Monday, November 8, 2010

Tiga Abdul (Singapore, 1964)

In Malaysia, P. Ramlee is an artist of such stature that he has buildings and institutions named after him. (Yes, that’s plural.) He rose to fame as a singer, instrumentalist and composer in the late 40s, and soon thereafter became a star on the big screen, adding the title of director to his formidable list of accomplishments only a few years later. Tiga Abdul (or 3 Abdul), a 1964 production from Shaw Brothers’ Singapore-based Malay language division, shows the multi-talented Ramlee firing on all cylinders, acting both as star and director, while also singing musical numbers that he wrote and arranged for the film.

Based on a traditional Malaysian folk tale, Tiga Abdul takes place in a fictionalized, time warp version of Istanbul in which everyone wears 60s fashions but still buys and sells slaves in the marketplace. It also appears that every man to a one is born with a fez attached to his head. With most films in which a guy in a fez appears, you could describe him as “the guy in the fez” and feel secure in the fact that you have been sufficiently specific, but, in the case of Tiga Abdul, that would quite literally describe every man who appears on screen. Furthermore, while none of these men are shown sleeping, I imagine that, if they were, they would be shown wearing their fezzes. If not, someone might notice that they are all Southeast Asians who look nothing like what most people’s idea of a Turk is. In short, Tiga Abdul is a real fez-apalooza.

Anyway, Ramlee plays Abdul Wahub, the youngest of three brothers who are all named Abdul. As the film repeatedly strives at the expense of all subtlety to make clear, Abdul Wahub is the most virtuous of these brothers. He is even at one point shown wearing a white suit in conspicuous contrast to their black ones, and is frequently shown gazing reprovingly upon their greedy, hedonistic antics. This, while effective in establishing the elder Abduls’ lack of character, also comes very close to presenting Abdul Wahub as being a bit on the priggish and judgmental side. Luckily, this impression is mitigated somewhat when we see Abdul Wahub in the music shop he owns, rocking out on the electric guitar with pseudo-Turkey’s fez-wearing version of The Ventures.

When the wealthy father of the three Abduls dies suddenly without leaving a will, the eldest Abdul, the grasping Abdul Wahab (Haji Mahadi), is charged with divvying up the inheritance. Likely because Abdul Wahub so obviously hates both of them -- but also because they only care about money, while Abdul Wahub cares about art and music and feelings and stuff -- elders Abdul Wahab and Abdul Wahib decide to split the old man’s vast fortune in assets between themselves, leaving Abdul Wahub with only their father’s rundown mansion to show for his filial devotion. At the same time, an unscrupulous friend of their father’s, Sadiq Segaraga (Ahmad Nisfu), has his own eyes on their newly acquired fortune, and goes about getting it by launching his three attractive young daughters at the boys like so many hourglass-shaped, heat seeking missiles.

Both of the older brothers fall head over heels for these lovelies, and it is only the upright Abdul Wahub who sees through the ruse, greeting the tentative advances of Segaraga’s youngest daughter Ghasidah (Sarimah) with nothing but scorn and reproach. Soon the elder Abduls are approaching Segaraga and asking for his daughters’ hands in marriage, at which point the old trickster springs a contract on them that stipulates that, once married, they can never become angry, lest they should forfeit all of their assets to him and be sold into slavery. The two foolishly agree to this and the wedding bells chime, after which Segaraga, quite unsurprisingly, makes a dedicated project out of making them angry as quickly as possible, first by denying them access to anything beyond the aroma of food, and then by barring them from the marital bed. Needless to say, it’s not long before both are penniless, on the block, and up for sale to the highest bidder.

