Indonesian Film Culture in 1970s and 1980s Malaysia

Advertisement Poster for Semalam Di Malaysia (1976, directed by Nico Pelamonia) [Majalah Filem, March 1976]

One of the fond memories I treasure of growing up in my home town of Sungai Petani in the northern state of Kedah, Malaysia, in the 1980s is my early encounter with Indonesian cinema—the cinema I grew up with and still care about, alongside Malaysian, Indian, Hong Kong and Anglo-American films. During my early years, I viewed many Indonesian films either in cinemas, on television, or via rented videocassettes. I was particularly struck by a range of sights and sounds, many of which remain evocative even today. Paramount among them were elements of gore, the grotesque, and mysticism. I recall the whoosh accompanying gravity-defying stunts, enhanced somewhat dramatically by laser-light special effects that became the hallmark of countless horror, fantasy, and action-adventure films. I recall films highlighting the youthful fervour of adolescence, featuring high school and college adolescents embarking upon their first romantic dalliances. A frequent feature of some melodramas, the mournful, haunting sound of Idris Sardi’s violin had the capacity to break the most stoic viewer’s heart. In stark contrast, the dangdut song on the soundtrack of the eponymous film Cubit-cubitan [Pinch] would likely get one’s toes tapping and hips gyrating.

The passage of time has not diminished the plethora of film titles that I have committed to memory, not only beautiful sounding titles, for example Seputih Hatinya Semerah Bibirnya [As White As Her Heart, As Red As Her Lips], Mawar Cinta Berduri Duka [Love Rose with Sorrow Thorns], Secawan Anggur Kebimbangan [A Cup of Indecisive Wine], and Kabut Ungu Dibibir Pantai [Purple Fog at the Shore], but also sleazy, sexually suggestive titles; for example, Atas Boleh Bawah Boleh [Above Allowed Below Allowed], Depan Bisa Belakang Bisa [Front and Back OK], and Maju Kena Mundur Kena [Neither Back nor Forward]. As well as these titles, some movie posters, either in the forms of illustrated advertisements in newspapers or hand-painted cloth banners strung over cinema facades, continue to haunt my present-day, adult realms of imagination. I vividly recall the bulging eyes of Suzzanna in Nyi Blorong [The Snake Queen]: the Medusa-like head piece she wore was a cluster of sinuous snakes. And, the electrifying smile of Meriam Bellina, who, in Roro Mendut, looked positively dazzling in her sensuous kemban (a sarong-type garment wound around the body and tied at the upper chest level) and made holding a cigarette an art form.

I firmly believe that the Indonesian film culture of the 1970s and 1980s must render Indonesian moviegoers of my generation aglow with the warmth of nostalgia. However, rather than merely invoking nostalgia, in this article I am more interested in arguing that the overwhelming reception of Indonesian films and the culture they generated in Malaysia during those years were due to the paucity of Malay-language films made for local consumption. This paucity was attributable to the collapse of the studio system (which ended the golden age of Malay cinema) that occurred coterminous with the golden age of Indonesian cinema. As is widely known, the Indonesian film industry was at its zenith during the 1970s and 1980s.

This article also attempts to demonstrate that between 1975 and 1979, and extending throughout the early 1980s, many emergent newly set-up film companies (as driven by Malaysian government policy) actively engaged in film distribution; more specifically, in the importation of Indonesian films to serve the local market. In this overview of the Malaysian film industry, I venture to claim that the final phase of the Indonesian film culture in Malaysia was marked by a filem usahasama (joint-venture film) project that initiated a number of co-productions at a time when Indonesian cinema was on the brink of decline. However, before exploring the cultural phenomenon of Indonesian cinema in 1970s and 1980s Malaysia, let me first delineate the early connection between Indonesian films and Malay audiences in Singapore and British Malaya before and during the golden age of Malay cinema. In addition, I will detail the ways in which Indonesian films reached Malay audiences.

Info about Malaysia-Indonesia co-productions that were nominated at the 8th Malaysian Film Festival (FFM-8) [Panca Delima 1989 – FFM-8 Program Book]

The Early Indonesian Film Culture in Malaya and Singapore

The first screenings of films made in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) occurred in Malaya and Singapore in the 1930s. Prior to producing Malay films, one of the film studios, i.e., Shaw Brothers who were located in Singapore, brought in and screened Indonesian films in their attempt to satisfy the tastes of Malay film audiences. One film that achieved enormous commercial success was Terang Boelan (Full Moon, 1937). Its overwhelming popularity inspired the production of Malay-language films in Singapore. Following the film’s success, a Chinese production company, the Tan & Wong Film Company, that at the time was active in the Indonesian film industry, decided to establish a joint venture in Singapore in 1938. The company’s aim was to become a major player in the potentially thriving cinematic market. However, its first effort, BS Rajhans’ Menantu Durhaka (Rebellious Daughter-in-law, 1938), which attracted a lukewarm reception at best, is memorable if only for the fact that it was the company’s first and last film.[i]

