For a country that doesn’t exist anymore, films from Malaya managed to stand the test of time and achieve evergreen status. From the first film in the early 1930s, they were pivotal in shaping film industry in the region. One of the films made during the zenith of the era was a distinct reflection of the changes Malaya was experiencing. Written, directed by and starring P. Ramlee, Bujang Lapok was made in 1957 when the nation was at the crossroads of development
Although the film is primarily a comedy, P. Ramlee engaged in social commentaries throughout the film. When a pair of spouses was quarrelling, their argument came back to a circle without any resolutions. The dialogue may seem comedic but the scene addressed social issues that prevented commoners to progress financially.
Another example was when elderly character from the village spoke to her daughter about learning elementary English to be on par with city folks. It’s a subtle yet significant commentary on the importance of rural citizens upgrading themselves not only in terms of education but mindset as well. To symbolize a balance of two worlds, the character delivers a traditional idiom in the same scene to further illustrate her point.
The film also heavily reflected the collectivistic culture of the Malay society, in the way where the entire village tried to stop feuds and collaborative efforts to solve wedding plans. Differing from classical Hollywood narrative, P. Ramlee captured the habit of small talk among the villagers. Those seemingly redundant scenes portrayed a touch of realism that the Malay audience can relate to.
As with any young film-making industry, foreign stylistic influences in the film were inevitable. As most of the creative crew was from India, the song and dance scenes in the film and many other classic Malayan films were highly reminiscent of Indian cinema.
Part of the vintage appeal of this black and white film was the locations and mise-en-scene that no longer exists. This includes the rural picturesque and establishing shots of urban landmarks. Alternating between the old and new gives it a classic feel without ignoring the progress that the country is making.
Till today, Malayan films continue to entertain the Malay community. Even though Malaya is now two countries (Singapore and Malaysia) with their separate identities, Bujang Lapok along with other countless classic films from the era serves as a thread of history that runs in both countries.