p.roverbial ramlee



P Ramlee has become a household name in Singapore and Malaysia. His films covered themes concerning Islam, politics, Malay feudalism and race relations.

What distinguished P Ramlee apart from the other directors of his time was his knack of departing from the conventional. Instead, he depicted such themes as being condescending. It is the paradox meticulously crafted in his stories that stumps even the modern audience today.

It dawns upon us that P Ramlee was more than just an acclaimed film star. He continues to be an expression for bold artistic direction combined with humour and tact.

p ramlee smoking

What inspired me to introduce P Ramlee’s works into our Malaya Black & White Film series has some personal resonance.

My initial fascination with Classic Malay Films began when I was in primary school. I used to catch them on RTM 1 and RTM 3 (as they were then called) on Friday nights, 10pm. I can still recall the timings!

Sadly, they don’t screen them anymore which is a pity when you come to think of it. My brother who is 11 years old can’t list more than two P Ramlee Films. When news broke that S Shamsuddin (1/3 of the Bujang Lapok trio you’ll see in our film series) passed away in June this year, my brother had turned to me and asked “who’s Shamsuddin?”

I had to show my brother a fresh-faced Shamsuddin from 50 years ago. Only then did he recognize Shamsuddin as “P Ramlee’s friend”. His farmiliarity with Malay film legends of the past comes solely from films screened as part of Suria’s Special Hari Raya Programme.

tiga bujang lapok

Something has to be done before we forget that there was a thriving local film industry in the 1950-60s. The need to address this issue is urgent.

As a child, I used to think that the other Malay films were dull and too choreographed. The acting lacked the spontaneous response and action which children of my generation were farmiliar to. Already we tended to relegate Malay films not produced by P Ramlee as being substandard. It shudders me to think if P Ramlee films were to lose its star appeal one day too.

p ramlee playing the violin

And so you may ask, “Why Proverbial Ramlee?”

As you may have guessed, it is a clever play of phonetics. The meaning of the word “proverbial” is two-fold and aims to entice you to think deeply. Not just deeply but carefully- “along the lines” so to speak. For most of P Ramlee’s films treaded carefully on contending with social norms and left the independent thinking to you.

Firstly, proverbial is something that is usually referred to as a common reference. If I were to throw you a topic say “Malay Film Legends”, you’d associate it with P Ramlee. There is a whole list of other names but somehow Ramlee just stands out.

On another note, I still watch Malay films. The modern ones in technicolour of course. At times I come across a film which impresses me. Yes, it must be funny, realistic and tackles some social issue like a boss! After which I ask myself “how would P Ramlee have done it? “Is the plot as raw as Ramlee’s? And thus, P Ramlee becomes a yardstick. Not just to laymen like you and me but to directors and actors alike.

Where got same???

Where got same???

Proverbial should also suggest something akin to proverbial wisom. P Ramlee was not short of this. You listen to his songs and replay his lines. In some of his films, the dialogue between the male lead and his love interest are almost poetic.

His song “Tiada Kata Secantik Bahasa (There can be no word to describe the beauty of langauge)” is a fine example of his literary genius. There is a certain reverence which only he manages to deliver.

Yet his most potent weapon are his movies. I encourage you to watch it and then think along retrospective lines. One moment he will be critizing UMNO, the next he will be poking fun at polygamous relationships and then he takes a swing shot at the “mat-motor” or motorcycle-crazy youths.

Are things that different today? Not really. There is still a media circus surrounding Malaysian politics and UMNO lawmakers. There exists the humourously-depicted Obedient Wives Club. Lets not forget the occasional Mat Rempit. P Ramlee was years ahead of his time and took measures into his own hands by welding political sattire into his films. In that sense, he had hit a home run.

bujang lapok circus


But what made P Ramlee extremely admired- then and now? Tunku Abdul Rahman himself went on to receive P Ramlee upon his return to Malaysia in 1967. His suggestive labelling of UMNO being a party of”clowns” would pass off as seditious by today’s standards. Yet why did politicians court him?

Tunku Abdul Rahman and P Ramlee meeting shortly after his return in 1967

Tunku Abdul Rahman and P Ramlee meeting shortly after his return in 1967

Why is that you and I continue to revel in his stories? Why do people venerate him when they had once ridiculed him for being a pauper doing what he loved most- making films?

P Ramlee the director

P Ramlee the director

Perhaps it was his stage persona, his jovial and witty dialogues or his endearing spirit. All this while maintaining a distance from the agitprop. His films transplanted the audience into a world seemingly “protected” from the bellicose politics of the day: of merger; separation; communal politics; religious wars and racial hierarchy. A world where opposing sides could let off steam and laugh themselves stupid. After which rubbing their eyes and jaw sore with laughter, ask themselves “so what is it that we just watched?”

While the title of this category is dedicated to his name, let us remember that P Ramlee was just one of the many film legends of the past. I just feel that P Ramlee is the cement hoding together a structure that is slowly crumbling. The golden era of the local Malay Film industry never really took off. The sudden burst of energy and promise dissipated with the closure of the Jalan Ampas studio in Singapore.

As we watch the films in store, you will find youself exploring new passages in visual history. You will be presented with questions that will baffle you. As well as answers to nail-biting questions you first thought of many years ago. If you relish the challenge of inquiry, you will find P Ramlee’s mind to be a brilliant catacomb for discussion.

At the same time, soak in the nostalgia of farmiliar sights and sounds. For those who lived through the era, close your eyes and recall the first time you caught a P Ramlee film at Rex or Capitol. Go back to a time when cinema halls were dingy and reeked of cigarette smoke. The wooden collapsible seats a little too uncomfortable to get cozy with a loved one.

p ramlee laughing

Perhaps P Ramlee himself would be there. Impeccably dressed, moustache trimmed, his curls swept back and slapping his palms against his lap at his own antics. A talented man in sync with the common men. Imagine it all and history comes alive.

Welcome to the world of Proverbial Ramlee.

Mizrahi Maszenan
Friday, August 2 2013


One comment

  1. Malaysian

    Thanks for this article. A question that I ask is when so many of his movies were and are a hit among people of all walks of life, why are we not being able to find a comparable quality of movies and actors right now? Well I suppose as long as policy making people in my country, put Weight in what they say practically in all industries(read between the lines( then we wouldn’t have the actors and directors for many more years to come.

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