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P. Ramlee

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I first wrote this as a piece for a reference book called Film Guide. Unfortunately, the publisher had a change of mind (can't say whose he is wearing now) and decided not to publish it. Written in 2002, I unearthed it and added something at the end. Go ahead, read about one of the most astonishing talent to come out of Malaysia...


To say Hari Raya Aidilfitri is a celebration for only Muslims would be generalising. Alongside other festivities like Deepavali, Chinese New Year, Christmas and others, it is a day of full racial integration. Open houses from the house of a minister to even commoners allows neighbours and friends from all races as well as tourists to celebrate this occasion in Malaysia. But Malaysians has another reason to remember Aidilfitri. In the year 1929, the day that ends the Ramadhan month of fasting was celebrated in March 22nd. It was an auspicious day. It was the day of the birth of the greatest talent in Malaysia. It was the birthday of Teuku Zakaria bin Teuku Nyak Puteh. Yes, the same guy who later changed his named to Ramlee Puteh, or better known as P. Ramlee.



Early  days

P. Ramlee grew up in Penang, poor, in the neighbourhood of Indian night-soil carriers. This explains his latter day affection for Indians and ability to speak the tongue. It also explains the strong presence of Indian elements, well balanced with cultural roots of Malay in his films.


Ramlee started off his schooling in Francis Light, and was there for five years before shifting to Penang Free School. As a young boy, he was already interested in singing and acting. Often, he would be chosen as the Bilal to lead the prayer calls in his hometown.


He had a brief experience with the Japanese, during the Occupation in the forties. He enrolled himself in the Japanese Navy School where he learned Japanese songs and got to know the Japanese soldiers. After the surrender of the Japanese regime, he went back to Penang Free School.


His love of music made him attend music class taught by one Mr. Kamaruddin, a famous music teacher of that time in 1945. He then participated in a singing competition organised by Radio Pulau Pinang. He was placed third and the following year, became the champion.


First move


After the competition Ramlee was invited to sing for events and festival and during one of them, he wrote an original composition called Azizah. It was in 1948 in Bukit Mertajam. By coincidence, B.S. Rajhan’s, the in-house director of Shaw brothers, was there looking for new talents. Having liked P. Ramlee’s voice and also Ramlee’s skill in playing violin, Rajhan offered the young lad a job as a playback singer in movies under his direction. In the same year, Ramlee was on his way to Singapore.


Ramlee’s interest in filmmaking ended up with him doing odd jobs like assistant to the cameraman, clapper boy and continuity boy. This would prove to be a valuable experience, when he started to work behind the camera. His first on-screen break came in the same year where, while still working as a playback singer, he played a villain in Chinta. Of course, he had to screen test for the role like anybody else. Comedy roles followed in movies like Nur Asmara and Nasib.  During these times, he was well exposed to the works of other directors, especially when alongside standard Hollywood fares, Singaporean theatres also screened the works of the greats like Akira Kurosawa and Sathyajit Ray that Ramlee relished.


Hero debut


Malaysians should remember Dato’ L. Krishnan not only for many Malay films he had produced, but also for introducing Ramlee as a hero.


''When I met him he was an ugly-looking fellow, with lots of pockmarks,'' said L. Krishnan in an interview. Krishnan helped to launch Ramlee's career as leading man in Singapore. The film was called Bakti, and Ramlee was not cast for his look but for his velvety voice and other talents. Ramlee was paired with Kasma Booty and history was made when P. Ramlee became the first actor to sing without the need of a background singer. Krishnan went on to direct Ramlee in Takdir, Penghidupan and Antara Senyum Dan Tangis.


It was during the production of this film, when he married his first wife, Junaidah, daughter of comedian D. Harris. Among other notable movies with Ramlee as the lead are Sejoli, Juita, Antara Senyum Dan Tangis, Patah Hati, Anjuran Nasib, Putus Harapan, Miskin, Sedarah, Ibu, Hujan Panas, Siapa Salah, Perjodohan, Panggilan Pulau, Merana and Abu Hassan Pencuri. 


In 1955, resident Indian director, Phani Majumdar, cast him as the lead in Hang Tuah, a historical film valued for its performance and brilliant direction. Ramlee won Best Asian Composer for it in the Asian Film Festival in Hong Kong. While still in the production of Hang Tuah, he married his second wife, Norizan, the ex-wife of Sultan of Perak.


First Direction


Hang Tuah was the last film he worked as an actor before becoming a full-fledged director. He was given an opportunity to direct and the same year P. Ramlee directed Penarik Beca. The film contained an early song he composed, Azizah, which also won an award. With casts like Nordin Ahmad, Saadiah, Daeng Idris and Normadiah, he managed to create one of the most memorable films in the history of Malay film. 


The following year (1956), he directed  Panca Delima and Bujang Lapok – his first comedy. In  1957 he won the Best Actor Award for his unforgettable dual role in the film Anakku Sazali in the Asian Film Festival that was held in Tokyo, Japan. Anakku Sazali was also directed by Phani Mujamdar. It was a tearjerker with P. Ramlee playing two major roles, as a loving father and a rebellious son.


More movies followed and he directed classics like Sumpah Orang Minyak (won the Best Black And White Photography Award in the Asian Film Festival), and acted under the direction of Lamberto Avallena in the classic war-flick Sarjan Hassan. The committee of Asian Film Festival, in 1959, awarded him another award  - Best Movie (Comedy Category) Award for the film Pendekar Bujang Lapok. In the same year, he directed Musang Berjanggut and Nujum Pak Belalang, thus carving a niche in the comedy genre.  This was evident as he again won the Best Movie (Comedy Category) Award in the following year by the ever appreciative Asian Film Festival.