Other Indonesian films that were commercially successful in British Malaya and Singapore included Terpaksa Menikah (Forced to Wed, 1932), Alang-alang (Grass, 1939), Gagak Item (Black Crow, 1939), Bajar Dengan Djiwa (Pay with Your Soul, 1941) and Asmara Moerni (True Love, 1941). It is believed that their success attested to the region’s shared cultures and the understanding of bahasa Indonesia, a variant form of Malay, an Austronesian language that has been used as a lingua-franca in Maritime Southeast Asia for centuries.[ii] Therefore, many of the abovementioned films were referred to as ‘Malay’; for example, Terang Boelan was touted as: “the first and best Malay musical!” and Terpaksa Menikah as “the first Malay talkie”. Malay audiences’ ethusiastic reception of Terang Boelan and similar films inspired Shaw Brothers in Singapore to produce their own films designed to cater to Malay audiences’ tastes. In 1938 they established Malay Film Productions which in time emerged as one of the successful production houses in the region.

The following decades bore witness to the popularity of P Ramlee films in Indonesia. The Indonesian industry, which felt threatened by ‘outsider’ intervention, responded by implementing a quota system. This meant that for every screening of a film made in Malaya, three Indonesian films had to be shown in the Peninsula. Around this time, the popularity that Indonesian films has earlier enjoyed in Malaya in the 1930s was waning. In time, this newly introduced protectionist policy became commonplace between the two countries by extension regressively restricting Malayan films’ access to Indonesia.[iii] In response, the film studio employed a range of different methods introduced to ensure distribution in Indonesia. For example, it implemented programs aimed at attracting popular Indonesian actors and acclaimed directors to work in Singapore. Persari (Syarikat Artis Indonesia), which was managed by Djamaluddin Malik, entered into joint-venture productions with Cathay-Keris. This cinematic amalgamation resulted in the release of the following three films in 1955: Mutiara Dari Malaya [Pearls of Malaya], Irama Kaseh [Rhythm of Love], and Saudaraku [My Brother]. All were directed by Laurie Friedman, a British director, and featured Indonesian actors including Sri Uniati, Netty Herrawaty, Darussalam, and Raden Mokhtar.[iv]

Usmar Ismail, who is widely considered to be the father of Indonesian cinema, attempted to market Indonesian films in Singapore and Malaya in 1958. When Usmar’s film titled Tiga Dara (Three Sisters, 1956) was released in Malaya, it emerged as a smash ‘box-office’ success and screened for almost a month at the Odeon cinema in Kuala Lumpur.[v] Subsequently, Indonesia’s Perfini collaborated with Singapore’s Cathay-Keris in producing Bayangan Diwaktu Fajar (Shadows at Dawn, 1963) which was directed by Usmar Ismail. It should be noted that earlier, Usmar (using the pseudonym PL Kapoor) directed Korban Fitnah (Defamation Victim, 1959), a melodrama produced by Maria Menado Productions and starring two Indonesian stars, Sukarno M Noor and AN Alcaff. In the same year, Usmar co-directed a lesser-known film titled Hilang Gelap Datang Terang (in Indonesia it was titled Hilang Gelap Terbitlah Terang, which roughly translates to ‘After Dark Comes Light’) with Ho Ah Loke. Produced by Merdeka Film Enterprise, it starred Indonesian actors Rendra Karno, Chitra Dewi, and Raden Ismail.[vi] Bayangan Diwaktu Fajar was the last co-production undertaken during the Malay cinema’s studio era. It was not until the mid-1970s, that is, during the post-studio era of Malay cinema that Malaysia-Indonesia co-productions emerged again.

Movie Advertisement for Hilang Gelap Datang Terang (1959, co-directed by Usmar Ismail and Ho Ah Loke) [Berita Filem, June 1961]

Aspects of Film Distribution, Exhibition and Reception

Following the decline of the studio system in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a proliferation of Indonesian films dominated the film industry in Malaysia. The Merdeka Studio in Kuala Lumpur faced stiff competition not only from imported Hong Kong and Indian films, but also from Indonesian films screened on independent cinema circuits. By the early 1970s, the demand for Malay-language films was being met by Indonesian films. Due to the Indonesian industry’s provision of films in colour, to widescreen spectaculars and relatively better content and production values in general, Indonesian films of the 1970s successfully lured Malay moviegoers away from their locally produced Malay-language films.[vii] In addition, during this period, Indonesian cinema underwent a marked and promising degree of change following the establishment of the Indonesian Film Council by the Minister of Education and Culture in 1956.[viii] By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Indonesian film industry, buoyed by the support of the Indonesian government, showed a high degree of change for the better despite the number of problems it was still experiencing.

