Film Melayu: Nationalism, Modernity and Film in a Pre-World War Two Malay Magazine

By Barnard, Timothy P. | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Film Melayu: Nationalism, Modernity and Film in a Pre-World War Two Malay Magazine


Barnard, Timothy P., Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


In May 1941 the first issue of Film Melayu (Malay Film), 'a magazine with pictures', appeared at newsstands in Singapore and Malaya. The cover of the first issue featured Ngagedek Ratoe Djoewairijah, 'a new Malay film star' who was modestly dressed with a scarf draped over her head. She was the star of the film Asmara Moerni (True Love), a Union Company Films release which also starred Dr A.K. Gani and Raden S. Joesoef. The extensive coverage that the film received in this first issue, as well as subsequent issues, reflected the close ties between Dutch and British colonial territories within the realm of culture as well as commerce. Asmara Moerni was an Indonesian film with Javanese actors being promoted as a 'Malay' cultural product. It was a Malay film in that it featured dialogue in Bahasa Melayu, the Malay language which promoted nationalistic unity in the Dutch East Indies (where it was known as 'Bahasa Indonesia') and the lingua franca in multi-racial, pluralistic Malaya. Asmara Moerni, however, was not the only Malay-language film released in Singapore in 1941. There were at least 20 Malay films released in Singapore that year, appealing to an urban cosmopolitan audience searching for stories that reflected their lives and hopes.

The coverage Asmara Moerni received in the first few issues of this Malay film magazine represents the importance that film had in nationalistic circles at the time. Film was a new medium throughout Southeast Asia that allowed for stories to be presented on a massive scale to poorly educated communities throughout the region. It also held the seductive possibility of technology to transform a society, and create images of a new nation. (1) This potential was not lost on nationalists--or on entrepreneurs--throughout the Dutch East Indies and British Malaya. In 1940 and 1941 at least eight Malay-language films were produced for both profit and erudition in Singapore. The sudden proliferation of Malay-language film, from both Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, raises issues and questions over the meaning of Malay national identity and its relationship to publishing and technology in the immediate period prior to World War Two. While extremely rudimentary, these films became an avenue for nationalist aspirations and would serve as a basis for the development of the deeply influential Malay film industry in Singapore which produced over 250 films between 1947 and 1966. All of these pre-war films have been lost, mainly due to the use of nitrate film, which easily deteriorates even under the best conditions. Their role as a venue for nationalist discourse as well as discussions of modernity, however, remains evident in the pages of Film Melayu. There are only five extant issues of the magazine, all of which were published between May and September 1941; they are held in the British Library. (2) From these available texts much can be learned about not only film and its development in Singapore but also Malay culture and politics in late pre-war Malaya and how they reflected various debates in the publishing industry.

This article will explore some of the various ways to use such a text and what it reveals about the society at the time. The first section will focus on the early film world in Singapore and what is known about it. Then, by examining the content of Film Melayu, the next section will provide information on how films were produced in Singapore and the background of the participants, as well as the plots of some of these lost films. The last section will focus on how debates over the Malay nation (bangsa) and modernity were played out on the pages of the magazine. Through this examination, a variety of issues ranging from the significance of the writing script used to the participants in this new story-telling medium will be seen as metaphors for nationalistic values, purposes and debates, thus making film--and its portrayal in a popular film magazine--an engine for modernity and nationalism in the minds of Malay activists. …

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