History amidst popular culture


Abidin Ideas

The last local movie I reviewed in this column was Paskal (Calculating Paskal’s theorem, 19 October 2018). I called it a “good and important” movie showcasing the multi-ethnic composition of the navy, while commending its impact on young Malaysians who “re-enact Paskal’s most riveting scenes, spreading a notion that a future career in the military is a possibility. For a young person, there is no greater inspiration than seeing people like yourself do amazing things… you too can bring pride to your family and your country through righteous service.”

I also made a reference to our submarine KD Tunku Abdul Rahman functioning properly, since reports had revealed faults (such as being unable to submerge), with corruption being the likely cause. Sadly, corruption in the acquisition of naval assets seems ongoing, as the current Public Accounts Committee investigation suggests, and this is why public procurement reform is urgently needed.

In the meantime, I watched another locally produced film, of a different genre to Paskal for sure, but also containing a star-studded cast, exciting fight scenes, tastefully shot scenery, notable musical highlights, and historical references that make one ponder about society.

Romantic comedy is not my preferred genre, but Gadis Jolobu was funny and apparently relatable to the diverse audience in the cinema hall in Seremban, comprising civil servants, Istana officials, young professionals and retirees of all races. The theme of searching for love and navigating various obstacles along the way is something that cuts across all demographic indicators.

Told entirely in the Negeri Sembilan dialect (and subtitled in standard Malay and English), the film follows the antics of three bachelors seeking romance amidst lives straddling Seremban and the kampung. Comparisons with Tan Sri P. Ramlee’s films of the same premise are inevitable, and Gadis Jolobu embraces this by employing the same slapstick actions of the Bujang Lapok series and featuring ‘Bunyi Gitar’ from Tiga Abdul.

A movie of such irreverence will no doubt portray certain attitudes in an imperfect way – which has attracted some candidly critical reviews – but at least this film isn’t pretending to be a serious political commentary, or offering a biopic of a famous Malay warrior.

Nonetheless, several scenes do showcase serious aspects of Negeri Sembilan’s unique culture, evolved from Minangkabau antecedents.  One scene discusses the matrilineal inheritance of tanah adat – a relevant issue for those seeking to develop such land today, and another highlights the protagonists’ membership of their respective suku, or clans, for the purposes of marriage.

One musical interlude references the adat berkodin, a ceremony in which an individual is admitted into a suku: typically a man for the purposes of marrying a woman belonging to a different suku, or a woman for the purposes of inheriting from a property-owning woman within that suku. Traditionally, blood was literally drawn to symbolise the new membership of the suku, but that element no longer happens.

The most memorable song is the movie’s eponymous theme, sung by Seri Menanti native Dato’ Hattan (who plays a main character in the film) and W.A.R.I.S, which apart from including the story-specific lines: “Tales of gorgeous chicks in Jelebu / Outsiders come wanting to get hitched”, also laments “You don’t know what your suku is / Ask your folks / Or ask your mates / Old traditions have been forgotten”.

The rapper who is well-known for incorporating adat references in his repertoire also features in the Lagu Identiti Negeri Sembilan album which was launched in February (available on Spotify) which celebrates the historical and environmental heritage of the state.

Now, while local music has to compete with Billie Eilish, Justin Bieber and BLACKPINK (all of whom are coming to Malaysia), it’s entirely possible to enjoy contrasting art forms. Eyelashes, Beliebers and Blinks should also be able to appreciate Malaysian-made popular music that invokes the past to tell stories of value to the present.

But whether it is music or movies, what is important is that the content is properly researched and accurately depicted, regardless of the genre. Indeed, it is far more disturbing that content portrayed as serious is full of inaccuracies and lazy racial stereotypes, where history is so badly abused in order to serve a political purpose today. But perhaps, as happened with Braveheart, Gladiator, The Last Samurai or Kingdom of Heaven, such movies spur scholarship and documentaries that tell a more truthful story of what happened, and thus fiction and non-fiction can be better separated.

Academic freedom is a vital part of that, necessary to keep the realms of culture and history free from political monopolies.  For if that happens, the actual history of local adat may disappear forever.

* Gadis Jolobu is directed by CL Hor and produced by Tremendous Entertainment and Zebra Studio