By Zedeck Siew
The restaging of Bidin Subari’s Anak Kerbau Mati Emak is quite aesthetically pleasing. Even unlit, the kampong house designed by lrwan lsmadi Shahrim and Razali ltam looks great (with crawlspace among the stilts, a creative third exit for the children in the cast), and, as the lights come on, does not disappoint; there’s even a bird chirping in its cage hung above the veranda. They couldn’t resist including a muddy trench – presumably a paddi square – for that complete rural idyll, though. This is the single mistake, but it’s quite a problem, since this trench runs the entire front of the stage and sets up another five or six feet of distance between the actors and the audience; if you’re in a back row, be prepared to lean forward and cup your ears.
Tawil (Eddy Yus) is hanging around, waiting for Pak Mohsein (Jalil Hamid) to massage his rump. It is rather sore, courtesy of an orphaned calf his friend Kulup provoked. Pak Mohsein asks Kulup (Zaidi Omar): “Kenapa kau pegi cucuk telur anak kerbau tu?” (“Why did you poke the calf in the balls?”) Poor Tawil never gets his massage: Mohsein’s daughter Jamiah (Suriati Abu Bakar) is in the house and long-winded Tuk Empat Takat comes to visit.
Anak Kerbau is a simple story: Jamiah and Kulup are engaged, Kulup sees her talking to a schoolteacher (with a scooter), gets jealous and confronts her; Jamiah solicits her mother Jumi (Liza Othman) to ask her father to break off the engagement, her father blows up and beats her. Meanwhile, the vigilante calf goes on a rampage about the village and an outraged neighbour demands compensation for his destroyed crops and a dead kid, I mean, baby goat.
In between, there are speeches aplenty. Radhi Khalid’s Cikgu Salim, who represents progress in moderation, woodenly discourses on the importance of labour and affection working together. Haji Abu Bakarahmad’s Tuk Empat Takat and Hisham Ahmad Tajuddin’s village headman function as one-dimensional soapboxes, delivering lengthy expositions on the importance of hard work for progress.
These speeches seem odd in an otherwise earthy family drama; tacked on, as if their inclusion was forced into the script. Subari seems intent on belittling these propaganda drummed onto the heads of the populace, and director Mior Hashim Manap does his best to undermine the diatribes even further. The headman is telling Pak Mohsein that the district officer has approved of them working a new piece of land, and Mohsein has to work with his fellow villagers to clear it of jungle in a month. But Tawil constantly interrupts Tuk Empat Takat’s coffee-shop sermon with more urgent matters: “Punggung saya macam mana?” (“What about my rump?”) Recovering the calf and a minor domestic crisis distracts Pak Mohsein, and by the end of the play the workers haven’t mobilised. Life goes on; this, the understanding and respect of each other’s feelings and opinions, is ultimately the true progress.
Ebby Yus and Liza Othman carry Anak Kerbau. Slightly-retarded Tawil (Ebby), wearing slippers on his elbows, carries gags effortlessly and in perfect time. Consummate mother and wife Jumi (Liza) matches Tawil at eliciting laughter, having to contend with a headstrong daughter and a stubborn husband: the audience is kept at a guffaw even as she and her husband shout at each other. Humour infuses the play so much that the three-foot cane Jalil Hamid brandishes at his daughter seems a comic hyperbole; it is a shock when he whacks it against the wall. The cane is going to hurt, and this isn’t funny.
Anak Kerbau is surprisingly progressive for the 70s: although the patriarchal nature of the traditional Malay household isn’t questioned, it’s obvious that Jumi’s husband needs her. Jamiah is allowed to speak her mind to both her fiance and her father; she has been taking evening classes secretly, wants to go to study in the city, and it is likely, by the end, she will be allowed to. One is disappointed to learn that the emotional trauma was all the result of Jamiah wanting Kulup, hard at work in the village (wholly unconvincing; he’s a playful rascal, if rather melodramatic), to pay more attention to her. I was rooting for her to leave the whiner and hook up with Cikgu Salim instead. Still, the possibility of such a feminist reading in mainstream Malay-language theatre is indeed a revelation, and any depiction of a kampong that isn’t besieged by modernity but open to evolution is refreshing.
I missed the 1972 staging of Anak Kerbau Mati Emak on account of not even being an idea at the time, so I asked around: Bidin Subari, or Malina Manja, was a popular television and radio drama writer; unlike other playwrights at the time (mostly university professors writing for Art), Subari wrote for the masses, and told stories (most in bawdy humour; his Umbut Keladi Tidak Berisi in 1975 implied male impotency and reputedly got him in trouble) that appealed to the NEP generation recently come to the city. They are village stories, mostly, but villages on the periphery of modernity; and transition is a sentiment that the Mahathir-Badawi generation can certainly relate to. Besides, Subari is just plain fun.
Mazlan Tahir’s art direction effectively evokes a village of the period: posters in the house, a radio station playing 70s tunes, Kulup and Cikgu Salim’s bellbottoms and two-inch-soled shoes. Anak Kerbau Mati Emak is period theatre, but don’t let this fool you: the closed minds with their narrow definition of progress that Bidin Subari tussles with is still very much with us today, not only in kampongs, but in Malaysian society as a whole. We’ve still got to work at things. Kulup admits to narrow horizons and vows to broaden them, and all ends well. Even for the anak kerbau.
First Published: 21.01.2004 on Kakiseni