Thursday, November 25, 2010

P Ramlee: A tragedy that no Talent Corp could have saved

P Ramlee composed this last song, before his death on 29 May 1973

P Ramlee's last movie "Laksamana Do Re Mi" before his death

This excellent article was written by The Ampas Man - the story evolves around the legendary P. Ramlee - whose super human talent was not recognised by the government, hence contributed to his downfall and his subsequent death, broke and broken..

How heart-wrenching

P. Ramlee Biodata

P. Ramlee (b. 22 March 1929, Penang- d.29 May 1973) was the quintessential Malay entertainer par excellence- actor, director, composer and singer. Despite being unschooled in music and the performing arts, Ramlee attained the heights of a legend, with an impressive track record of having acted in 65 films and sung 390 songs. Closely linked to the golden era of Malay movies, P. Ramlee is an icon in the Malay entertainment scene in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

Early Life

P. Ramlee was born Teuku Zakaria bin Teuku Nyak Pute on 22 March 1929 in his grandmother's house at 40A Counter Hall in Penang, Malaysia. His father, Teuku Nyak Puteh, was a sailor from Lhokseumawe in Aceh, Indonesia. His Acehnese ancestry later led Ramlee to enjoy considerable fame in Indonesia. Ramlee also had a stepbrother, borne of his mother, Che Mah Hussein's previous marriage.

Ramlee studied in several schools, namely Kampung Jawa Malay School, Francis Light English School, the Japanese Navy School Kaigun Gakko during World War II, and Penang Free School. He was an active sportsman, excelling particularly in badminton, sepak takraw and football.


Ramlee did not receive formal training in the performing arts. Yet, he had an extremely impressive career, having acted in 65 films and directed 34 feature films.

In 1945, Ramlee entered a singing contest organised by Penang Radio for North Malaya and emerged third. He was the runner-up in the same contest held in 1946, and the winner in 1947. Ramlee's big break came when Tamil film director, B. S. Rajhans, spotted him on 1 June 1948 at a cultural festival where he sang his own composition, Azizah. Rajhans then invited Ramlee to be a back-up singer for the Malay Films Productions (a film studio set up by the Shaw Brothers at Jalan Ampas, Singapore, in 1947). Impressed with Ramlee, Rajhans cast him in a 1949 film, Nasib (Fate).

In 1955, Ramlee directed his first film, Penarek Becha (Trishaw Man). Ramlee acted in all the films he directed except Panca Delima, a 1957 production. The comedic films that Ramlee acted in from 1957 are still popular among contemporary Malay film watchers. The first of these was Bujang Lapok (Dowdy Bachelors), which co-starred S. Shamsuddin and Aziz Sattar. His final film was Laksamana Do Re Mi (Do Re Mi 3), which was released in 1972.

In April 1964, he moved to Kuala Lumpur to join Merdeka Film Productions. Of the 34 films he directed, 18 were shot in Kuala Lumpur.

Besides directing and acting, Ramlee also composed, wrote and sang 390 songs. Noted for his musical versatility, Ramlee explored a repertoire of genres, ranging from jazz to joget (a popular Malay folk dance). The last song he composed and sang was Ayer Mata Di Kuala Lumpur in 1973.

Ramlee also acted in two television series, Intan (1971) and Rantau Selamat (1972), which were written by Abdullah Hussain. In addition, he directed four stageplays, namely Jiwa Putera Melayu (1956), Sultan Mahmood Mangkat Di Julang (1959), Damaz (1962) and Sam Pek Ang Tai (1972). Ramlee also produced, directed and wrote two radio dramas, Jiwa Putera Melayu (1955) and Rantau Selamat (1972).

Living Legacy
Ramlee died of a heart attack on 29 May 1973 at the age of 44 years. He was buried at the Muslim cemetery of Jalan Ampang in Kuala Lumpur. Ramlee's influence on Malay popular culture is undeniable. His films continue to be enjoyed on television, and his films and music have been adopted by succeeding generations. Many expressions in popular Malay culture either originate or were popularised by Ramlee, with lines from his films still being quoted today.

Ramlee is well honoured for his contributions to the Malaysian entertainment industry. In Kuala Limpur, Jalan Parry was renamed Jalan P. Ramlee in 1982 and the P. Ramlee Memorial was set up in Setapak in 1986. In the early 1990s, Ramlee was awarded with the honorific title of Tan Sri posthumously.