Soon after these developments, Abdul Wahub’s father appears before him in a dream. Now, given that Tiga Abdul has up to this point exhibited a sort of fanciful, fairytale-like quality, you might expect this to be the juncture at which things will take something of an enchanted turn. But in a surprising display of fiscal pragmatism from beyond the grave, Dad instead advises young Abdul to pay a visit to his lawyer. Once done, this lawyer informs Abdul that, in addition to the domestically accrued fortune that his brothers have inherited, Abdul’s dad also had overseas assets of even greater value, all of which now belongs to him. Now having reaped the huge cash rewards that are the right of any truly virtuous soul, Abdul Wahub sets about scheming with the lawyer to win his brothers’ freedom and deliver Segaraga his comeuppance.

This scheme will ultimately involve Abdul Wahub marrying Ghasidah and then turning her father’s contract back against him, with the result that, after a number of convolutions, Abdul Wahub will end up turning just about everyone involved into human chattel and buying them for himself. He does this, of course, so that he may ultimately free them, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t first harangue them about how awful they all are. The moral of this age old fable, then? Don’t fuck with Abdul Wahub. Oh, and? Get a lawyer. It’s basically like a folk tale written by an MBA.

As a lead actor, Ramlee gives a competent but not especially charismatic or developed performance here, which leads me to suspect that, for his audience, his status as a beloved entertainer was a suitable stand-in for characterization. His musical contributions to the film, furthermore, give us a solid idea of just why that might have been. Ramlee’s tunes are so beguilingly melodious, and the manner in which he sings them –- when he takes the lead -- so relaxed and agreeable, that I ended up wishing that he hadn’t been so stingy with them, and had instead provided more than just the three. Especially nice is the film’s devilishly catchy theme tune, which is sung by Ramlee’s wife, Salmah “Saloma” Ismail, who appears in the delightfully modish credit sequence, singing in split screen as the titles roll beside her.

As for his talents behind the camera, Ramlee’s directorial hand is not flamboyant, but sufficient to get the story told on the obviously limited budget that was provided. It’s becoming apparent to me that the Shaw Brothers’ Malaysian productions were nowhere near as lush as those made by their Hong Kong division, and here that’s evidenced by the preponderance of tiny sets and matte painted exteriors. Still, Ramlee nonetheless manages to conjure up an appropriate, “fractured fairytale” atmosphere with the application of mischievous cartoonish touches and visual puns. He also keeps things moving along briskly, which, with a story that is so obviously grinding inevitably toward a predetermined and all-too-clearly visible moral conclusion, is always welcome.

Having seen Tiga Abdul’s toe-tapping credit sequence on YouTube, I was hoping for it to be an exotic 60s time capsule with cultish appeal. What I got instead was a modest little film with an abundance of quirky charm. I also, as mentioned above, got more fezzes than I could ever have imagined seeing onscreen at one time. Nonetheless, you don’t have to be an enthusiast of traditional Ottoman headwear in order to appreciate this one. But if you are, you might want to wear yours for the viewing.


Michael Barnum said...

Hmmm...just listening to the song sung in the opening credits has made me determined to search for vintage Malaysian pop rocked my world!

Anonymous said...

Great! Thanks for reviewing this. I really like it, especially the credit sequence and the Bunyi Guitar song with the fez-sporting surf music. I've never seen anything quite like it. Good stuff.

kenjn60 said...

The internet/you tube/ yours and so many other great sites are wonderful! I only recently discovered the great P Ramlee!

Todd said...

Thanks! Glad y'all like. I've got at least one more P. Ramlee film up for review in the future, so watch this space.

Johnnyuma said...

Fezfest! More Ramlee, please! Shared the link at the PCL Link Dump. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to check out another P Ramlee movie. This is the only one I've seen. A full length version of Tiga Abdul can be seen on Veoh, if I recall correctly.

memsaab said...

How did I miss this post?

I have a fez with rhinestones and sequins in the shape of a scimitar on it!!!! I have been wishing I had a reason to wear it! (Okay, not really, because just wanting to wear it is reason enough.)

This looks fab.

Todd said...

It is fab. Watching it while wearing a rhinestone fez will make it even more so.