Broke and broken – should P. Ramlee have come back?
by The Ampas Man
Question: Di Mana Kan Ku Cari Ganti?
Answer: Not in Malaysia
Those who watched the heart-wrenching P. Ramlee documentary on the History Channel on 31st October 2010 must have gone to bed with a heavy heart. It transpires that Malaysia’s one and only film icon had died penniless and shunned by the public including his own colleagues. And the way it was done appears to have uncanny resemblances to what’s happening today in Malaysia, almost 45 years after Ramlee returned to Malaysia.
The documentary, narrated by British actor, Timothy Watson and 12 years in-the-making included precious interviews by some of his friends, actors and actresses who had passed on. The underlying tone was one of profound melancholy.
Ramlee, born out of poverty along Caunter Hall Road at an Achenese community in Penang , had to endure a brutal Japanese occupation whose schools incidentally inculcated a certain discipline in him. In his formative years then, this discipline proved crucial as a founding platform for his eventual brilliance, creativity and innovation in film and music.
He subsequently gained phenomenal success at Shaw Brother’s Jalan Ampas studios in Singapore. His success at Jalan Ampas was the apparent result of the studio’s incredible milieu of experienced film crew, choreographers and directors which the Shaw Brothers had assembled from India, Hong Kong and Indonesia. With the load of management and finance off his shoulders, Ramlee was able to thrive and focus on his talent of creating music, acting and eventually direction, screenplay and editing.
The Shaw Brothers invested and created such a conducive environment at Ampas that Singapore became the mecca for the Malay film industry for an entire genre of actors and actresses from the whole of the Malay Archipelago from Pontianak, Penang to Medan. Apart from Ramlee, Ampas provided careers for other actors and actresses like Nordin Ahmad, S. Kadarisman, Ahmad Daud, Normadiah, Saloma and Saadiah.
But this talent could not have been developed without the expertise of directors such as B.S.Rajan, L. Krishnan and Phani Majumdar. Directors such as Majumdar already had something like 15 years’ experience in directing films in various languages in Calcutta and Bombay before they came to Singapore. It was on this wealth of experience that the Malay film industry flourished.
Majumdar directed Ramlee in “Anakku Sazali” which won Ramlee Best Actor in 1956. And when Majumdar returned to India, he discovered another great Indian actor, Feroz Khan and directed Khan in his first big hit “Oonche Log” in 1965. Yes it was happy times then at No.8 Jalan Ampas and Boon Kheng Road. But it had to end. Or so it seems.
Things appear to have taken a turn for the worse during the confusion of the Malaysia-Singapore separation in 1963 when Lee Kuan Yew had trouble reining a tight leash on trade unions involving Lim Chin Siong, and his own PAP leaders led by Che’Awang and Devan Nair. Ramlee appears to have been an inadvertent victim of the unions’ unreasonable demands leading Shaw Brothers to call it a day at Jalan Ampas when they couldn’t keep up with union demands for higher pay.
Other views suggest that Ramlee was poached and enticed to return to Malaysia which he did in 1964. Wrong step it seems. All promises “back home in Malaysia” were not kept by his new masters. Sounds very very familiar here. Merdeka studios was poorly equipped and its rookie staffing meant the legend had to multitask which ended up eventually in him churning out shoddy movies. All 18 movies he directed in Malaysia flopped. Sounds like the same stories we hear from some of our Malaysians “trying” to return home from overseas.
Ramlee lost his glitter, his money and apparently also his fame. His partner and colleague, H.M. Shah, tried to form a company called PERFIMA to enable Ramlee to relaunch his career and produce his dream of colour films. But PERFIMA apparently ended up in the hands of inexperienced and connected cronies leaving the talented Ramlee then, as in now, even as a Malay, blatantly unrecognized, ignored and out in the cold.
The documentary brutally exposes how Ramlee tried in vain to set up P. Ramlee Productions, but was again shut out by this country’s media and entertainment industry including RTM. He had to sit in the canteen at Ankasapuri while Saloma had her own show in RTM! He could not secure any government aid, grants or “Private Financial Initiatives” despite his passion for Malay music and culture.
He tried to reinvent himself and sought a bank loan – but was rejected! With his wealth of experience and in his early 40s then, he should have easily qualified. Poor Ramlee didn’t know that in Malaysia it is the “know who” that counts then the “know how”. If he had known George Tan from the Carrian Group then, Ramlee may have received a few millions from BMF without even having to pay back. Or he should have “nurtured” some connections like how Daim, Halim Saad, Tajuddin Ramli, Syed Mokhtar and Amin Shah did.
Ramlee by now, tragically stressed out, overweight, dishevelled, completely down and out with passion and spirit broken, had to now do almost any job he could including running mahjong tables and singing at weddings and other functions to put food on the table for his family. He had to live on rice and eggs. It was truly Air Mata di Kuala Lumpur for Ramlee. A court summons a day prior to his death for being a guarantor finally tipped the balance and done him in when he suffered a massive heart attack and he died on 29th May 1973 at the age of 44 years.
On the day he died, there was no rice in his house. And Saloma had no money for his funeral. The man and legend, P. Ramlee paid a very heavy price returning to Malaysia. The country just did not have the infrastructure, manpower and expertise to accommodate his enormous talent. He would have been better off in Singapore even with the unions there. He would not have gone broke in the club and wedding scene there and perhaps Singapore TV could have given him a break as compared to our own RTM. All the belated accolades and titles were a waste of time as far as the man himself was concerned. He died hopelessly broke and broken.
The documentary is not only an eye opener but a very good case study for anyone contemplating returning home to Malaysia. Whether you are a scientist, engineer, accountant, doctor, etc beware of the conditions enticing you to return. If your kid is an aerospace engineer, a naval architect or a transplant surgeon, it’s a no brainer that he /she should not return at all unless you are absolutely sure the country has the infrastructure and skilled manpower to support these fields. Don’t believe in these stories that you should come home to “help” and “develop” your areas of expertise. That’s not going to happen. That sort of thing will only go to the chaps who have the connections. Assess any offer carefully and do not trust anyone including this government. Make certain all agreements are enforceable in Singapore and the UK .
In retrospect P. Ramlee, with no formal education but was able to compose more than 360 songs and 66 movies, probably returned to a society that was not developed nor had the brain power and skills to match up to his vision. In short he was just surrounded with a whole lot of officials and journalists with serious hang-ups who were not interested in the industry itself. There was no driving force like another Shaw Brothers.
And the prevailing attitude at that time and probably even now was and still is a third class mentality. In an environment such as this, no one with creativity, innovation, skills and brains can ever hope to survive let alone thrive. Its better they stay back where they can develop and nurture their talent. If a star as bright as Ramlee could be extinguished with such impunity, the rest are nothing. Ramlee and his entire family had been wiped out financially despite his immense talent. But he remains still tall this day, the Malay Archipelago ’s cinematic legend. With apologies..
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