by Cheryl Lim
Man of many hats – actor, writer, stand-up comedian – Jit Murad returns to playwright mode with his fourth play, Spilt Gravy on Rice. With a blurb that touts it as “a comedy for those who like their laughs with an aftertaste”, this production features a talented ensemble cast led by stage and screen veteran Dato’ Rahim Razali with Bernice Chauly, Charon Mokhzani, Reza Zainal Abidin, Sean Ghazi, Soefira Jaafar, Ahmad Ramzani Ramli, Benjy, Bernie Chan, Elaine Pedley and Eijat.
The play carries a rather intriguing storyline revolving around five siblings, with five different mothers, and their eccentric father. Curiosity piqued, Kakiseni decided to track down Jit Murad and Bernice Chauly for a little Q & A about Spilt Gravy on Rice.
Kakiseni: What inspired you to come up with something along these lines?
Jit: Something about the transmission of values? I can’t really say there was any one thing, but I am of a generation where a lot of [the people I love] are parents. Young, earnest, enthusiastic parents. It’s just the way they raise their kids. Their hopes and dreams. Although I am not a parent myself, I think one of the things about Spilt Gravy on Rice is my deep, almost desperate optimism for the future and for the way we’re raising our young.
I think more than anything, that impulse, that emotional landscape which I seem to be occupying a lot lately. Being 42 and knowing mums really well, and knowing their kids. Just sharing in that sense of responsibility. It’s primeval. It really is. It’s stronger than culture. Stronger than nationalism. It’s “Here’s my dream” and “It’s in my blood.” Notions like that have been recurring. Got to get it out of my system. With this play, I think I can move on.
K: Bernice, can you tell us about the character that you play?
Bernice: I play Kalsom, who is a somewhat self-absorbed, but very insecure playwright. She’s a bit of an attention seeker because her work maximises history, but she sort of rewrites it for her own benefit. Her siblings recognise that, but she’s not willing to admit to it until something happens.
It’s actually the most demanding stage role I’ve had. I haven’t acted that much on stage, but I’ve had smallish roles. I haven’t acted in seven years. My last performance was in Scorpion Orchid and that was in 1995. So, I was a bit nervous as to whether or not I should do it. The first couple of weeks were really hard. But then I got into it and started feeling a bit more confident. Once I got the lines down, I actually started playing with the characters. It’s becoming a lot of fun.
K: What was it like working with Jit and Zahim?
B: I’ve worked with Zahim before, but it’s the first time I’m actually performing one of Jit’s plays. I mean, he hasn’t written that many to begin with. This is his fourth. It’s an honour because something like this doesn’t come by very often. It’s an original play. It’s set in KL. It’s very contemporary. It’s about people that are recognisable. The characters are very real. They’re very dysfunctional, complex people and I think KL’s like that.
It’s very layered. There’re so many influences from all over the place. It’s a great ensemble piece. There’s no one person who stands out, who carries the play on his or her shoulders. It’s everyone’s responsibility. And therein lies the demand. Everyone has to work equally hard otherwise it’s not going to be as effective as it should be. It’s been great. Jit’s a brilliant wordsmith.
K: Can you relate to the role that you’re playing?
B: Yes, of course. I feel I’ve been typecast. (laughs) To a certain extent. Because her motivations are my motivations as well.
J: (cutting in) Yeah, but Bernice is much more considered. This is like a sophomoric version of our passion. It’s like the way we were when we first came out of school.
B: That’s right. She’s a bit too earnest, too outspoken. She does things for maximum effect. She’s a bit of an attention junkie.
J: I think that’s what’s hard for Bernice because she kind of see nuggets of her own zeal, but she’s past it.
B: (laughs) The motivations and the impulses are there. It’s just that I’m really playing this character to the max. Which is a lot of fun. There are bits that are going to be extremely funny. It’s a comedy but it’s also a tragedy, so it’s a tragi-comedy. Because there are elements, which border on ridicule and farce. But then there are other elements that are so real and very, very emotional you find yourself tearing. So that’s the beauty of the way he’s structured it and the way he’s written it.
