This blog reminds me sometimes of a sort of railway platform—the type from the Sunil Dutt-Nalini Jaywant starrer, where a bunch of people end up spending several days in each other’s company, and then go their separate ways. Because, while there are some loyal friends who stick to this blog (and have done so over the years), the majority of people who comment on it are those who stay for a few months, a few weeks, maybe even just a few days, commenting like mad, and then vanish, never to be seen again.
One such person was a Malaysian, of Indian origin but settled in Australia, who haunted my blog several years ago. After some very hectic commenting on just about every post I published (and that included multiple comments, and involved conversations), she asked me for some Agony Aunt-ish advice offline, and having received both that as well as a shoulder to cry on, went off. I haven’t heard from her ever since.
But one thing she did manage to do while she was frequenting this blog: she told me enough about Malaysian cinema of the 50s and 60s to make me want to watch it. Something, I realized soon enough, that wasn’t going to be easy, because there didn’t seem to be too many Malaysian films of that era that were available with English subtitles.
I’ve persevered, though, and sometime back I found time one. Pendekar Bujang Lapok (The Three Bachelor Warriors) is the second in a highly successful series of films made by iconic film-maker and actor P Ramlee. It has been called one of the five best Malaysian films to be shot in Singapore, and considering I’ve just returned from a trip to Singapore, I figured it was time to watch this.
Pendekar Bujang Lapok (which won the Best Comedy Award at the 6th Asian Film Festival) begins in a crowded boathouse on a hot afternoon. The boathouse is managed by a bunch of goons who go about pushing and shoving the crowd of hopeful passengers. The men are shoved roughly into line; the women find themselves being ogled, and one of the thuggish staffers even steals a few bananas off one woman.
In the midst of all of this, the owner of the boathouse arrives. This (Ahmed Nisfu) is a very wealthy old man, and his staff immediately starts fawning over him. When the only empty boat at the dock is commandeered by the boss so that he can cross over—all alone—one of the many people who’ve been waiting all this while voices a protest. This man (Mustarjo) says that he’s been waiting a long time to get across, and with little success (because, though he doesn’t say so, the goons in charge have been filling up each little boat with pretty ladies). He’s been pushed around for protesting, and now, whether or not the boss likes it, he will go on this boat.
Naturally, the boss gets furious and unleashes his thugs on the man. They pull him out onto the grass outside the boathouse. Inside the boathouse, the other passengers sitting around wait, some with passive expressions and some with concern etched on their faces. Shortly after, the din of battle dies down and the door is flung open. In comes the aspiring passenger, and in a foul mood, too.
He proceeds to put paid to other thugs the boss unleashes at him, and then, flinging the boss aside, he gets into the boat and goes off.
All of this is watched, with wide eyes and much awe, by the other people in the boathouse. No sooner has the triumphant man—he calls himself Pendekar Mustar (‘Warrior Mustar’)—gone off in the boat than the boathouse erupts. All the passengers, bullied and harried by the goons all day long, set upon their tormentors and basically beat the hell out of them. The boss is thrown into the water—along with some of his goons—and it becomes a free-for-all.
Among the people who’ve been sitting at the boathouse waiting for a boat are three friends, Ramlee, Sudin and Aziz (played, respectively, by P Ramlee, S Shamsuddin, and Aziz Sattar). These three, seeing their chance, decide to make a run for one of the boats. One of them robs the cash till (and doesn’t realize till much later that because his pocket has a hole in it, all the money falls right out). They quickly commandeer a boat and go off across the water…
When they come ashore, they’re somewhat lost: where are they? Some looking around, and they make their way to a biggish building, which they think is a circus, though it turns out to be a school for illiterate adults. The school’s just given over, and after the pupils leave, so do their teachers. One of these, the pretty Rose (Rose Yatimah), catches the eye of the three friends (the ‘three bachelors’, or bujang lapok’). They stare goggle-eyed at her and then proceed, shamelessly, to follow her.
Rose glares at them and tries to shake them off, but none of this has any effect on the bujang lapok; they continue to follow her, right up to her home. Rose bursts in through the front gate, sees her father in the yard, and complains to him about these three worthless fellows (she’s convinced they’re thieves) who’ve followed her home.
Daddy, commendably, leaps to the defence of his daughter. Literally leaps, too, jumping about and showing some fine martial arts moves.
… at which point, the bujang lapok recognize him. This is Pendekar Mustar, the man who single-handedly beat up the goons at the boathouse! They want nothing more than to be trained by him, to become warriors like him. Before Pendekar Mustar knows what’s happening, the three friends have lifted him up onto their shoulders and are showering him with praise.
To Rose’s horror, Daddy forgets all his duty towards his daughter and agrees happily to train the bujang lapok. Worse still, he insists that they come in, have coffee, stay in his house…
Rose’s mother (Momo Latiff) is no better. She takes a liking to the three young men and is eager to have them stay, too, so an incensed Rose, feeling betrayed and angry, retreats to her own room and refuses to eat anything.