Today, fans continue to flock to Ramlee's birthplace, known as P. Ramlee House, where his memorabilia are on display. Once known as Taman Furlong, the residential area has been renamed Taman P. Ramlee.


Ramlee married three times. His first wife was Junaidah Daeng Harris, whom he wed in 1950. The couple had two children before they divorced in 1954. He then married Noorizan Mohd Noor in 1955 and they were divorced in 1961. That year, Ramlee married singer Salmah Ismail, more popularly known as Saloma. He had seven children in total- three of whom were adopted and one a stepson borne of Saloma.

Ramlee's son, Nasir P. Ramlee has also re-recorded new renditions of his father's songs, and has starred and directed sequels to his father's films.

1956: Best Musical Score for Hang Tuah (Legend of Hang Tuah)- Third Asian Film Festival, Hong Kong.
1957: Best Male Actor for Anak-ku Sazali (My son, Sazali)- Fourth Asian Film Festival, Tokyo.
1960: Best Comedy Film for Nujum Pak Belalang (Fortune Teller) -Seventh Asian Film Festival, Tokyo.
1963: Most Versatile Talent for Ibu Mertua Ku (My Mother In-law)- Tenth Asian Film Festival, Tokyo.
1964: Best Comedy Film for Madu Tiga (Three Rivals)- Eleventh Asian Film Festival, Taipei.
P Ramlee: A tragedy that no Talent Corp could have saved

And the heart wrenching article by The Ampas Man

By The Ampas Man

Question: Di Mana Kan Ku Cari Ganti?
Answer: Not in Malaysia

Those who watched the heart wrenching P Ramlee documentary on the History Channel on Oct 31, 2010 must have gone to bed with a heavy heart.

It transpired that Malaysia's one and only film icon had died penniless and shunned by the public, including his own colleagues.

And the way it was done appears to have uncanny resemblances to what's happening today in Malaysia, almost 45 years after Ramlee returned to Malaysia.

The documentary, narrated by British actor, Timothy Watson and was 12 years in the making included precious interviews by some of his friends, actors and actresses who had passed on. The underlying tone was one of profound melancholy.

Ramlee, borne out of poverty along Caunter Hall Road at an Achenese community in Penang , had to endure the brutal Japanese occupation whose schools incidentally inculcated a certain discipline in him.

In his formative years then, this discipline proved crucial as a founding platform for his eventual brilliance, creativity and innovation in film and music.

He subsequently gained phenomenal success at Shaw brother's Jalan Ampas studios in Singapore. His success at Jalan Ampas was the apparent result of the studio's incredible milieu of experienced film crew, choreographers and directors which the Shaw brothers had assembled from India, Hong Kong and Indonesia.

With the load of management and finance off his shoulders, Ramlee was able to thrive and focus on his talent of creating music, acting and eventually direction, screenplay and editing.

The Shaw brothers invested and created such a conducive environment at Ampas that Singapore became the Mecca for the Malay film industry for an entire genre of actors and actresses from the whole of the Malay Archipelago from Pontianak to Penang to Medan.

Apart from Ramlee, Ampas provided careers for other actors and actresses like Nordin Ahmad, S Kadarisman, Ahmad Daud, Normadiah, Saloma and Saadiah.

But this talent could not have been developed without the expertise of directors such as BS Rajan, L Krishnan and Phani Majumdar. Directors such as Majumdar already had something like 15 years experience in directing films in various languages in Calcutta and Bombay before they came to Singapore.

It was on this wealth of experience that the Malay film industry flourished.

Majumdar directed Ramlee in ‘Anakku Sazali' which won Ramlee Best Actor in 1956. And when Majumdar returned to India, he discovered another great Indian actor, Feroz Khan and directed Khan in his first big hit ‘Oonche Log' in 1965. Yes, it was happy times then at No 8 Jalan Ampas and Boon Kheng Road. But it had to end. Or so it seems.

Things appear to have taken a turn for the worse during the confusion of the Malaysia-Singapore separation of 1963 when Lee Kuan Yew had trouble reigning a tight leash on trade unions involving Lim Chin Siong, and his own PAP leaders led by Che' Awang and Devan Nair.