During this period, Indonesian films were considered the best substitutes for Malay films. Culturally speaking, Malay audiences could relate to and identify with the social and cultural representations in Indonesian films due to shared cultural elements and traits. During those days, Indonesian films produced during the New Order hardly included subtitles. But, Malaysian audiences were generally able to follow the storyline despite the lack of subtitles. It should come as no surprise to learn that Malaysian audiences were able to both recognise and understand specific words that were not only foreign to them but rarely if ever used; for example, kantor [office], mobil [car], pacar [boy/girlfriend], cewek [girl], supir [driver], capek [tired], gengsi [prestige], to name just a few. One of the reasons could be attributable to the standard Bahasa Indonesia used during the New Order. Many of today’s Indonesian films require Malay or English subtitles due to their occasional use of different languages and dialects.

The end of the studio system, and the absence of locally made Malay films, saw the establishment of privately-owned film distribution companies in Malaysia, particularly among the bumiputera (predominantly ethnic Malays). The New Economic Policy, an affirmative action policy introduced by the government in 1971 which aimed to address and improve—among other things—the economic disparity between the bumiputera and non-bumiputera, saw the emergence of a number of bumiputera-owned film companies. Considering their nascent status, many of the companies focused on film distribution (and exhibition) rather than on film production. The former entailed much easier ways of generating profit and sustaining the companies’ businesses. Many among the latter resorted to film distribution. But, their purchasing of rights to films made in Indonesia and India further contributed to the scant number of local productions. The years between 1975 and 1979 saw only approximately 30 films released. In sharp contrast, the number of local productions increased between 1980 and 1989 with an average of ten films produced annually. The year 1985 bore witness to the lowest number of productions: fewer than ten films were released.[ix]

Some among Indonesia’s film producers played an important role in helping to develop bumiputera film companies in Malaysia. PERFIMA (Perusahaan Filem Malaysia/Malaysian Film Company), a company that was formed in 1970 as film producer, distributor and exhibitor, was partly funded by Indonesian producer and director Turino Djunaidy. In a spirit of reciprocity, PERFIMA agreed to distribute two Indonesian films, Kabut Bulan Madu (Misty Honeymoon, 1972) and Wadjah Seorang Laki-laki (The Face of a Man, 1971), in Malaysia. The company went on to purchase distribution rights to Indonesian films through Turino’s company, Sarinande Film. By May 1973, it had managed to import approximately 60 Indonesian films.[x]

After PERFIMA, other newly established film companies also opted in favour of distribution. They commenced importing films from Indonesia for the Malaysian market and slotting them into the independent cinema chains. Among the earliest films distributed were: Laki-laki Tak Bernama (Unnamed Man, 1969), Pahlawan Sembilan (Nine Heroes, 1967), Tuan Tanah Kedawung (Landlord of Kedawung 1970),and Bernafas Dalam Lumpur (Breathing in Mud).[xi] One of the new companies, i.e., Sari Artists Film (established by Malaysian actress Sarimah and her husband Yusoff Majid) concentrated more on film distribution. The company purchased distribution rights to Indonesian and Indian films and screened them in independent cinemas. So well was it managed that it returned a lucrative income within two years of its establishment.[xii]

The active distribution and exhibition of Indonesian films in Malaysia occurred in tandem with the explosion of Indonesian film industry output in the 1970s. Dangdut musicals, horror-mystic films, comedies, and action films proved as popular in Malaysia and Singapore as they were at home.[xiii] Among the popular Indonesian film genres that appealed to Malaysian audiences, horror was paramount. However, uncertainty surrounds whether or not the influx and popularity of Indonesian horror films contributed to the low number of Malaysian horror film productions in the 1970s and 1980s. The Malaysian cinema of this period screened very few horror films—among them were Perjanjian Syaitan (Deal with the Devil, 1981), Toyol (1981), Ilmu Saka (Ancient Magic, 1984), Rahsia (Secret, 1987), Perawan Malam (Maiden of the Night, 1988), and Dendam Perawan Bunting (Revenge of the Impregnated Virgin, 1989), all of which (with the exception of Toyol) were ‘box-office’ failures.[xiv] Unquestionably, one can draw a parallel between the aforementioned Malay horror films and those of Indonesia. But here I will stress that many of the horror films screened in the region featured similar themes or issues that had immense appeal for the Malaysian viewers’ deeply entrenched belief in superstition and the supernatural. Indeed, one of the narrative hallmarks that characterised horror films in both countries was the designation of a religious figure or authority who (usually towards the end of the film) appears to restore the natural order by vanquishing the evil supernatural forces. Apropos of the aforementioned Malay horror films, I will suggest that Perjanjian Syaitan, with its Faustian theme, most closely resembled the Indonesian horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. However, there was a more tangible reason for the marked decline in the volume of horror films in the 1990s. In effect, it attested to the stringent Censorship Board guidelines that were enforced concomitant with Malaysia’s increasing Islamisation.[xv]

