Monday, May 29, 2006


Can Nasha Aziz’s backside really cause traffic accidents?
And can “Lantai T. Pinkie” prevent them?
By Shanon Shah 22-05-2006
In keeping with the level of official discourse on the arts in this country, the bureaucratic gaze of our guardians recently fixed itself upon the backside of Nasha Aziz. Apparently, municipal officials deemed that public display of Lantai T. Pinkie’s poster, featuring the kebaya-clad derriere of Nasha, who plays the title role, would cause traffic accidents.
Tokyo had Godzilla. KL has Nasha Aziz. (Nashilla?) Anyway, Malaysia boleh, beb. Dasar pandang ke timur!
In case it isn’t clear already, let me say that I thus went to watch this most recent adaptation of A. Samad Said’s Lantai T. Pinkie (28 Apr – 7 May 2006, Istana Budaya) with a somewhat heightened sense of indignation. I wanted it to be good.
The original play is said to have captured the spirit and nuances of Malaya in the 1950s, and this restaging of the musical adaptation by Persatuan Penulis Wanita Malaysia (PPWM) dan CTRA Productions is meant to be a show of gratitude to the ongoing artistic endeavours of its author. Pinkie portrays the lives of women joget dancers in Singapore after World War II. (The synopsis in the programme notes makes them sound like the 50s Malay equivalent of geisha.) T. Pinkie, the title character, is apparently the most beautiful of the dancers in her joget club, the Bunga Joget Moden. She is the object of fancy of two men – the good guy Muhairi, one of the club’s musicians, and the bad (and I mean really bad) guy, Gunjoloh, one of the club’s patrons. As the play unfolds, we witness the lives of the other characters as well – Nyai Sunarti, one of the more experienced joget dancers, Puteh Su Abdullah, the virginal Chinese migrant convert to Islam who relentlessly pursues Jongkidin Jaroi, a retired sailor. Eventually, Pinkie marries Gunjoloh under duress. She has a child with him, tries to escape but is found out by Gunjoloh and gets thrown out by him instead. Gunjoloh tries to track her down to make life miserable for her, but Pinkie manages to find Muhairi again and escapes with him to Sarawak.
The plot contained all the ingredients for a promising piece of musical theatre. And yet, sadly, it didn’t work for me.
It may be just me, but I found the musical arrangement, by Pak Ngah, highly cheesy and sterile. It made the songs sound like a montage of 80s RTM patriotic song. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing. I mean I really wouldn’t have minded a cheesy musical arrangement for the right cheese could have been a great way to capture the era. But instead, in addition to the sterile musical numbers, there was also some very “drama” musical accompaniment to many of the supposedly intimate dialogue and monologue scenes, effectively sapping the dramatic tension out of these scenes. And to top it all off, a majority of the musical numbers featured pre-recorded singing, which is something that severely compromises the potential of any live performance.
The script, adapted by director Rosminah Tahir from Pak Samad’s play of the same name, was also overlong. Several scenes and monologues could have been cut down to a quarter of their original length, or thrown out altogether, and the story would have flowed better. The clumsy direction also resulted in some unintended comedy of Ed Wood-ian proportions during the final scenes, which were supposed to be suspenseful (Pinkie and Muhairi’s escape) and tragic (the war befalling Sarawak), but instead looked like a scene from Lang Buana.
But enough about what didn’t work. Strangely, there were actually several things about Lantai T. Pinkie that did work, albeit not enough to save the entire production. The costumes and the set were just delicious. Usually, I won’t like sets that are too literal or costumes that look like they fell off a pageant – these are usually the result of a lack of appreciation for what is truly theatrical. However, in this case, the detail in the set and the pageantry of the costumes – especially the kebayas – actually helped to recreate not only the sensuality but also the bruised optimism of the era.
