by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 2 October 2015

As a child I grew up with Disney movies (my favourite remains The Jungle Book) and occasionally masterpieces not by Disney (like The Flight of Dragons), but the first non-animated films I remembered really enjoying were the Star Wars trilogy, and ever since I’ve sustained a partiality towards sci-fi and fantasy. No surprises there: that’s quite typical of urban English-speaking kids of the eighties anywhere in the world. Soon I understood that movies came in different genres, aimed to trigger certain emotional responses and often had political subtexts.

For a long time the only things in Malay on television that I could recall were news broadcasts, propaganda songs or soaps involving a lot of shouting and crying. I cannot remember specifically the first P Ramlee movie I saw, but from the inclusion of songs and depictions of magic – and the reaction of adults to his movies – I suspected that they were somehow different from the usual stuff on TV.

Now, of course, I appreciate the significance of P Ramlee much more not just for his artistic genius, humour (sometimes slapstick and at others sophisticated and subtle) and musical abilities but also what his films say about society in the 50s and 60s – even those that are set in (fictional) Malay kingdoms of centuries past. His films provide a glimpse into social attitudes, including beliefs in spirits (various mambangs are appealed to in incantations in several movies), soothsayers (Nujum Pa’ Blalang), alcohol consumption (the famous “gin and tonic” of Labu dan Labi), playing mahjong, vigorous dancing, romantic boat excursions (where Getaran Jiwa is sung in Antara Dua Darjat) and even mixed marriages (Gerimis). Some of his films are explicitly nationalistic (Sarjan Hassan) but others touch on politics (in Pendekar Bujang Lapok, “UMNO” is a circus) and many depict royalty unflatteringly. I could go on, but suffice it to say many would agree that his legacy has been unmatched in Malaysian film-making since.

Having been away for many years I no doubt missed many Malay-language films, but those I did catch enjoyed considerable hype. These included the mythological Puteri Gunung Ledang and Merong Mahawangsa and contemporary pieces KL Gangster and Ombak Rindu, all highly recommended when they were released for striving to accomplish higher production values. Perhaps some would be horrified by my mentioning these four in the same sentence as they are of different genres and tones, but this indicates a healthy diversity in film-making. (I’m aware of the dominance of the horror genre too, but I don’t watch those.)

Now there is Polis Evo, a film that claims to be a Malaysian counterpart to Hong Kong’s Police Story, Kollywood’s Kaakha Kaakha and Hollywood’s Bad Boys. I watched it last weekend, and would add a sprinkling of Fast and Furious in describing the action comedy as well: the film’s sponsors include an engine lubricant and Joe Flizzow and SonaOne’s theme song certainly fits the vibe.

I would thoroughly recommend it. Maybe I was enamoured by the sumptuous scenery and familiar accent of Terengganu, but the film references many aspects of national life: the drugs trade and public policy responses, a challenging economic situation, the acceptability of cigarette smoking, issues of rural-urban shift that estrange families across generations, implied homosexuality and the Royal Malaysian Police: its internal dynamics, diverse personalities and supreme efficiency and integrity. It is certainly a different police force than the one in the minds of many Malaysians in an age of low public confidence in national institutions.

But central to the astounding box-office success (600,000 theatre admissions totalling RM8 million in 11 days) is the relationship between the two police officers played by Shaheizy Sam and Zizan Razak: the initial jealousy evolving into brotherhood through banter, humour, dramatic car crashes and deadly explosions. The story was the brainchild of three Astro Scholarship recipients: Joel Soh, Kyle Goonting and Anwari Ashraf. They wrote the script with Adib Zaini, and Soh also took on the role producer for Astro Shaw, which financed the film.

In wondering about the future of our film industry a question from P Ramlee’s Ibu Mertuaku is sometimes asked: “Di-mana kan ku chari ganti?” In a speech for a P Ramlee conference in 2012, I answered: “Not here in Malaysia, until we value and revive Malay cultural freedom and the voluntary loyalty that he espoused.”

The next generation of Malaysian film-makers might not adore P Ramlee, but in these box office hits led by young talents rewarded by meritocracy and funded by the private sector, we may be on to something. As patriotic citizens we should endeavour to enjoy their output: not just to support the industry, but to share in imagining representations of the nation, mythological or otherwise.

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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS

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