During the mid-1970s, some of the companies entered into joint-venture productions with Indonesian producers. For example, Shaw’s Merdeka Film Production in Kuala Lumpur produced a number of its final films between 1975 and 1979. In order to compete with Indonesian films, it co-produced the following two films, i.e., Nico Pelamonia’s Semalam di Malaysia (One Night in Malaysia, 1975) and Frank Rorimpandey & Kwei Chi Hung’s Lonceng Maut (Death Bell, 1976) with Tuti Mutia Film Production—an Indonesian company. Semalam di Malaysia, a musically oriented melodrama, focused on a Malaysian singer who was re-united with his long-lost sister (an Indonesian singer with whom he had fallen in love). The film can be considered a precursor to a series of Malaysian-Indonesian co-productions made during the 1980s, co-productions that addressed issues pertinent to Malaysia-Indonesia relations – a subject I will discuss in due course. Lonceng Maut, a martial arts film, highlighted silat, the traditional martial arts form practiced in the Malay-Indonesian region. The film was reminiscent of the wu-xia (sword play) or ‘kung-fu’ pedagogy films made in Hong Kong. Critic Baharudin Latif claimed that Lonceng Maut’s storylinewas based on Shaw’s Chinese film titled The Bells of Death.[xvi]

Article on Teguh Karya (Majalah Filem, June 1976)

In terms of exhibition, Indonesian films flooded not only Shaw Brothers’ and Cathay’s cinema circuits, but also independent cinemas in small towns across the nation. For example, two Kuala Lumpur cinemas, i.e., Ampang Park and Pawagam P Ramlee, were solely dedicated to screening Indonesian films.[xvii] Pawagam P Ramlee, which was managed by Rumpun Melayu (a company owned by P Ramlee and HM Shah), began its operation in 1973 (post P Ramlee’s death) with the screening of an Indonesian film, Wim Umboh’s Dan Bunga-bunga Berguguran (And the Flowers Fell, 1970).[xviii] Other cinemas, although ostensibly committed to screening Malay films, screened Indonesian films whenever there was a brief hiatus in the release of Malay films. In Kuala Lumpur, Coliseum was one of the cinemas known for its screening of Indonesian films. In other cities, in Georgetown, Penang, for example, Indonesian films were customarily screened at Dalit-Komtar. Genre films, Penangkal Ilmu Teluh (Antidote for Witchcrafts, 1979) and Cubit-cubitan (1979), for example, became a form of cultural phenomena. Responding to their high degree of popularity, cinemas in Kuala Lumpur screened them for extraordinarily long periods of time, sometimes for months.[xix] The spectacular commercial success of Cubit-cubitan helped to popularise the film’s soundtrack, particularly its dangdut theme song rendered by Elvy Sukaesih (who played the protagonist in the film).

In the 1970s, 1980s, and throughout the 1990s, independent and small cinemas in Malaysia’s small cities and towns also screened the cheaply exploitative Indonesian films, which customarily focused upon ‘selling’ sex and eroticism. I recall that many carried provocative titles, e.g., Kuda-kuda Binal (Wild Horses) and Rumput-rumput yang Bergoyang (Swaying Grass). Some titles, Bumi Makin Panas (The Earth is Getting Hotter, 1973), for example, were banned in Malaysia. On occasion, acclaimed films made by Teguh Karya, Sjuman Djaya, Ami Priyono and Arifin C Noer were also screened. Their inclusion of popular Indonesian stars of the time sufficed to draw local viewers. For example, I recall that Teguh Karya’s Di Balik Kelambu (Behind the Mosquito Net, 1983) was shown immediately after it won major Citra Awards at the Indonesian Film Festival—the nation’s equivalent to Oscars. Asrul Sani’s Para Perintis Kemerdekaan (Pioneers of Independence, 1977) had a limited public screening and was released with a different title, i.e., Di Bawah Lindungan Kaabah (Under the Protection of Kaaba).[xx]In the late 1980s and early 1990s, award-winning, auteur-ist Indonesian films—Teguh Karya’s Pacar Ketinggalan Kereta (My Lover Missed the Train, 1989), Arifin C Noer’s Taksi (Taxi, 1990) and Garin Nugroho’s Cinta dalam Sepotong Roti (Love in a Slice of Bread, 1991), for example—were still released in Malaysia despite their limited screenings (often playing in one cinema only in Kuala Lumpur).[xxi]

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, actors including Ratno Timoer, Sophian Sophaan, Roy Marten, Lenny Marlina, Christine Hakim, Widyawati, Yenny Rachman, Yati Octavia, Rano Karno, Herman Felani, Lydia Kandou, Meriam Bellina, Deddy Mizwar, Marissa Haque, Rico Tampatty, and Ray Sahetapy, among others, attained popularity in Malaysia, launching their career as ‘transnational’ stars. Some moviegoers in Malaysia decided which films to watch based upon the ‘fame and celebrity’ of the ‘stars’ involved. Unquestionably, these stars established their individual personas and identities across a range of film performances. For example, Rano Karno was (almost) typecast as a lovesick, male teenage protagonist, whereas Farouk Afero was widely known to be a villainous character. Some among those male and female actors who became immensely popular shaped their ‘star’ images and personas to fulfil the requirements of specific genres: Benyamin S (comedy), Rhoma Irama (dangdut musical), Suzzanna (horror), and Barry Prima (action film).

