SMORGASBORD: The drinks of our lives

The subject for today: Drinks consumed in local movies. A small subject, to be sure, but one worthy of extrapolation.

Anyone who has even sat through a Malay TV drama or indeed film over the past few decades would have noticed something. The sophisticated characters therein are inordinately fond of fruit juice. By “sophisticated” I mean of course the characters who are supposed to be identified by their dress, accommodation and speech patterns to be somewhat middle-class. This penchant for fruit juices is especially noticeable among courting couples.

The favoured drink among them is “fresh orange” juice. This is what they will tell the waiter. “Fresh orange”, they will say, after a careful perusal of the menu. The waiter will nod wisely and walk away. Never once would the hapless waiter say, “Not again! ‘Why don’t you be wild for a moment? We have carrot, guava and even cranberry juice!” But I guess his job is not worth this harangue.

Oranges. They can’t get enough of the stuff! Is there a powerful orange lobby that has exerted its influence on the movie-makers? The highlight must have come in the Yusof Haslam movie “Pasrah”. This is the one where Erra Fazira is the sweet, long-suffering model who dumps her boyfriend after she catches him with a scheming vamp. Before this unfortunate incident takes place, Erra and the guy, Norman Hakim, are shown to be very happy indeed. In fact, there’s a picnic scene where they have not only a pitcher of orange juice but a whole pile of fresh, unpeeled oranges between them. We all know Vitamin C is important, but, kids, there is such a thing as restraint!

There have been very few deviations from this norm. There’s a somewhat shocking movie, “Gerak Kilat”, in which a young Jins Shamsuddin is the Malay version of James Bond. He is named Jefri Zain. Not only the baddies but Jefri himself walk around holding glasses of what looks suspiciously like cognac or some other forbidden thing. There’s “Abang 92” where Deanna Yusoff makes a big deal out of serving cider in her apartment. The baddie and also some of the good young extras in “Dari Jemapoh ke Manchestee” are shown with beer. And Erma Fatima as a hooker in “Bintang Malam” orders a whole pitcher of margarita. Hani Mohsin and his recording-company cronies in “Spinning Gasing” sit next to, and lift up, filled wine-glasses.

Even Yusof Haslam has begun to deviate slightly from orange juice in favour of another fruit. In his latest blockbuster, “Gerak Khas the Movie II”, courting couples consume a lot of watermelon juice. These drinks come complete with enough tropical foliage to obscure their love-struck faces when the camera is placed low enough.

Another thing to notice is that although they order drinks, these drinks are rarely consumed on-camera. No, the movie-makers aren’t such cheapskates that they can’t order more than a few drinks. It’s more likely a way to avoid continuity problems during editing in case the levels of the drink vary from take to take. And so, we have romantic couples who sit, look, and even pick up their drinks from time to time, but they don’t swallow anything.

Am I being drink-conscious? There are more important issues in the world, surely. And yet this mysterious fetish for fresh orange juice is surely a symptom of something. Perhaps the writers, actors and prop-masters have grown so comfortable with the stuff that it wouldn’t occur to them to order anything else. They are dependent on it, like the way some people are dependent on subsidies and quotas and then expect them to last forever.

I have nothing against fresh orange juice. I kind of prefer lassi myself, but to each his own. But the narrowing of choice seems like a symptom of statis among the Bumigeoisie, sealed in privilege and unable to move. It’s like they can’t comprehend a wider world in which people drink all sorts of other things.

It’s comforting to know that I am not the only drink-conscious one around. I read an op-ed piece by the NST editor-in-chief Abdullah Ahmad recently. Here are extracts:

“The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, has admitted he has, after 21 years, failed to change the Malay mindset: they like to depend on the Government’s grace and favour. They love the style more than the substance.

Even some of the young are unreal. I overheard one of them tell his friends, while he sipped a tall glass of cold cappuccino on the terrace of KLCC, that he was ashamed to be a Melayu, he desperately wants to be a Malaysian. His three peers, drinking cold imported Japanese beer (Kirin) listened to him with amused tolerance, chorusing, Sudahlah mu! He was in a dreamland. How could we tolerate squatter homes, not far from this mall, he intoned to his bored friends. Of course, this 20-something young man has not seen homeless people in New York’s Fifth Avenue and in London’s Mayfair. If he had (I don’t think he has been anywhere outside his Damansara Heights cocoon) then he has gone around with his eyes shut.

He said the Malay language media write nothing except about Melayu and Islam. What does he think Sin Chew Jit Poh and Nanyang write about? Since he doesn’t read Chinese – he appears to know only Malay and English – he is what Malays call katak bawah tempurong.

My expatriate friend found the young man’s soliloquy amusing and asked me if he was a typical Malay. I told him he was not; just a lounge critic, not a committed potential suicide bomber [ … J

The Government must do something really brave before the political climate among the Malays begins shifting too fast (via ignorance and misinformation), or rather, makes young Malays start saying aloud what the cappuccino-dreamer said at a KLCC cafe, that he saw no advantage in being a Malay though he was benefiting from the NEP. Otherwise, how else could he live in Damansara Heights, date a VIP’s daughter and simultaneously a rich young widow? I am glad at least for now, none of the misguided young Malays I know or have heard talk have made martyrdom their goal; change is, I suppose.”

Here, the drink (cold cappuccino), the place (KLCC), and the companions (Kirin-drinkers) are meant as signifiers of bourgeois privilege, just as curling moustaches and leather jackets are for villains. But I honestly don’t see what’s so bad about what the young man was saying, although I don’t think anyone should ever be “ashamed” of what they are.

To counter that the vernacular press is ethnocentric is no answer to the fact that the media in what is after all the National Language chooses to be. And just because there are squatters in other cities, why should one then not talk about the ones in our own? And since when are the people who are committed to a Malaysian race likely to be “suicide bombers” with some kind of martyr complex? The young bloke, in admittedly the self-righteous tone that the young are annoyingly prone to, seemed to be critiquing the “frog under coconut shell” mentality rather than exemplifying it.

And to say that he shouldn’t speak out even though he has been a beneficiary of privilege – isn’t that what the Spanish conquerors also said about Jose Rizal? Didn’t the first wave of nationalists from many developing countries comprise quite a few people who have “benefited” from educational opportunities provided by imperial largesse?

Most importantly: How did this disclosure about the guy’s interesting love-life seep into the overheard conversation? Didn’t the writer and his expatriate friend have anything better to do than to eavesdrop for what seemed quite a while? And what were they drinking while doing so? Now I wish I had been there, although KLCC cafes to the best of my knowledge don’t serve lassi. When all else fails, there’s always orange juice to fall back on.


First Published: 20.06.2002 on Kakiseni

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