Sunday, May 15, 2011

Taking the meringue out of Merong

Chronicles Of Merong Mahawangsa
Stephen Rahman-Hughes
 as Merong the warrior and sea captain
Interval – the term habitually used in physical training, or intermission, which is more aptly used in the context of movies and cinema, or ‘time out’ from this solitary pursuit of trying to understand what made my late father tick, delusionally disguised as a memoir*
At any rate, ZM, an FB friend, alerted me of this talk on ‘Meringue’ at the august house of knowledge, otherwise known as Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) yesterday.  It must have been his hungry artiste’s subconscious speaking because it turned out that the discussion was on Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (HMM), or the Chronicles of Merong Mahawangsa (CMM), the movie produced by those trio upstarts who called themselves KRU. 
Humming “Isolation ... it’s not good for me”, I drove over to the event at Jalan Dewan Bahasa.  I was staidly early, signing my name at the registration counter 15 minutes well before the start of the ‘Forum Sastera’ which was scheduled for 2:30PM.  There were only the MC, Norafidah, rehearsing at the mike, the video guy who was setting up his paraphernalia and a concerned representative of the film industry.  I was informed by ZM, who arrived fashionably late, that he's ‘Mat London’, or Ahmad Ibrahim, who's the President of Federation of Directors Association of Malaysia, or FDAM.  He was peering into my face when I signed up earlier.  I should have been more sociable and introduced myself to him.  
In any case, by the time the rest of the guests and participants, the forum panellists and the VVIPs had ambled in to the seminar room, the cast and crew of CMM were noticeably absent.  Wahab Hamzah, the panel moderator, apologised that the organisers had invited Norman Abdul Halim, the Executive Chairman of KRU Studios, but he had flown the day before to attend the Cannes Film Festival.  Okay ... but what about the film’s director, Yusry Abdul Halim, or screenplay writer, Amir Hafizi?  Have they too flown to rub shoulders with the A-Listers at that Mediterranean beach resort?  What about the narrator and key actor, Rahim Razali who played the role of Kesum in the movie  ... or the darling of Malaysian movie industry, Ummie Aida who assumed the part of Embok, Merong’s love interest?  No, nein, nahi, mafi?  Well, what about Khir Rahman, at the very least?
Without the presence of any representative or voice from HMMW (the movie), it dawned on ZM and I that we might have turned up at a ‘bash’ for people who didn’t get to go to the real party at that town in the South of France.  My heart sank as my neighbour told me what she could have done with if she was given RM8 million (to produce the movie).  But I chose to sit through til the end. 
Dato’ Dr. Siti Hawa Salleh, a respected philologist, was the first speaker to take on the rostrum.  She admitted that she only managed to watch half-way through the movie at her own home (it was slotted for the late night show at the cinema so a senior citizen like her was not able to stay up late, she added).  She talked about her experience studying the text for her Masters thesis in 1966 at the recommendation of Professor Taib Osman and under the supervision of a strict Dutch academic at Leiden University.  She went on about the three versions that she had to pore through – the Wilkinson, Sturrock and Maxwell versions – but there weren’t glaring differences about the character of Merong in them, unlike the Hang Tuah in Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Hang Tuah.  She repeatedly stressed the importance of ‘takdir’ (fate) which was invoked by Nabi Sulaiman, when he advised the Garuda who stubbornly tried to stop the impending marriage between the Roman Prince and the Chinese Princess.  “If it were meant to happen, it’ll happen”, she repeatedly said.  And, oh yes, she did mention about poetic license.
Dr. Mahadi J. Murad, a noted film maker and film instructor at UiTM Shah Alam, chose not to leave his seat to deliver his short take on the movie.  He acknowledged the heightened public interest in the text prior to and throughout the screening of the movie.  However, he lamented the use of ‘Hikayat’, which raised high expectations of epic proportions among the viewing public.  It should have just been about Merong the Man, not an ambitious attempt to chronicle the history of (ancient) Kedah within 111 minutes, he reiterated.  He too made the obligatory remark about poetic or artistic licence.
Kamil Ahmad Mohd Othman, the Vice-President of Creative Multimedia, Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC), was the third speaker.  From the vantage position of the rostrum, he defended the use of English in the movie.  “It’s for the export market”, he said (in case the audience was blissfully ignorant).  He objectively appraised the use of computer-generated images (CGI), which was viewed by many critics as the movie’s major flaw, to portray the imperial Roman and Chinese fleet and the ferocious storming of the sky by Garuda.  “It’s a milestone, a curtain raiser, or pembuka tirai to penetrate the global market”, he added, before launching into technical lingo about the ‘rendering process’ and justification of the MYR 1.5million grant given to the producer of HMMW (the movie).  He finally conceded that the movie’s weakness was in story telling, the missing “grr, grr” factor, to quote his son’s reaction to the film.
If the presentations had failed to address some salient issues which were on the participants' minds, the questions fielded by Sofea Jane and Ismail Kassan during the Q&A succeeded in bringing home the viewers’ grievances about (the lack of) character development and (the cavalier attitude towards) historical accuracy.  It was indeed within SJ’s ambit as a paying audience and an acclaimed actor to expect the best in character portrayal and kudos to IK’s learned observations about the weapons (a Persian sword used by a Malay warrior?) used in the movie.  Other ‘questions’ posed by a veteran and a young film maker sounded more like self-righteous proclamations to impress the rest of the assumed ignorant audience and to extend the closing of the event by some 30 minutes.     
All in all, it was good to catch up with old friends from DBP, academia, the media and the film industry.  There were no caviar or fois gras in the post-forum tea, but we weren’t in Cannes either.                      

