by Farah Azalea Mohamed Al Amin
Controversial Malaysian independent director Amir Muhammad is no stranger to the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF). He has screened most of his films here and this year he personally chose to premiere Malaysian Gods in Singapore over Rotterdam. Unlike his two previous films which were completely banned by the Malaysian censorship board, Malaysian Gods passed without cuts but was not allowed to screen. Muhammad is the first and only Malaysian to have screened at the Sundance Film Festival, and in 2006 he had the luxury of premiering two films in Berlinale. However, in his own words, Muhammad would choose an Asian premiere over a European one any time, and Singapore was the most obvious choice for him. When Malaysia banned his infamous Last Communist Standing in 2007, Singapore gladly screened it uncut, and from then on, Muhammad has often been featured at SIFF.
Muhammad challenges the norm in a conservative country like Malaysia. While most people in the arts would be very wary of addressing government controversies and political issues such as racial segregation and distribution of rights, Muhammad chooses these as his main themes. Malaysian Gods is a first for Malaysian cinema, in that Tamil is the main language featured in this film. The majority of the cast were from the ethnic Indian Tamil minority group (with the exception of a Tamil-speaking Chinese woman), who are barely represented in Malay films. The introduction of the film is a list of facts about ethnic Indian groups, which might confuse audiences expecting a film in Malay.
Prior to the screening, a panel member from the discussion led by Muhammad stated that Muhammad’s films are never to be judged based on their titles or descriptions. This film was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the biggest street demonstration in Malaysia as a result of the sacking of the then Deputy Prime Minister on corruption and sodomy charges. While the event was a serious one that left a huge impact on Malaysian history, the film explored peripheral and at times unrelated issues rather than just focusing on the event itself. Although Indians are a minority group who are often sidelined, their small and powerful voice in the Hindu Rights Action Movement (HINDRAF) gathering last year resulted in the worst election results the ruling government has seen in 50 years – therefore Muhammad refers to them as the Malaysian Gods.
The irony in this film extended to its soundtrack, which featured a popular Malay love song being played on an erhu (traditional Chinese stringed instrument) by an Indian man in Kuala Lumpur. The next thing we hear is upbeat Bhangra music in the background as we read details of historical events followed by live footage of the demonstration. The film ended with the statement: “we must not mistake perfection for progression”.