Soon enough, both her parents come to have a conversation with her, to try and understand what she’s so upset about and to persuade her that their new and unexpected guests are good men, not the ruffians she has taken them to be. Since this chat is going on right next door to the room in which the bujang lapok are now lodged—and the walls are thin—they realize just what a faux pas they made by following Rose from the school to her home.
They’d better apologize, says Ramlee, and they draw lots to see who will do it. And draw lots again, because each time one of them hears someone coming down the corridor and jumps out to apologize to Rose, it turns out that the person outside is someone else. The maidservant, Aini (Aini Jasmin) finds herself being introduced to all three of the men; Rose’s mother suddenly finds herself being asked if they can have some coffee, and Pendekar Mustar himself sees an impromptu show of martial arts from Ramlee.
By the time Rose puts in an appearance, the bujang lapok have lost their nerve, a bit, and are also too late. She vanishes into her room, and they decide to sing her a song by way of apology instead. (The song which follows isn’t subtitled, so I have no idea what the three men sing, but it seems to work, because by the time they finish, Rose is smiling). Rose writes something on a page from a notebook, and having folded up the note, slips it under their door.
What Rose doesn’t know is that these men can’t read to save their lives. They also, though they’ve been friends ‘since they were born’ (as they proudly tell Pendekar Mustar), refuse to admit to each other what is an open secret anyway. Aziz pretends the note contains poetry and rattles off some; Ramlee grabs the note from him and attempts to read it, before giving up, grumbling that he doesn’t have his specs, and it’s so dark in here…
Eventually Sudin snatches the note from the ‘illiterates’, as he dubs his mates, and proceeds to read it—in Arabic, since that’s what he says this language is.
All of this, they realize, is not going anywhere, so they give in and go to Aini, requesting her to read the letter for them. Aini does. Rose has said she accepts the bujang lapok’s apology, and has forgiven them. She would like to meet any one of them at 1 AM that night.
This, as can be expected, is a big relief for the three men—but it also causes a rift. Who will go and meet her? Ramlee says he should, since he’s the eldest of the three, but when Aziz and Sudin get belligerent about it, Ramlee says the matter is best resolved by nobody going. Let’s go to sleep.
But matters don’t rest there, for various reasons. One is that all three of these bachelors are completely and totally besotted by the pretty Rose and are not above giving the slip to their own bosom buddies in an attempt to steal a march over them when it comes to wooing her. Then, there’s the fact that all three of them are illiterate, and that’s bound to emerge one of these days…
… most importantly, there’s the owner of the boathouse, who is furious with Pendekar Mustar (for thrashing his goons and humiliating him) and with the bujang lapok (for robbing his cash till and taking off in his boat).
I will admit I couldn’t see why Pendekar Bujang Lapok won the Best Comedy Award at the Asian Film Festival (unless 1959 was a bad year for Asian comedy). It is a frothy and light-hearted enough film, but the comedy itself is not especially funny, unless somewhat repetitive slapstick floats your boat. I can see why it would be liked by lots of people—there’s not a low moment here, nothing that depresses—but for me, at least, it didn’t quite match up to expectations.
What I liked about this film, and what I didn’t like:
Both together, since they’re tied up.
One of the elements of Pendekar Bujang Lapok that I really liked was the music. Composed and sung by (among others) P Ramlee himself, the songs are lovely: light-hearted, somewhat beachy, Hawaaiian folk-song type music, gentle and melodious and just generally easy listening.
The three main characters, played by Ramlee, Aziz and Shamsuddin: they’re nuts, they’re clowns, they have few scruples, but despite all of that, they’re thoroughly likable men. Goofy, more than a little dumb, but brimming with self-confidence and pep and joie de vivre: the bujang lapok are not ones to be bogged down by the troubles fate sends their way (or which, more often than not, they seem to bring upon themselves).
The problem in this film lies mostly in the unevenness of the script. The first half hour or so is interesting and funny, as the stage is set for the bujang lapok to become the disciples of Pendekar Mustar and to go goggle-eyed over Rose. The last fifteen minutes, when the irate goons and their furious boss finally arrive to have their vengeance on Mustar and his men are also funny. Slapstick funny in some ways, but still.
The part between those two bookends is, by comparison, forced, as if P Ramlee (who wrote and directed Pendekar Bujang Lapok as well) was trying somehow to fill in the space. The songs are good, and there are comic elements throughout (one thing I will say in support of the film is that it never gets heavy or dreary)—the problem is that the comic elements are too protracted, and at times, for me too slapstick. The idea of repeating every funny thing, in slightly changed forms, is a bad one. One lovelorn bachelor trying to give his snoring friends the slip to go off and meet a pretty girl is funny. Three doing it, in just slightly different ways, dulls the funniness. One illiterate trying to identify a letter in an alphabet at adult school is funny; three doing it (again in mildly different ways), isn’t.
Final verdict: not a great film, but not a terrible one, either. While I probably wouldn’t watch this one again, I wouldn’t be averse to trying out some of the other films in the Bujang Lapok series, just to compare.