Recognising the lucrative potential of the popular Indonesian film industry, local Malay production houses invited Indonesian actors to feature in their films. Sabah Film Productions, the country’s most successful film company between 1975 and 1984, featured Broery Marantika and Christine Hakim in its musically oriented melodrama Hapuslah Air Matamu (Wipe Your Tears, 1975). In addition, it featured Farouk Afero in its purba action film Pendekar (Warrior) in 1977. Other Indonesian stars who appeared in Malay films include Benyamin S in Panglima Badul (The Clown Commander, 1978) and Dicky Zulkarnaen in Potret Maria (Portrait of Maria, 1980). In the mid-1980s, Amir Communications, a successful local production, hired Indonesian director Ida Farida—known for her films including Asmara Dibalik Pintu (Romance Behind the Door, 1984) and Tak Ingin Sendiri (Don’t Want to Be Alone, 1985)to direct Suara Kekasih (Lover’s Sound, 1986), which emerged as a commercial success. Rumour has it that the producer was hoping that a reciprocal relationship would develop, i.e., that by hiring an Indonesian director he would be afforded the opportunity to release his own film in Indonesia. However, the film was ultimately released in Malaysia only.

The Indonesian stars alluded to above established their reputations not only in film performances, but also in appearances in subsidiary forms of circulation from newspapers to celebrity magazines. The print media, e.g., popular entertainment magazines and newspapers including Majalah Filem, Utusan Filem & Fesyen (UFF), URTV and Pancaindera (Mingguan Malaysia), regularly provided updates on the latest Indonesian films released in Malaysia. Indonesian stars were invited to pose for and ‘embellish’ the cover pages of popular magazines. For example, UFF included special columns titled Dunia Filem Indonesia (The World of Indonesian Film) and Di Belakang Layar Perak Indonesia (Behind the Indonesian Silver Screen). Dewan Budaya, a semi-intellectual magazine featured critical writings (in the form of essays and reviews) on Indonesian cinema.

It should also be noted that Malaysia’s local TV channels were impacted by the influx of Indonesian films. RTM, the national TV channel, commenced screening Indonesian films in a slot purportedly reserved for Malay films – Tayangan Gambar Melayu (on occasions when Indonesian films were screened, the slot tuned in as Tayangan Gambar Indonesia). Because there was a scarcity of Malay films, in order to fill the gap, the station had to screen Indonesian films. The latter were relatively inexpensive: They could be purchased from local distributors for between RM3,000 and RM5,000.[xxii] In the 1980s, RTM introduced a weekly slot specifically for Indonesian films. Titled Tayangan Larut Malam (Midnight Show), it aired at midnight. Malaysia’s first private TV station, TV3, which began operating in 1984, screened Indonesian films alternately with Malay films via its weekly slot Teater Malindo. During the festive seasons, e.g., Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, Indonesian films were released and screened along with Malay films both in the country’s cinemas and on TV. In the 1990s, RTM introduced a specific slot (Dari Seberang) for Indonesian filmswhich went to air on Saturday afternoons.

Beginning the mid-1980s, the popularity of Indonesian films in cinemas began to wane due to the frequent screenings of Indonesian films on TV (RTM and TV3). In addition, in the 1980s, the introduction of videocassette recorders (VCRs) for domestic use, in tandem with the adoption of home video technology, became widespread in Malaysia. These popular innovations impacted dramatically upon the cinema-exhibition business, eventually resulting in the closure of cinemas. During the 1980s and 1990s, countless rental videocassette shops were established throughout the country’s small cities and towns. The ultimate outcome was that many of the videocassette copies of Indonesian films sold at these rental video shops were pirated versions.

Throughout the 1990s, the theatrical release of Indonesian films in Malaysia was at best spasmodic. The number of films distributed and exhibited dwindled drastically, even films played mainly at multiplexes or cineplexes located in the country’s shopping malls. Increasing numbers of stand alone cinemas ceased operation. By the end of the 1990s, the introduction and usage of yet another home video format, i.e., the video CD (VCD), began to be widely adopted in Southeast Asia (including Malaysia). Now many Indonesian film titles became available on VCDs, with most of them being distributed by Music Valley. People could purchase them from licensed outles and/or small video shops across the country. Pirated copies could be found in many video shops and pasar malam (night markets). Now that Indonesian films were available on VCD, many Indonesian film fans in Malaysia had their first opportunity to view important Indonesian films of the New Order that had hitherto never been made available for popular consumption (for example, Eros Djarot’s Tjoet Nja’ Dhien in 1988). Taken together, all of the above proves that the Indonesian film culture did not die out completely following the widespread adoption of this form of consumption (VCDs) in the first decade of the new millennium.

