BY THE HAMMER
I will always remember the evening when ADOI Indonesia organized a private screening of Muallaf (in an early edited version) at a theatre in Pasaraya Grande in Blok M Jakarta. To an audience of about 100 participants (actually they were more like fans), what was to be a 10 minutes intro turned into a 30 minutes discourse on fate, humility, forgiveness and fame.
Yasmin Ahmad began (in her usual soft spoken manner) by quoting from the holy Quran ‘I am a drop in the ocean’ to an enraptured crowd who knew this was going to be a moveable feast beyond their imagination – a journey they’ll never forget. She questioned why we were presumptuous just because we created ads for the masses? Who was the real creator?
Which instantly reminded me of her stunning speech at the Cannes International Advertising Festival five years ago, titled ‘Who The Hell Do We Think We Are?’
On 24th June 2004, at the Cannes podium she examined what women looked for in ads and how marketers needed to treat women with greater respect than they had in the past, a contentious issue at the best of times.
She addressed how advertisers could be provided a way out: ‘winning women over’ without resorting to tricks and dishonest advertising. Taking the audience back to basics, she contended that this can be done through creative and effective strategies.
I was seated in the first few front rows and as Yasmin theatrically released her hair so it flowed down her beautiful white dress during the presesntation, her regional boss Linda Locke tapped me on my shoulder from behind cautioning me to stop giggling away. I was overthrilled Yasmin was having the time of her life deliberating on a subject so close to her heart!
In her early days in advertising, Yasmin moonshined as a mean blues pianist at Scandals pub in KL, occasionally creating a furore with her outspoken demeanour with blatant pronouncements, social commentary and jokes on everything from music and politics to false advertising and gender equality.
Now, back to the the screening of Muallaf in Jakarta; we adjourned to a nearby restaurant where she charmed the musicians on stage to let her play the piano. I sat next to her on the piano bench and sang Elton John’s Your Song whose lyrics were written by the inimitable Bernie Taupin. I am not a great singer but Yasmin just let me be (in her usual self-deprecating style).
I repeat the sentiments in the song here…
But the sun's been quite kind
while I wrote this song
It's for people like you
that keep it turned on
So excuse me forgetting
but these things I do
You see I've forgotten if they're green
or they're blue
Anyway the thing is
what I really mean
Yours are the sweetest
eyes I've ever seen
Questions always remain as whispers in the corridors of judgement.
Was Yasmin religious or spiritual? Was she a film maker or a film dabbler
(as she insisted)? Was she a story teller or someone who weaved tales to mesmerise us and make us believe in the impossible? Or as a learned friend recently put it ‘impossiboleh’. Regardless, one thing is for sure, she lived in God’s grace.
Once when she was 39 and someone teased her about touching 40, Yasmin procalimed excitedly, “I can’t wait. Then I’ll know what it is like to be an adult!”
A few years ago, Yasmin shot her first documentary commissioned by the ad agency she worked at, Leo Burnett. It was about the working class women of India: their dreams, their fears, what they thought of multi-national companies, how they created their own micro businesses to survive, what they hoped for their children...
The hour long film titled Voices at the Bottom of the Pyramid remains another masterpiece that illustrates her depth of understanding of India’s deep and chaotic social fabric.
She told theSun paper once, “"I fear arrogance on my part. When people say you are so good and you win so many awards, it is easy to be arrogant.”
By her own confession, Ahmad was unashamedly sentimental, a trait she shared with her cinematic hero Charlie Chaplin whom she admired for his juxtaposition of comedic and tragic elements. In her own work, she also strived to remind her audience what it was to be human.
"As I get older, I understand why one has to pray five times a day. Five times in a day you are reminded you are apart from God’s grace, you are nothing. That is very humbling."
Her movies, Rabun, Sepet, Gubra, Mukhsin, Muallaf and Talentime have won multiple awards internationally.
Unfortunately due to our self-superior local censorship board, some of them were not aired here in Malaysia. Even if they were, they were butchered. Her first feature film Sepet, a Romeo and Juliet story between a Malay middle class girl and a Chinese vendor of pirated VCDs, was only allowed to be screened in Malaysia after nine cuts were made. (The objectionable scenes included one shot that showed Orked's father tickling his wife in bed).