* My apologies to my friends at DBP if I had offended them with my candid response to the event.  My intention was to highlight the lack of enthusiasm of one of the discussants and the obvious envy among some of the participants at the generous grant given to the young film makers.  There were other participants who shared my distaste at a veteran film maker's crude attempt at self-promotion and downright rejection of the use of CGI in movies.  But of course, they were too polite to write a 'tongue-in-cheek' commentary of the incident.      


Sustainable Living Institute (SAVE) said...

Extract from biblio:

Siti Hawa Salleh. 1970. Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa. UM Press, K Lumpur

1982. Etos Melayu di Melaka: Bahagian kesusteraan lama. J Budaya Melayu, UKM 5

1986. Hikayat Gul Bakawali. Fajar Bakti, P Jaya

1987(ed). Cendekia: Kesusteraan Melayu Tradisional. DBP, K Lumpur

1993. Raja Bersiong, Puteri Lindongan Bulan dan Puteri Saadong: wajah-wajah antara budaya zaman silam. Simp Kebudayaan Sempadan Seigi Tiga Utara, 13 Okt 1993, Pulau Pinang

1994. Kesusteraan Melayu abad kesembilan belas: sejarah pengkajian dan sifatnya. Disertasi Ph.D., UKM, Bangi

*1996. Pujangga istana: Peranan karyawan tidak bernama dalam tradisi penulisan kesusasteraan Melayu tradisional. In Mohd Taib Osman and Awang Abdul Latif Ibrahim (eds) Proc Int Sem on Brunei Malay Sultanate, 13-17 Nov 1994, Univ Brunei Darussalam pp412-25

1997. Kesusteraan Melayu Abad Kesembilan Belas. DBP, K Lumpur

Maizura Mohd Ederis said...

Ulasan yang baik. Saya pun hadir semalam. Boleh saya link artikel ini ke blog saya..http://www.tangisanbulan ?

BaitiBadarudin said...

SAVE: Terima kasih atas senarai biblio. Dr Siti Hawa was indeed very productive then.
Maizura: Terima kasih. Oh, ya kah? Tentu sekali. Nanti saya 'follow' blog sdr juga.

Anonymous said...

what an enjoyable read. i'm glad i stumbled on this post :]

BaitiBadarudin said...

Thank you, juanajaafar. I lost a couple of earlier comments due to technical glitch some time last week. Will return your visit pronto!