Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Movie mania

The Translator (a story from the King of the Sea) by Dina Zaman

Rosli had just finished teacher training, and had come back to his hometown. He wanted to live, teach and die there – never really took to the big cities like Johor, Bandar Melaka and Kuala Lumpur. It was enough what his kampong offered: a school, the sea, his friends, and family, and on a monthly basis, there was entertainment in form of makyong, silat, gamelan and now, the cinema.

Films had finally arrived in his kampong (Name: Kampung Tokku Mangkok; Demographics: 3000 pax, predominantly Malay; Industry: fishing) when he was studying in Johor. His mother had written to him, to tell him that, “… kampong kita dah maju… sekarang kami pun ada wayang macam kat bandar…”

What he loved the most was lying on his mattress and looking out to the jungle across his home. Tall, black and reedy trees with branches reaching out to the sky, and the sound of the breeze dancing through the long wild grass in the jungle always accompanied his daydreams. One day he could be a millionaire, the next, he was a pahlawan with a maiden he’d be ravishing behind a shrub. Sometimes he was a great singer too.

It had been his habit since he was young - looking out to the trees and fantasising about a better, colourful life than he had in reality. Even the colours of the sky changed! If he frowned hard enough, everything would be exactly what he had in his head, but if his mind wandered; his dreams had soft edges to them. A frequent colour which teased his dreams was bright pink which danced and tangoed its way before fading into pale blue.

He had always lived in his head. When he was in primary school, cycling to school with his late father, the trip through the jungle was made easier by his thoughts of comfort and heroics.

“Ching!” he shot at imaginary tigers and ghosts.

“Dah lah tu… pagi-pagi dah ching, ching,” his late father scolded mildly.

And here he was back again in the room he grew up in. It felt so small. He had left it for three years, to attend training as a Malay Language teacher. Frankly, he wanted to teach English, but his late father was enamoured by the former, and cajoled him into taking up the course.

“Kita tak boleh lupa bahasa kita. Kalau kita lupa, siapakah kita?”

He had been assigned to teach at his old school. It hadn’t come as a shock to him. It was quite a relief, truth be told. One had to be gregarious to work in a city, and he was too shy. He couldn’t sing, or engage with a class of city schoolchildren. He had little talent for art and language. City people required more stimulation. He enjoyed films though, and when he was back in the teacher training hostel, he’d pretend he was back in his home, looking at the trees, and the films he saw, he was in them. If daydreaming was a talent, he had it.

Yes, yes, village schoolchildren were easier. And he’d come back to some sort of a hero’s welcome, working as a teacher in his village. He quite fancied that, being a teacher of some respect because he was the village’s son who had come home to teach his own people. Yes, yes, he could live with that.

He was to begin teaching that week itself. An old teacher had taken ill, and they needed someone to teach the students language. He was fine by it.
“Mak,” he called out.

Mak had always been quiet. If arwah was alive, there would be some movement in the house. But it was a quiet and dull family he was from.

After a while, his mother came to his room. She looked puzzled.
“Why are you calling for me?”

He was silent. Why did he call out for Mak?

“Tak ada apa-apa, Mak. Just wanted to make sure you are fine.”

She looked at him.

“I am well.”

This was what he had wanted and planned. Wake up for subuh prayers, bathe, go to school, teach, finish teaching, and come home by five in the evening. When he was home, he performed all the tasks his late father did when he was alive, and when night came, he went to his room and slept early. And this went on for a few months. This life was perfect for him.

One day, the Guru Besar announced that the school was hosting a treat for the village! The government was bringing the movies to the school once a month now! On every fourth Friday, after Maghrib prayers, everyone who wanted to come was to assemble in the badminton court, sit on the ground and watch Hollywood and Malaya stars come alive on screen! This initiative was to br proud of as the government has now recognised the village! They weren’t living in the boondocks anymore!

Rosli was astounded by the news. When he was just a trainee teacher, he spent a lot of his free time going to the cinema. He had thought films were going to be an annual treat when he visited the town, upon him coming back to kampong. Masyallah, the movies were coming to their village! This was rahmat! Rahmat!

