JOHAN JAAFFAR: Finally, P. Ramlee Gets The Treatment He Deserves
INFINITY Productions’ latest offering, P. Ramlee the Musical, is lavish, stylish and classy. It is also smart and entertaining. It has all the attributes of a world-class production, not to mention an ensemble of probably the best and brightest in stage production, acting, music, choreography and design. Little wonder it sets a new marker in theatre excellence in the country.
Should we care about the man at the centre of the production? We love tragic heroes and P. Ramlee is one of them. Probably one of the most talented artistes in the history of the Malays, he died at the relatively young age of 44 (1929-1973).
But he was no longer in his prime some years before his death. P. Ramlee was a fading star, booed by younger audiences in concerts, marginalised by the artistic fraternity and more often than not, was facing financial difficulties.
Yet in his heyday, P. Ramlee acted in many memorable films, directed some of the greatest movies the land has ever known and composed and sang some of the most popular tunes ever heard.
P. Ramlee was a flawed hero and his life story was more dramatic than those he depicted, perhaps even sadder. He represented the underdog facing insurmountable challenges from the establishment, the Bangsawan and the rich. P. Ramlee was Amran in Penarik Beca, Ghazali in Antara Dua Darjat and Kassim Selamat in Ibu Mertuaku. These characters were perfect for P. Ramlee and he was at his acting best in them.
Sadly, he became the characters he played in the movies. Just read what Nasir P. Ramlee wrote in the heart-wrenching Bapaku P. Ramlee (P. Ramlee, My Father).
In Hollywood, Nasir could have lived on the royalties from his father’s works. In the book, he narrated an anecdote of how he and his step-mother had lived after P. Ramlee’s death. There was a time when Nasir asked for money from Saloma. Saloma told him to meet her at P. Ramlee’s favourite coffee shop belonging to Ah Lek. She took out RM40 from her wallet. “This is all I have Nasir, take half.”
No, you won’t find this episode in P. Ramlee the Musical. After all, the musical is about P. Ramlee’s foray into the world of entertainment. And his greatest achievements and disappointments in his relatively short career in show business.
Nasir did not even feature in the musical. But Junaidah, his mother, was. So, too, Saloma. The two women certainly had a great influence on P. Ramlee. Junaidah, his first wife, bore him his only son, Nasir, and Saloma was at his deathbed. In between, he married Norizan, who left the comfort and security of the palace to be with him. The real life Norizan died a broken and poor woman.
How would you render on stage such a complex personality as P. Ramlee? And to convince the audience that P. Ramlee was more than just another handsome face illuminating the world of show business in his time? The actor has to be credible for P. Ramlee was the embodiment of the most remarkable and the sorriest states in Malay entertainment.
Despite P. Ramlee’s reputation, there had been no serious attempt to bring his story to the stage or film. Perhaps P. Ramlee is an icon unlike any other.
One could simply pick up the sensational elements of his life, which were many, and exaggerate them. In a musical, even tidbits glitter. But the creative people who staged the musical at Istana Budaya (which is still running) realised the explosive nature of their subject.
Understandably, the musical took liberties with the facts at times but it always stayed true to the spirit of the legend. What we see is a simulacra of images and representations, in a form of a condensed life history of a man so extremely talented yet dangerously vulnerable. The musical does not judge the man nor eulogise him.
A strong case for the musical, which is directed by Adlin Aman Ramlie, is the fact that P. Ramlee was too human despite his incredible talent. You will be disappointed if you believe the musical will help bare the character, warts and all. After all, this is no Stanislavskian attempt at method acting.
The actor who played the part (Musly Ramlee) was not trying to show his behavioural ticks and all to a discernible audience. He was just playing P. Ramlee to entertain the audience. He did a good job at that, mimicking P. Ramlee’s signature gestures and mannerisms, not to mention the uncanny resemblance of his voice to the maestro himself.
Credit should be given to the ladies playing the roles of P. Ramlee’s women. Liza Hanim, of course, gave an award-winning performance as Saloma. You can feel the chemistry between her and Musly. In one scene at a garden, they were love birds with the correct moves, steps and dialogue to remind us of P. Ramlee’s moment of personal satisfaction in the presence of the woman who mattered most to him, Saloma. Liza is so convincing and believable she is almost an incarnation of Saloma herself on stage.
Melissa Saila seldom fails us as an actor. There is little space for her to prove her worth in the musical, but in the scene when Norizan explodes emotionally in front of the man she loves blindly, one sees her true talent. It was probably one of the most memorable scenes in Malaysian theatre.
Atilia as Junaidah has little to work with, so, too, Emelda Rosmila playing Azizah. Azizah was an enigma in P. Ramlee’s life but Junaidah was probably a mismatch in the time when P. Ramlee’s ascending popularity demanded sacrifices — Junaidah being young and jealous could not provide that. But both Atilia and Emelda gave their best to convince us that good acting is not just about pretty faces but talent as well.
P. Ramlee should be proud to know that he is remembered with respect by the actors who played him and the people he encountered. Some of those people were unkind to him, but at least Malaysians will kindly remember him as the best thing that has happened to the Malay entertainment industry.
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