Ramlee appears to have been an inadvertent victim of the unions' unreasonable demands leading Shaw brothers to call it a day at Jalan Ampas when they couldn't keep up with unions' demands for higher pay.

Other views suggest that Ramlee was poached and enticed to return to Malaysia which he did in 1964. Wrong step it seems. All promises in Malaysia were not kept by his new masters. Sounds very, very familiar here.

Merdeka studios was poorly equipped and its rookie staffing meant the legend had to multitask which ended up eventually in him churning out shoddy movies. All 18 movies he directed in Malaysia flopped. Sounds like the same stories we hear from some of our Malaysians "trying" to return home from overseas.

Ramlee lost his glitter, his money and his fame. His partner and colleague, HM Shah, tried to form a company called Perfima to enable Ramlee to relaunch his career and produce his dream of colour films.

But Perfima apparently ended up in the hands of inexperienced and connected cronies leaving the talented Ramlee then, as in now, even as a Malay, blatantly unrecognised, ignored and out in the cold.

The documentary brutally exposes how Ramlee tried in vain to set up P Ramlee productions, but was again shut out by this country's media and entertainment industry including RTM.

He had to sit in the canteen at Ankasapuri while Saloma had her own show in RTM! He could not secure any government aid, grants or ‘Private Financial Initiatives' despite his passion for Malay music and culture.

He tried to reinvent himself and sought a bank loan - but was rejected! With his wealth of experience and in his early 40s then, he should have easily qualified.

Poor Ramlee didn't know that in Malaysia it is the "know who" that counts than the "know how". If he had known George Tan from the Carrian Group then, Ramlee may have received a few million from BMF without even having to pay back. Or he should have "nurtured" some connections like how some luminaries have.

Ramlee by now, tragically stressed out, overweight, disheveled, completely down and out with passion and spirit broken, had to now do almost any job he could including running mahjong tables and singing at weddings and other functions to put food on the table for his family. He had to live on rice and eggs.

It was truly ‘Air Mata di Kuala Lumpur' for Ramlee. A court summons a day prior to his death for being a guarantor finally tipped the balance and did him in when he suffered a massive heart attack and he died on May 29, 1973 at the age of 44.

On the day he died, there was no rice in his house. And Saloma had no money for his funeral. The man and legend, P Ramlee paid a very heavy price for returning to Malaysia. The country just did not have the infrastructure, manpower and expertise to accommodate his enormous talent.

He would have been better off in Singapore even with the unions there. He would not have gone broke in the club and wedding scene there and perhaps Singapore TV could have given him a break as compared to our own RTM.

All the belated accolades and titles were meaningless as far as the man himself was concerned. He died hopelessly broke and broken.

The documentary is not only an eye opener but a very good case study for anyone contemplating returning home to Malaysia.

Whether you are a scientist, engineer, accountant, doctor, etc, beware of the conditions enticing you to return.

If your kid is an aerospace engineer, a naval architect or a transplant surgeon, it's a no brainer that he/she should not return at all unless you are absolutely sure the country has the infrastructure and skilled manpower to support these fields.

Don't believe in these stories that you should come home to "help" and "develop" your areas of expertise. That's not going to happen. That sort of thing will only go to the chaps who have the connections.

Assess any offer carefully and do not trust anyone including this government. Make certain all agreements are enforceable in Singapore and the UK.

In retrospect P Ramlee, with no formal education but was able to compose more than 360 songs and 66 movies, probably returned to a society that was not developed nor had the brainpower and skills to match up to his vision.

In short he was just surrounded with a whole lot of officials and journalists with serious hangups who were not interested in the industry itself. There was no driving force like the Shaw brothers.

And the prevailing attitude at that time and probably even now was and still is a third class mentality. In an environment such as this, no one with creativity, innovation, skills and brains can ever hope to survive let alone thrive.

It's better they stay back where they can develop and nurture their talent. If a star as bright as Ramlee could be extinguished with such impunity, the rest are nothing.

Ramlee and his entire family were wiped out financially despite his immense talent. But he remains still till this day, the Malay Archipelago's cinematic legend. With apologies...

Hancur badan dikandung tanah
Budi baik dikenang juga
Biar alam hancur dan musnah
Jasa mu tetap dikenang juga

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