Column on Indonesian Film Stars [Utusan Filem & Fesyen, April 1983]

The Filem Usahasama Project

The final phase of the vibrant Indonesian film culture in Malaysia bore witness to a number of co-productions (‘filem usahasama’), i.e., Malaysia-Indonesia joint-venture projects that were officially inaugurated in the mid-1980s. Initially, this form arose out of the failure of the Film Exchange Scheme between FINAS (National Film Development Corporation Malaysia) and P.T. Perfin (Indonesia) to screen Malaysian films in Indonesia.[xxiii] FINAS encouraged Indonesian producers to visit Malaysia and enter into partnerships promising joint-venture productions. A further aim was to secure the Malaysian film industry and expand its market. Other potential benefits included an active and ongoing cultural and arts exchange program between the two countries. This promised two possibilities: 1) a chance to advance both national cinemas, and 2) the possibility of fostering closer ties and more comprehensive understanding between the peoples of both countries.

However, although co-productions began, and continued up until the early 1990s, the project could not be sustained. The co-productions were greeted enthusiastically by the Malaysian film industry. Many of those involved saw it as an opportunity to ‘penetrate’ the Indonesian market. But, the Indonesians were more pragmatic regarding gains for their own industry. As Salim Said observed: “Joint productions with Malaysia caused no problems since the major roles in the films were generally assigned to Indonesians”.[xxiv] As evident in most of the co-productions, Indonesia exercised both creative and artistic control.

The joint venture co-productions project began with the production of the film Wahyu Sihombing’s Gadis Hitam Putih (Black and White Girl, 1986), produced by Malaysia’s Aniko Sdn Bhd. The latter, a local company, agreed to the terms proposed by Indonesia’s P.T. Garuda to finance half of the production cost.[xxv] However, the creative involvement was limited to Malaysian actors (e.g., Fauziah Ahmad Daud and Maria Arshad). In effect, this film was completely made as an ‘Indonesian film’. Gadis Hitam Putih, a melodrama, dealt with the questionable issue of exchanging babies from different social classes in an attempt to prove that class and wealth do not shape one’s morality. All is revealed when the two babies reach adolescence. A disillusioned nurse, once rejected by her boyfriend’s aristocratic family, admits that she was responsible for exchanging the babies without anyone’s knowledge directly following their births in the hospital.

Among other local film companies that became involved in the Malaysia-Indonesia co-productions were Cipta Tuah Sdn Bhd, Pengedar Utama Sdn Bhd, Telefilem Sdn Bhd, and MV Productions. Indonesian companies involved in the project included P.T. Garuda Film and P.T. Kanta Indah Film. Although most of the films produced were ‘Indonesian stories’, a limited number dealt with Malaysia-Indonesia ties. This was an attempt to at least depict some aspects of the peoples and milieus of both nations.Interestingly, two other films similarly dealt with issues involving babies: Nurhadie Irawan’s Bayi Tabung (In Vitro Fertilisation, 1988) and Hasmanan’s Dia Bukan Bayiku (That is Not My Baby, 1988). The former storyline concerns an Indonesian wife who encounters a financial problem. Desperate to resolve said problem, she opts to undergo medical intervention, that would enable her to provide an affluent couple from Malaysia with a baby. A certain amount of payment is negotiated. But, problems arise when she delivers, bonds with the infant and feels reluctant to keep her part of the bargain. Somewhat unsurprisingly, she becomes involved in a lengthy court case. The second film, which was based on a real life incident, focuses on complications faced by a visiting lecturer from Indonesia, and his wife who had only recently given birth in Malaysia. The couple discover that while the mother was in the hospital, their baby was accidentally exchanged with a Malaysian couple’s baby. This mishap causes considerable emotional upheaval and tension between the two families.