In the following year Ramlee directed Antara Dua Darjat – a critical look into class systems - and Ali Baba Bujang Lapok, a satire, and perhaps the funniest of all P. Ramlee comedies with Ramlee playing the villain role.


In 1961, Ramlee divorced Norizan and married Saloma (Salmah Ismail), an actress and a singer, who became a constant collaborator with P. Ramlee. The following year, The Malaysian King awarded him the title Ahli Mangku Negara. 


Not complacent, he worked on more films; inimitable comedies like Labu Labi and Nasib Labu Labi, and the tragic Ibu Mertuaku, for which he won the Most Versatile Talent Award in the Asian Film Festival.  He went on to direct two more films, Tiga Abdul , where he successfully combined drama and comedy; and Madu Tiga – perhaps the most popular comedy ever in Malaysian film history. This was the last film he directed in Singapore, before moving to Kuala Lumpur where he worked for Studio Merdeka in Ulu Kelang.


After the move


It was a prolific period for P. Ramlee over in Kuala Lumpur where from 1964 right up to his untimely death, he produced 18 films. These films include Si Tora, Ragam P. Ramlee, Masam-masam Manis, Sabarudding Tukang Kasut, Do Re Mi, Nasib Do Re Mi, Sesudah Subuh, Keluarga 69, Anak Bapak, Gerimis, Enam Jahanam, Ahmad Albab, Kancan Tirana, Doktor Rusydi, Gelora, Putus Sudah Kash Sayang, and Jangan Tiggal Daku. His last movie was Laksamana Do Re Mi, which, unfortunately, was a big flop.


It is a well-known fact that P. Ramlee composed the background score and songs for his movies. Though not confirmed, it is said that he had composed around 250 songs in a total of 63 movies.


Panca Delima was the only film he directed which he never acted. It stars the then rising star Jins Shamsudin, who, in turn, cast Ramlee in his own directed films, Dibelakang Tabir and Bukan Salah Ibu Mengandung.


It is sad to acknowledge that towards the late sixties and the early seventies, P. Ramlee was gradually begun to be forgotten by the masses. Most of his latter films had flopped and he was not doing well financially by the time of his death at the age of 44. One of his dreams was to make a colour film; unfortunately no one was able to offer him a big sum to produce it. It took another decade for Malaysians to realise the vastness of his talent, and most importantly his priceless contribution to the Malaysian Film industry.


Thanks to the countless number of reruns on RTM, the public suddenly were struck by the core value in his film which never fails to provoke and entertain at the same time. Posthumous awards like Tan Sri were awarded. National archive allocated a separate department in his honour and his home was converted into a museum. Malaysian moviegoers and authorities have finally come to their senses. Only, it is a bit too late.




One of the biggest tributes ever afforded to this genius of recent year should be the Russian’s The Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, which did a full swing orchestration of P. Ramlee’s songs. Over at the TV stations, Astro, acquired the rights to 43 of P. Ramlee’s movies and had them cleaned up and digitally remastered to extend their shelf life. This process cost them between RM10,000 to RM20,000 per title. Astro has also provided the National Archives of Malaysia with VHS copies of the 49 film titles for reference purposes. Kudos to Astro for such an invaluable service. Of course, it knows very well that Ramlee's film still draws audience, and thus, rating.


P. Ramlee has left with us with a legacy of films that all Malaysians can be proud of. His dedication to the craft knew no boundary. More new generations, exposed to RTMs reruns on TV, are coming out as P. Ramlee fans and it is only natural that some of them, who may become filmmaker one day, preserve the love for the craft of filmmaking, the way Ramlee was. As he once said, "Art is a work of God. Do it with utmost sincerity"


The Great Entertainer*


One need not sharpen their intellect to understand a P. Ramlee movie. He made the films the way the people of Malaysia (and Singapore) were at the time – simple and determined. His films were viewed by people of all races, creed and colours. Even now, one can sit with any Malaysians and talk about those movies for hours. Sadly, the same can’t be told of present day Malaysian films, which cater only a certain segments of the society.


P. Ramlee’s sense of humour, as revealed in his comedies, was down to earth, and were, sometimes, deeply conscious of the genre’s subtle responsibility to the society and the culture in general. There had never been any film funnier than Ramlee’s comedies in Malaysian till today. Bear in mind that those films are more than forty years old!


Indeed, it is difficult to discuss Ramlee’s work in the capacities he served in his films, i.e. as the director, scriptwriter, actor, singer, composer, etc. Sure, there had been great actors like Nordin Ahmad who could give Ramlee a run for his money, but Ramlee’s performance has always been selfless. You can hardly tell whether the man is acting, may it be in a tragic drama or comedy. His forte will always be comedies. In them, Ramlee clearly has an invisible rapport with the audience.


Without much effort, Ramlee seemed to be almost winking at us, and assuring us that all we had to do is just sit back, relax and laugh. In short, while he was multi-talented, his biggest strength was his close, comfortable relationship with the audience. Audience can relate to him like a friend, neighbour, and even a family member. This, is the greatest gift any performer can get. And Ramlee does it effortlessly.




Written on November 02 2002

*Additional text on September 02 2004


The following websites have comprehensive information and interesting trivia on the legendary P. Ramlee and his life.