Also, in his many works, Pak Samad has created some very complex and intriguing characters. Pinkie and Nyai Sunarti are perfect examples of this. Nasha Aziz usually gets a lot of flak, but seeing her act for the first time, I’m convinced that she didn’t do a shabby job at all. Granted, she wasn’t really given much to do; Pinkie is definitely a complex character, but I felt she was a tad underwritten compared to the showier Nyai Sunarti.
However, there were flashes of depth and meaning in Nasha’s characterisation of Pinkie. For example, in one scene she complains to Muhairi that Gunjoloh keeps sexually harassing her. Muhairi places the blame on Pinkie’s buxom behind. With a backside like that, Muhairi asks, how could she not expect to be harassed? Instead of flying into a rage, Nasha chose to make Pinkie’s response a mixture of disappointment, disgust and incredulity: “Kau ingin memandang wanita seperti mereka?” (“You want to view women like they do [in reference to Gunjoloh and his cronies]?”)
The very watchable Azizah Mahzan’s portrayal of Nyai Sunarti was quite riveting. Initially exploding onstage like a Javanese Mae West, Azizah eventually showed us Sunarti’s precarious emotions when talking about her colonialist dream guy, Tuan De La Rosa. Sunarti certainly complicated perceptions of women’s experiences of colonialism. Nationalist and anti-colonialist movements often recruit women in the larger struggle against colonial powers. Whether in Mindanao or Aceh, women are encouraged to take up arms against colonial oppressors. But what of gender inequality within these nationalist struggles? Women in Mindanao might actively participate in guerilla warfare, but they are still denied full and equal rights within marriage and within the home, and are ostracised if they do not fit into nationalist ideals of femininity.
Nyai Sunarti is a perfect example of someone who falls out of nationalistic constructions of femininity. A Javanese migrant to Singapore, she is vulnerable in both the financial and social sense. She is neither rich nor does she have the approval of ‘polite’ society as a joget dancer. So, she hangs on and obsesses over the only validating relationship she has. She rationalises, “Tuan De La Rosa memang dianggap penjajah, tetapi untuk aku dia itu seorang penjajah yang baik.” (“It’s true, people regard Master De La Rosa as a colonialist, but to me he is a kind colonialist.”)
It is these layers in the characters of Pinkie and Nyai Sunarti that kept me in my seat until the end of the play. For example, there was a touching scene in which Pinkie and Nyai Sunarti confide in each other. Pinkie starts by expressing her indignation at being sexually harassed by Gunjoloh. Nyai Sunarti, missing Tuan De La Rosa, tells Pinkie not to give up hope on all men. “There are men whose love for us, Pinkie, is for who we truly are, and not an expression of their lust.” Incredulous, Pinkie asks, “Do such men really exist?”
And guess what? This question begs an indignant response indeed: how else are we supposed to feel when the stupidity of some of our public officials and opinion leaders appears to validate Pinkie’s incredulity towards men? I’m not just talking about the reaction toward Lantai T. Pinkie’s poster. I’m also talking about people who accuse divorced women for being “horny”, or people who tell women that if they get raped they should just “sit back and enjoy it”, or people who say that employment opportunities should only be extended to “ugly” women. The list goes on and on. And these are all indicators of a truly lamentable state of affairs in this country, in which people do not know they are being sexist when they are being sexist.
But this is why I think the people behind this production actually do have a reason to push the envelope further. Besides, it’s a commendable team of people anyway, especially the Persatuan Penulis Wanita Malaysia, which actually tries to promote women writers and their works. It’s just that the entire musical needs to be readapted to focus mainly on T. Pinkie and Nyai Sunarti and their relationship with each other. There is enough of a coherent story – not to mention gender and political analysis – here for a full-length musical. A more intelligent musical arrangement and live singing wouldn’t hurt, either. And, just for kicks, how about creating some protest posters of a fifty-foot Pinkie climbing up the Twin Towers, wielding her stiletto heel against all who dare to criticise her butt?

Shanon Shah is a singer-songwriter with an album, Dilanda Cinta


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