Another film that deals with Malaysia-Indonesia relations (using the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation 1963-1966 as its storyline) was Djun Saptohadi’s Irisan-irisan Hati (Heart Slices, 1988). This film, winner of three Citra Awards at the Indonesian Film Festival, was relatively better than other co-productions of the time in terms of narrative substance, aesthetics, and spirit. It featured acclaimed Indonesian actors Deddy Mizwar and Christine Hakim and Malaysian actors Tiara Jacquelina and Baharuddin Haji Omar. Central to Irisan-irisan Hati’s storyline is radical leftist university student Nurhadi, who voluntarily joins the ganyang Malaysia (Crush Malaysia) campaign’s armedtroops division. In a shooting incident at sea, most of his friends are killed. Nurhadi survives and is saved by a fisherman’s family in Mersing, a Malaysian town located in the northeast corner of Johor state. Initially Nurhadi hides his identity: he claims that he is a fisherman from a neighbouring state. Before long, he falls in love with the fisherman’s daughter and marries. But he fails to reveal that he was already married when he left Indonesia. Irisan-irisan Hati has significance for both Malaysia and Indonesia given that to date it is (perhaps) the only film in the region to deal with the historical Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation conflict. In effect, Bayi Tabung, Dia Bukan Bayiku and Irisan-irisan Hati can be read as allegorical of Malaysia-Indonesia geopolitical relations.

Co-productions continued to be made up until the early 1990s. However, many were essentially Indonesian films—they only featured minimal numbers of Malaysian actors. Most of the films were made in the form of genre films: action-adventure (Pertarungan Iblis Merah, Pendekar Mata Satu, Tarzan Raja Rimba); romance (Tirai Perkawinan, Dewi Cinta); horror (Misteri Rumah Tua, Pernikahan Berdarah, Lukisan Berlumur Darah); and, comedy (Omong Besar, Kipas-kipas Cari Angin, Jodoh Boleh Diatur), for example. Films that attempted to consciously depict relations between Malaysia and Indonesia included Isabella (1990), Jodoh Boleh Diatur (1990), and Demi Cinta Belahlah Dadaku (1992). In terms of ‘look’ and essence, most of the films differed little from Indonesian films. Some appeared non-specific when it came to depicting geopolitical space and setting. In Malaysia, because a majority of the films failed commercially, they were sold to, and screened on, TV, mostly during Eid al-Fitr holidays. Some, rather than being released and screened in cinemas, were only distributed via VHS. The joint-venture project ended when Indonesian cinema was impacted by changing patterns of consumption which saw audiences opting for TV viewing and showing less interest in movies. This scenario was further compounded by the Asian economic crisis and political upheaval that took place in the late 1990s.

Cover page for the magazine Majalah Filem (June 1976)

Concluding Remarks

Although the end of the filem usahasama project heralded the decline of the Indonesian film culture in Malaysia, but the culture did not disappear in toto. The new millennium bore witness to yet another culture of Indonesian films when Rudy Soedjarwo’s Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? (What’s Up with Love?, 2002) became a sleeper hit in Malaysia. Companies including Grand Brilliance Sdn Bhd, for example, sought to tap into the market by bringing in and distributing other films: Eiffel I’m in Love (2003), Tentang Dia (About Her, 2005), Ungu Violet (Ultra Violet, 2005), 9 Naga (Nine Dragons, 2006), Heart (2006) and Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love, 2008). But, most of these films failed to realise commercial success. In Malaysia, the popularity of Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? helped to draw public attention to the work of composer-singer Melly Goeslaw, particularly the film’s soundtrack. To date, however, relatively few Indonesian films released in Malaysia have done well commercially: Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2 (What’s Up With Love 2, 2016), Surga Yang Tak Dirindukan 2 (The Unmissed Heaven 2, 2017), and Pengabdi Setan (Satan’s Slave, 2017), for example. Apropos of local productions, a number of contemporary films, particularly those which foreground regional or Nusantara themes, have featured Indonesian actors: Puteri Gunung Ledang (The Princess of Mount Ledang, 2004), Hanyut (Drifting, 2016), and Interchange (2016).

The Indonesian film culture of 1970s and 1980s Malaysia is one example of how cinema can transcend its national-cultural borders by sharing, exchanging and mobilising culture(s). Such phenomena and practices were evident during the Malay cinema’s golden age, a time when P Ramlee films were well-received in Indonesia. In somewhat similar vein, the Malaysian animated series Upin & Ipin has become a cultural phenomenon in Indonesia today. There are other aspects that can be traced and explored to affirm the ways in which specific films (particularly genres) were received as they circulated in different exhibition contexts. For instance, how do diasporic Indonesians, who have lived and worked in Malaysia (or who have become Malaysian), receive and negotiate films from their home country within a transnational landscape?

The Indonesian film culture continues to assert itself today albeit in different forms and manifestations. Although it may not be as rigorous and vibrant as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, I am personally pleased with the latest developments in contemporary cinema. To a certain extent, closer cinematic ties are evident between Malaysia and Indonesia by virtue of a series of collaborations and co-productions. Finally, I am pleased to observe more fluid ‘transnational’ flows and movements among actors, directors and production crews.