K: Would you say this is one of the best plays you’ve written so far? Not that you’ve written that many.
J: Yeah, that’s why you must examine the corpus. I’d really rather be talking about my work at my deathbed. When I’ve got like 50 plays and we examine a corpus that stretches three, four decades. So far, I can say the preoccupations have been about identity and the whole notion of race and Malaysian-ness.
B: Family ties. Family dynamics.
J: Yeah. I might eventually end up discarding this preoccupation, this obsession almost, because you grow out of various interests even. (stops himself) That wasn’t your question. What did you ask me? Would I say this was my best? (pauses)
K: Well, would you say you’ve improved since your first play?
J: I think inevitably. I have the good fortune of being at the right place and the right time. Of having the first few being real genuine collaborations with “kakis”. There was Lynn (Jaafar) and Zahim, so I was allowed to explore what is dramaturgy. What works in text and doesn’t on stage. I think the refinement of thought and emotion comes with age, so inevitably I hope I’ve become just a finer writer in that sense. [In terms of] the technical things as well, I’ve improved. How can you not?
K: What made you decide on Zahim as director?
J: That would have to get into our friendship.
K: Do you think he’s done a good job with the play?
J: Always. But I would’ve said the same thing about Jo (Kukathas). Except in this [play] in particular, because there’s a Melayu-ness, something about the kind of slightly apostate Melayu. The Melayu that because of class, because of economics, background and exposure have found themselves a little bit out of the technical definition of a Bumi, a good Bumi. And I think in that sense, Zahim was probably the best person to do it.
K: Coming back to what Bernice said about seeing a lot of herself in the character that she plays. Did you put bits and pieces of people you know into the characters and the storyline?
J: (laughs) Very scary question that. I think it’s fun for it to be a bit of a Romana Clef – Who’s that? Who’s he referring to? I think inevitably because of that Instant Café thing about social satire, they’re going to find it. I guess I always curi stories from real life.
B: Look at it this way – you’re inspired by these people.
B: Because you write about people who are real to you in your life. You can’t write about people you don’t know about.
J: One of the things that crossed my mind when I was writing it was how we’re competing with CGI and fast cuts. But there are still things that you can do – with the suspension of disbelief and with the corroboration of the audience – that an actor or three actors can do on stage that is unique to theatre. It’s a kind of special effect where you change characters, or you go on a flashback. A lot of the scenes were written like that, with a kind of heightened theatricality. One of my intentions was to remind the audience of what theatre can do with just lights and people.
B: And a damned good script. Which is essentially the blueprint of any form of good theatre. And we have a good script. It’s theatre at its most basic. Good actors, good words, good lighting and a set.
K: I was talking to Gavin Yap a few days ago. Do you think there is a future for playwrights in Malaysia?
J: For playwrights, especially of his caliber. Somebody of his caliber comes by very infrequently. Not just the sensitivity and the intellect, but also the intuition that it’s going to be a struggle. It’s pretty evident to me that Gavin’s going to be in it for the long haul.
K: What can audiences expect to get out of Spilt Gravy on Rice?
J: At the very least, belly laughs. They will get an evening’s entertainment.
B: It’s thought provoking. It makes you think.
J: lf there’s anything we offer at all, Zahim and I, is the silent voice of a type of Malay. The kind of upper-middle class or middle class background Malay who have happily gone along with whatever appealed to the grassroots constituencies and lived our lives differently. It’s not hypocrisy. It’s just the way we negotiated with our own kind who are a quantum leap behind. To have that voice finally, honest and open, is the only new thing I have to offer.
K: So, where to next for Jit Murad the playwright?
J: I’m gestating an idea. It was something I examined about three years ago and it was about the polong. The Melayu female enigma, and the threat that character poses to masculinity. I want to do the polong myth as a noir detective story.
First Published: 07.08.2002 on Kakiseni