Which reminds me of a Claude Monet quote often repeated by Yasmin:
“Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it
were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.”
In a televised debate about what she thought of Finas debating her movies she retorted humbly, “Finas’ sessi expressi were more like sessi mengutuk!” Still, she maintained, “I cannot be angry at them for hating me. What would be the point, as it would defeat the message of love I’m trying to spread. One day, insyaAllah, God will guide them if indeed what I am doing is right.”
Even when a rival director - who was vocally dismissive of her ‘arty fluff ‘ - walked out of one of her showings, she just shrugged and went, “maybe my film is just bad… doesn’t mean a Yasmin Ahmad film has to be good…”
The censors swallowed a bitter pill a year later when Sepet upstaged Malaysia's most expensive film produced ever, Puteri Gunung Ledang, and swept six awards including Best Picture at the 18th at the Malaysian Film Festival!
In 2003, she made her first feature film, Rabun, a TV movie produced for TV3. In 2004, her first cinematic release Sepet, won her international accolades and awards such as the Grand Prix at the Creteil International Women’s Film Festival in France. Later that year, Sepet also picks up the Best Asian Film award at the Tokyo International Film festival.
In 2005, Yasmin receives the inaugural Hall of Fame Award at the Malaysian Creative Circle (MC2) Awards.
In 2006, Gubra wins the Best Screenplay award at the Malaysian Film Festival. And her films featured in a special retrospective at the Tokyo International Film Festival.
In 2007, local clerics slammed her movie Muallaf because its lead actress shaved her head for the role of a runaway girl, an act they said violated Muslim tenets by making a woman look like a man.
"I didn't expect this uproar," Yasmin told The Associated Press later. "But come to think of it, it's a Yasmin Ahmad film ...overseas it's always been good news. But here I get a lot of trouble."
That same year, Mukhsin, her ode to childhood love, garnered two awards – the Grand Prix from the Kinderfilmfest International Jury and a Generation K-Plus Crystal Bear Special Mention at the 57th Berlin International Film Festival, one of the top three film festivals in the world.
In 2007, she became the first Malaysian, and the first woman, to be inducted into Asia’s Campaign Brief Advertising Hall of Fame.
Last year, one of her television commercials for Petronas titled 'Tan Hong Ming' won a Gold Lion at Cannes, the first for a commercial from Malaysia, and it became the fourth-most awarded commercial of the year in the world.
In November 2008, she was inducted into the Malaysian Advertising Hall of Fame by the Association of Accredited Advertising Agents Malaysia.
Her latest film, Talentime, has been selected for this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, which will be held from Oct 17 to 25.
This year Yasmin had embarked on two international films: a Japanese movie called Wasurenagusa (Forget Me Not) with a Malaysian-Japanese cast and Go Thaddeus, a Singapore project about the inspiring life of the late Singaporean triathlete Thaddeus Cheong.
Reportedly, which came as a surprise to Yasminites like me, Reza Zainal Abidin writing for The Malaysian Insider revealed recently that during Yasmin’s funeral rites, “Mosque etiquette requires non-Muslims to stay within the compound of the mosque but not in the mosque building. But wince there were as many Muslims as there were non-Muslims, the mosque announced they would break with tradition and bring the body outside to allow non-Muslims to pay their last respects.”
Allahyarhamah Yasmin Ahmad shared with us one great lesson: In Malaysia we have people who are creative, but operationally or executionally we are flawed. That’s why she did justice to all her ideas by settling for nothing less than perfection when it came to execution. If we could all do that, we will not have to wait till 2020 before we become a fully developed nation!
I leave you all with this final thought from her…
“If you were a shepherd with 10 lambs, one of which had strayed, would you not leave the nine that did not stray, in search of the one that did? And when you found the one that strayed, would you not, for that moment, love it more than the nine that didn’t?”
An assuring sms Yasmin sent six years ago to a friend who was preparing for her Haj pilgrimage, and was overwhelmed with the mission ahead.