Review on Arifin C. Noer’s Taksi [Dewan Budaya, February 1992]


[i] See Baharudin Latif (2001), A Brief History of Malaysian Film. In David Hanan (ed.), Film in Southeast Asia: Views from the Region, SEAPAVAA, Vietnam Film Institute, pp. 163-193 (p. 169); See also William van der Heide (2002), Malaysian Cinema, Asian Film: Border Crossings and National Cultures, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, p. 129

[ii] Fuziah Kartini Hassan Basri and Raja Ahmad Alauddin (1995, Winter), The Search for a Malaysian Cinema: Between U-Wei, Shuhaimi, Yusof and LPFM. Asian Cinema, 7(2), p. 59.

[iii] Baharudin Latif (1989). P. Ramlee: The Living Legend. In Baharudin Latif (ed.), Cintai Filem Malaysia, Hulu Kelang, FINAS, pp. 63-65; see also van der Heide (2002), Malaysian Cinema, Asian Film, p. 144

[iv] Hamzah Hussin (2004), Memoir Hamzah Hussin: Dari Keris Film ke Studio Merdeka, Bangi, Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, pp. 69-70.

[v] Salim Said (1991), Shadows on the Silver Screen: A Social History of Indonesian Film, Jakarta, The Lontar Foundation, p. 72

[vi] The film Hilang Gelap Datang Terang, whichhas hardly been mentioned in any writings on old Malay films, was the one and only film that the company Merdeka Film Enterprise produced. After the release of the film, the company went on to merge with Shaw Brothers and collaborated with businessman H.M. Shah as to establish a new company named Merdeka Film Studio, which began its operation in 1960.

[vii] Baharudin Latif (2001), A Brief History of Malaysian Film, p. 176

[viii] Salim Said (1991), Shadows on the Silver Screen, p. 45

[ix] Jamil Sulong, Hamzah Hussein, & Abdul Malik Mokhtar (1993). Daftar Filem Melayu 1933-1993: Jilid 1, Ampang, FINAS.

[x] Hatta Azad Khan (1994), The Malay Cinema, Bangi: UKM Press, p. 122; John A. Lent (1990), The Asian Film Industry, London, Christopher Helm, p. 191

[xi] Salim Said (1991), Shadows on the Silver Screen, p. 30

[xii] Hatta Azad Khan (1994), The Malay Cinema, p. 123

[xiii] Mohd Kamsah Sirat (1992), Indonesian Films in Singapore. In Salim Said and J.E. Siahaan (eds), Indonesian Film Panorama, Jakarta, Permanent Committee of the Indonesian Film Festival, pp. 89-90; van der Heide (2002), Malaysian Cinema, Asian Film, p. 147

[xiv] Apart from the six films mentioned, there were other films in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s that could hardly be considered fully fledged horror albeit they contained some horror elements nonetheless. They include: Pasung Puaka (1979), Anita Dunia Ajaib (1981), Dendam Dari Pusara (1984) and Mangsa (1985).

[xv] In 1991, Aziz M. Osman’s Fantasi, which purportedly dealt with supernatural elements deemed ‘un-Islamic’, was initially banned by the Censorship Board. This was in line with the introduction of the VHS policy in the 1990s which banned violence, horror, sex and counter-culture elements in Malaysian TV and cinema. The ban was lifted only after a reshoot and overhaul, and the film was finally released in 1994. This horror-fantasy focuses on a girl (in ancient time), Dara, who vows to avenge her death after being raped and killed by the bloodsucker Silbi (‘Satan’). Dara’s dead soul is transformed into a ring that reaches a modern-day journalist, thereby helping her investigation about a specific case of rape among girls. Among other factors, the enquiry centres upon a charged remark made by a female character, who tells her rapist that she will defend her body beyond death. The Censorship Board took issue with notions of the spirited, dead soul in the statement which might contravene the fundamental Islamic faith that emphasises monotheism.

[xvi] Baharudin Latif (2001), A Brief History of Malaysian Film, p. 179

[xvii] Ahmad Kamal Basyah bin Sallehuddin (2019, August), Personal Communication

[xviii] Hamzah Hussin (2004), Memoir Hamzah Hussin, p. 121

[xix] Laqman Al-Jefri (2019, August), Personal Communication

[xx] The film’s original title (Di Bawah Lindungan Ka’bah) had to be changed to Para Perintis Kemerdekaan, as “ka’bah” was an image emblazoned on the logo of an Islamic political party that contested in the 1981 General Election. In addition, the film was also delayed in its general release (screening) in Jakarta by Suharto’s regime due to the fear of its perceivedly political influence it might have on the public. See Krishna Sen (1994), Indonesian Cinema: Framing the New Order, London, Zed Books, p.75.

[xxi] Ahmad Kamal Basyah bin Sallehuddin (2019, August), Personal Communication

[xxii] Hatta Azad Khan (1994), The Malay Cinema, p. 171

[xxiii] Ibid., p. 183

[xxiv] Salim Said (1991), Shadows on the Silver Screen, p. 127

[xxv] Hatta Azad Khan (1994), The Malay Cinema, p. 184