The Mat Salleh Speaks Malay

Tiara Jacquelina has always wanted to play the immortal enchantress-princess of Mount Ophir, that most mystical creature of all Malay legend. And what Tiara wants, Tiara gets. So when the bijoux gem that is Puteri Gunung Ledang was released by Enfiniti Productions with great pomp and circumstance in 2004, the resultant recherché film took the country’s breath away with its restrained passion, lavish sets and costumes, delightful supernatural content and unprecedented cinematic splendour. So it didn’t win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. And it made a whole lot less at the box office than it cost to make. Plus, rude foreign critics had the supreme cheek to view it as “an attempt to emulate the success of Thailand’s Legend Of Suriyothai, a film that exploited the adulation of the Thai monarchy” and to even go so far as to uncharitably condemn the chemistry between M. Nasir and Tiara as that between “a neutered Rottweiler and a spayed poodle”. Nice. But we said fie to all those nasty negatives and throngs of bitchy naysayers, and engaged in nation-wide raving and even shed a tear or two. For PGL is without doubt Malaysia’s most excellent advertisement to date. It’s a corker. Saw Teong Hin saw to that. So turning it into a musical must have seemed the most logical thing to do. You gotta squeeze things dry, you know.

But controversy dogs almost everything in this gossip-starved land. So nobody was particularly surprised when zealots among the citizenry and tabloid guttersnipes started crying foul over the casting of an orang putih in the role of Hang Tuah, the ultimate Malay hero who sits at the very zenith of Malay pride and honour. M. Nasir was too busy (or really just too old) to reprise his strong, silent movie version, and the importation of Briton Stephen Rahman-Hughes, fresh from the West End and flush with recognition from having appeared in Andrew Lloyd­ Webber’s Bombay Dreams, raised eyebrows and made the odd patriotic nostril flare with furious indignation.

Stephen Rahman-Hughes – who is actually half-Malay but admits that if there are any other mixed Malay kids with double-barrelled names running round London, he hasn’t bumped into them – is taking it in his stride. His Malay sucks, but his lines are beautifully delivered upon request. Also, he looks like a young Omar Sharif on a good day. He’ll do.

He’s not at all flummoxed by the furore occasioned by his apparent failing in the got-to-be-100%-Melayu department. In fact, he seems rather bemused as he feels much more Asian in England than he does here, grappling as he is with the classic dilemma that faces all Eurasians of a certain hue. “I’m looked upon as Asian over there. But over here, everyone calls me mat salleh. So here I’m white, and there people think I’m Asian. So I’m kind of not fitting in anywhere but fitting in both places at the same time. Which is kind of alright because people can’t really pinpoint where I’m from and I can fit into a lot of ideas.” But he does confirm that the insatiable need to pigeonhole isn’t solely a Malaysian preoccupation, where racial stereotyping takes precedence over every goddamn thing. Rahman-Hughes’ entire acting career in Britain has in fact been shaped around what is perceived as his Asian-ness, and all his roles have banked on his exotic looks. Sometimes theatre is such a shallow business.

“There are always going to be doubters,” he says matter-of-factly of the whole Tuah brouhaha. “People have to remember that it’s a legend – everyone shares legends; they get passed down through generations, they transcend race, they transcend time. Not only that, it’s like me coming to Malaysia and saying, ‘Well, Julius Caesar was on recently … and oh, hold on, why are Malay people playing Shakespeare?’ These huge stories, these epics are for everyone.” The man has a point.

But he seems to take this petty bit of botheration a mite personally, and who can blame him. “Obviously I want to be accepted by the Malaysian people,” he says. “For me, this is my chance to celebrate my Malaysian-ness. It’s me finally saying as an actor, ‘I’m half-Malay and this is my way of being able to enjoy that. Being a part of Malaysian theatre history makes me really happy. I’m proud that I’m half-Malay so I just hope other people can be proud of me as well.” Awwww.

My next audience is with Adlin Aman Ramlie, who oiled his way through PGL the movie with consummate sleaze and convincing malevolence as the despot Sultan Mansur Shah. Sporting appropriately long 15th Century hair and an inordinately large pair of diamond earrings, he is regal yet rather menacing. His new musical Sultan, he promises with a sly grin, will be just as evil as the old one, but a bit more fun. I thrill to such good tidings. A namby-pamby, song n’ dance incarnation would have been a horrible travesty.

Adlin, who also wrote the script for the musical and co-directs alongside the eminent Zahim Albakri, is a talented chap. Not only has he compacted the story into smaller, more comprehensible units, Puteri’s character has been reinterpreted as much younger to go with her juicy new Tuah, so we’ll be getting a sexed-up sorceress in Tiara Jacquelina instead of the sedate, mature woman of the movie.

He is not interested in being historically or culturally accurate – there will be no Malay/Javanese agitations, for instance – he just wants to entertain. And neither does he intend the musical to be a vehicle through which to trumpet the glory of the Malaccan proto-hero and the sovereignty of the Malays. So there will be no overt adulation or fawning over the big cheese that is Hang Tuah. In Adlin’s eyes, Hang Tuah’s just good material.

“Yes, Hang Tuah is an icon, but we’re treating him as a man,” says Adlin. “I’m not trying to make a statement about adat budaya or anything like that. I just want to be happy and nakal, cuit sana, cuit sini. That’s what artists do.” He goes on to share that there are actually yo-yos out there who claim Hang Tuah and Puteri Gunung Ledang as their ancestors; the nenek-moyang of their dreams. And those provocative rumours that Hang Tuah may have been Chinese don’t ruffle Adlin’s feathers in the slightest; he shrugs inwardly and blinks. “Merepeklah,” he says. The idea is laughable to him, obviously the conspiracy theory of idiots.

Adlin seems a tad ambivalent, however, about the casting of Stephen. “For those hankering after a Malay Tuah, well, sorry, they’re not getting it because Steve really isn’t very Malay at all. But there will also be people who’ll be like, ‘Let’s go see how the mat salleh speaks Malay!’ which is fine by me! But personally, I would prefer a Malay playing a Malay character. For we get the real essence of Malay-ness, which admittedly, we can’t get from Steve. But as a professional actor, he does what is required. And this is a musical, not an investigation into the reality of Hang Tuah. It’s the musical that’s the thing, and the presentation of PGL.” He’s not an idiot. Or blind. Of course he sees the heartthrob potential in Stephen’ long-lashed hazel eyes and Errol Flynn curls. He knows the chicks will go nuts. “Dia pun muda, dia segak. M. Nasir dah tua,” he lets slip before quickly adding that without the old dude, the movie wouldn’t have been what it was. Good save.

But don’t hold your breath for more wraiths, were-tigers and assorted ghosties as originally seen in S. Roomai Noor’s Puteri Gunung Ledang of the 60s and recorded in moth-eaten tomes like R. O. Winstedt’s study of the occult, The Malay Magician. We’re only just emerging from the ban on all things tahyul remember. Adlin confirms the fact that the average Malay is extremely superstitious, but is perhaps today more critical of what he calls “unseen energies”. But who knows, perhaps Sukania Venugopal’s nenek kebayan will propitiate a reign of terror among ardent bomoh-believers. We can only hope.

Puteri Gunung Ledang – The Musical will run at Istana Budaya from Tue Feb 7 – Sun 26 Feb 2006.


Sherry Siebel is a freelance writer and she is back to writing about theatre. Be warned.

First Published: 07.02.2006 on Kakiseni

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