I Am So Not Exotic

In January, Rani Moorthy came upon us like desert rain and showered on us a deeply Malaysian story. Titled Pooja, it bravely tells of her childhood spent in desperate rituals trying to remedy the bad horoscope she got erroneously assigned to. (Click here for the review by Antares). Rani, who cut her theatrical teeth in Singapore now works in Manchester with her English director hubby, Arthur. When she returned to the UK in January, she left our soil rich with a seedling of another play, Manchester United & The Malay Wanior. This wandering soul returned last month to perform Pooja at lpoh, as well as to work through the new script with Five Arts Centre, who will be presenting Manchester United come May 3rd.

Pang: So, what have you been doing between the staging of Pooja in January and now?

Rani: Oh, in January, I came not just to do Pooja, I also did a ten-day workshop on this play, Manchester United & The Malay Wanior. What happens is that I went back and in two months I wrote two drafts of the play. The re­ writes were, you know, a little more difficult because you are revisiting the play, coming from ten days of rehearsals, with the actors who had very good input into the play, but with quite different agendas. So, to separate that, and to fulfil my own agenda was quite a task. On top of that I also received a Film Council Grant to do a short film, so the company did a short film called Insects. Among other things, Pooja has been invited to the Edinburgh Festival [the world’s foremost arts festival].

Pang: Wow.

Rani: (Laughs) I know. We are going to perform that for three weeks. So, to answer your question, that’s what’s been happening. Packed quite a lot in. I arrived exactly two weeks ago and within two days had to overcome jet lag for the performance in lpoh.

Pang: And how was it in lpoh?

Rani: The audience was great. Because you know, they kept warning us, the Perak Performing Arts Society, they kept saying, don’t expect KL, the cosmopolitan audience. These people are not like that, they are very reserved, they are not very forthcoming, they probably won’t laugh as loud. And I was very pleasantly surprised, let’s put it that way. And they gave me a wonderful applause, and three curtain calls. And it was fabulous.

Pang: Okay, this is a comment I got from a fellow audience who caught Pooja in KL the last time. She thinks that Pooja seems to pander to Western perception of Eastern exoticism; you have these poor hapless Asians trying to break out of unprogressive cultural baggage such as superstitions and stuff. How do you respond to that?

Rani: Well, I think that the person is very blinkered, to be very honest. (This play) comes from a very personal space, where an apparently modern well-adapted, well-adjusted woman is talking about something that is deeply personal – it happened to her. And I think the reason it makes people so glib about it is because they think it doesn’t exist, because nobody talks about it. In a sense, we are all gridlocked by some structure of superstition that keeps us in a place which allows other people to control us.

So, I don’t think I exoticise what happens, because these rituals are still being performed, they are still oppressing other people. Whether we choose to see it as oppression or not, that’s besides the point. It happens. And because it happens, the onus is on me to say that there are the times that life doesn’t go the way it’s planned. Being in a state of exile from your own community gives you that extra perception of being able to see it, be a little critical of it, and you know, be able to challenge it.

In the West, they want me to stand up there and talk about India as some mystical, wonderful land, and I don’t come from India, I come from Malaysia, I don’t fit into anybody’s pigeon hole. So, if somebody says I’m pandering to the West, you know, I should just have stood up there and given half Tamil, and half Bharata Natyam. And I am certainly not doing that. The last thing I want to do is to present a pretty picture of what it’s like to be an Indian woman. The fact that I speak in English already presents a problem for English-speaking Britain, because they don’t want us to be articulate, or have a Western theatre background.

Pang: Critics have the same apprehension when they saw Malaysian movies at festivals. When you speak in English, you are not being authentic. When you speak in native tongues, you are being exotic. You cannot win.

Rani: People have to get off this stupid hang-ups that they have, you know, that when you start exploring your own identity, it is hackneyed. Well, the whole point of theatre is, how many original ideas can you have? The fact is, you present it in a refreshing way that enables somebody to laugh with you.


Pang: So, can you explain this new play. The synopsis seems rather confusing.

Rani: Okay, the germ of the idea came when I thought of the fact that I am Malaysian and living in Manchester, where people don’t really know where Malaysia is, or they think it is in China somewhere, or it is a land of Bali­ hai and white sands and blue seas and palm trees; no idea that it is this cosmopolitan modern society. ‘Manchester United’ is the immediate reply you get when you tell people that you live in Manchester. I took these two stereotypes and thought, let me find the story that that will explore the human condition and dismantle stereotypes.

I have a perception of older Britons who’ve been in Malaya as it was then, fought through the British army, or came with the missionaries, or through the education service. I’ve met people who remember Malaya, remember black and white photos of the padang, and the colonial Malaya. And that’s how they want to remember it, they don’t want to see it as twin towers. On the other hand, I also have a perception of Malaysian students, walking down Oxford Road from Manchester University, and I always wonder if they have the same anxieties or tension that I have growing up, which is you have the spirit of an artist but you always have to fulfil somebody’s idea of what is dutiful and what is not dutiful.

So I put a situation between a young Malaysian who’s feeling extremely disempowered and disenfranchised with society, and an older British woman who remembers Malaya the way it was when she was as a 20 year old in the 1950s. And find a way to tell the story using mythology. So what if Hang Tuah, Kamal (who’s the young Malaysian student) and Alice (who’s the older British woman) meet and encounter each other on a human level?

I want a very simple story of a friendship between an older woman and a young man, often never explored, both feeling invisible. Because if you’re an older woman, you’ve lost your sexuality, you have no sense of people perceiving you as a woman, you almost become asexual, become invisible. In the present context, anyone brown skin in Britain has a sense of invisibility, or wants to be invisible, because of the tensions that are there now. Especially now, after September 11, are you an asylum seeker, are you legally here?

So, in the context of the very first question to me, today these insecurities that arise when you live in another country. How’s Hang Tuah going to feel in Manchester of the 20th Century, dealing with issues of an immigration asylum, and all these political issues?

Also Hang Tuah is an ancient hero and the Manchester United are so-called modern heroes. So, someone who is seen as a macho demigod is now forced to see what is human in him. And someone like Kamal and Alice, who lead ordinary lives, because they meet up with heroic characters, they have to find the heroic in themselves.

Actually, it deals with so many things that touch me, which is, what it feels like for a woman getting older? What did it feel like when I was a young person having to choose between what my parents wanted for me and what I wanted for myself? What does it mean to question? What does it mean to be Malay? Does the heart remembers? There’s the input of globalisation; there’s the culture of Manchester United impinging on you: you wear the caps, you wear the clothes, but you don’t know what it feels like to wear the kris. So, it is a very complex play, but I don’t think it is confusing, because at the heart of it is a very simple friendship, and what happens when people move away from their homelands.


First Published: 02.05.2002 on Kakiseni

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