scenes. I have always had a fondness for films that are structured around the talent show trope, where the protagonists joins an amateur or school talent show, usually for the cash money, but also gains much more along the way. 

Part of that fondness is how their soundtracks will forever evoke certain scenes and memories, and another is due to the trope being a great excuse to throw a complex mesh of characters together who would not normally interact. Remember High School Musical, with the school jock and nerdy girl? Closer to home, there are a couple of notable Singapore films like Forever Fever (1998) and That Girl in Pinafore (2013). 

Yasmin Ahmad
Yasmin Ahmad was a prominent film director and writer from Malaysia who held a full-time job as creative director in an advertising agency while writing and directing her award-winning feature films on the side. Her narratives mostly revolved around interracial couples who face obstacles because of their differing ethnicities and/or faiths. No doubt it’s a cliché-ridden minefield for any writer, yet Yasmin Ahmad with her signature light touch skilfully wove in potentially heavy themes of faith, tolerance and family. The multiracial societies she presented on screen were optimistic, almost utopian, which raised the ire of critics who said Yasmin Ahmad was “trapped in her own dreamworld of ideals". 

Yet what is a cinema but a place to dream, and to share that dream with others? 

I particularly like that she used the talent show trope as a bait-and-switch: Talentime is the structure, but it’s far from the main point of the movie. It’s so unimportant that no winner is ever announced. Yasmin Ahmad’s focus is clear. Nestled against the main romance plot is an extended glimpse into the participants’ families: Melur’s multiracial wacky and closeknit family with an inappropriate English granny, Mahesh’s cheeky sister and prejudiced mother, Hafiz’s sweet hospitalized mother and Kahoe’s very stereotypically Asian father. 

Yasmin Ahmad seemed determined to arouse every possible feeling in her audience: from laughter to tears and bittersweet in-betweens. Because of the size of the cast, the film sometimes feel choppy, made up of little fragments of moments which add up to more than the sum of its parts. 

It helps that each cast member pulls their weight in creating memorable characters. Mahesh, mute, has an expressive face and soulful eyes. The scenes between Hafiz and his mother (Mislina Mustafa) hum with tenderness. Comedian Harith Iskandar, considered the “Godfather of stand-up comedy” in Malaysia, plays Melur’s father with gusto. I also enjoyed the bickering and playful antics between Mahesh (nicknamed “Monkey”) and his sister.   

While Yasmin Ahmad’s work was simultaneously praised and panned for being sentimental, it’s hard not to like a director whose bio so unabashedly stated “I am optimistic and sentimental to the point of being annoying, especially to people who think that being cynical and cold is cool”. She has stated in her blog that the common theme amongst her favourite films is sentimentality. For example, she is a huge fan of Yoji Yamada and the Tora-san film series. 

She was a humanist in the most naïve and inspiring sense, for her goal was to have the audience forget the race of the protagonists and instead focus only on their character. It may seem like a paradox that race is supposed to be the last thing on the audience’s minds when racial and religious conflicts feature heavily in her films. 

The 2001 Kampung Medan riots between the Indian and Malay community are referenced through a similar scene in the film, involving a wedding and a funeral happening side by side. In her blog, Yasmin Ahmad writes that her close friend, Ali, said to her, “By looking at your work, I get a privileged glimpse into what dwells in your heart. And that is enough for me.” 

The last scene in Talentime features a duet between sworn enemies, and ends with a hug. It is through shared sorrows that people can connect on a human level. It pretty much embodies Yasmin Ahmad’s vision in her films and for the world.

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

Written by Jacqueline Lee

Jacqueline writes bite-sized reviews encompassing all genres of films on Instagram at @filmage. She was a part of the SGIFF Youth Jury in 2015. She likes cats and Creepypasta.
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