That very first Friday which was the fourth Friday of the month, almost everyone turned up at the school badminton court. They couldn’t believe that a film was going to be shown. Some of them had seen films when they visited relatives in the bigger towns, and most had seen film advertisements in magazines and newspapers. A lot more had heard of the films on radio and from more… knowledgeable… and sophisticated friends, who had seen greats like Elizabeth Taylor! Rock Hudson! Casablanca! Titles they had never heard of!

A small car was parked by the badminton court, and huge film reels were stacked upon each other. Two men were busy setting up the film. One of them had a tattoo. A white screen made of cloth was stretched between the badminton poles.
Rosli and the villagers chatted casually. Everyone was excited. The Guru Besar was busy, shaking hands with everyone.

“All right everyone settle down settle down,” the Guru Besar shouted. “The film is going to start soon!”

Like children, all the adults sat on the court, eagerly waiting for the film. They heard the projector cranking and a white beam of light shot out from the back. Almost everyone clapped. Then two words which almost no one recognised were displayed on the screen, “Les Belles.”

It was a good fifteen minutes before the audience started getting restless. All they saw was Chinese actors, and heard Chinese being spoken.

“Ha? What are they saying?”

“Cikgu,” someone asked the Guru Besar, “Pemende cakak tu? Dok Pahang.”

“Is that Chinese they are saying?”

“What’s that writing below?”

“This is stupid.”

The Guru Besar ran to the technicians, flustered. What film was this? There were people dancing and all, and obviously they were speaking, but no one understood. Wasn’t there a Malay film they could see? Or even an English one?

The technicians shrugged.

“Isn’t there anyone who can translate this into Malay?”

Rosli never knew what possessed him, but he put his hand out.

“I can.”

Everyone turned to look at him.

“I can understand Chinese.”

“You can?” The Guru Besar was incredulous.

Rosli couldn’t, of course. But he couldn’t explain it. He felt like his head was fogged up and that something, someone was telling him that he could understand, and all he had to do was repeat what he heard in his head. Something was pulling him up and pushing him to the screen. It was as if he was watching himself in a film too, walking slowly, among his friends and colleagues.

One of the actors spoke. “Ni haw ma,” she said.

Rosli responded, “How are you?”

He felt that the actor had stepped into his body. The next thing he knew, he was speaking out all the lines. Whether they meant what was said in the film was another thing, but his mouth and voice just could not stop verbalising what the actors were doing.

“You idiot! You hussy! Whore!” he yelped.

The two actresses on the film were seen having tea.

“You just wait, I’m going to get a gangster to shoot you for stealing my man!”

The actresses started dancing on film.

Rosli’s audience gaped. They looked at the screen and back at him.

“Are you sure?” one of the older ladies asked. “They seem to be friendly with each other.”

“Of course I’m sure. I understand Chinese! And the Chinese, what you see is not what they mean!”

The audience nodded slowly.

The Guru Besar sidled up to Rosli. “Can you help translate?”

Rosli nodded.

Ah, the feeling he felt from just standing and mouthing off whatever came to his head, and being looked at. The looks of awe and bewilderment from the audience. And that film, that night was the beginning of his true, real life. Before, he was contented. And now, now, he was a someone. Not just a teacher but someone who knew the language of films!

His students grew more attentive, and in the language classes, they competed with each other during reading and writing sessions. The women of the village, and even the men, would hail him over as he walked back home, to ask what really was the trouble between character A or B in a film.

Sometimes, Rosli would impress them by telling them that the film’s true meaning was really not what they had seen, but in the mind of the Pengarah Pilem.

“Ha? Pemende pulok pengaroh pilem ne?” they’d ask.

Rosli would cup his hand together and circle it around, as he did his best to explain what ART was.

“You’re very clever, Cikgu Rosli,” an old man said, his eyes wide behind his glasses.

“It’s Allah’s will,” he replied.

He didn’t know when he began to feel like this, but he began to resent the actors and the films he translated. True, the actors were just playing lives of made-up people and made-up situations, but they were leading lives that he wanted, other people dreamed of.

He was sure, after filming was over, the actors’ lives were as tragic or romantic as the films they worked on.

One night, he woke up, and felt his heart being gnawed at by jealousy and envy. Oh, he hated Humphrey Bogart, and that Sinatra guy. He wanted their looks, their women, their swagger. He had found a cinema magazine, and read up all the gossip on the actors, and despised them of their perfect lives.

He also began to feel contempt for his neighbours. The women were dark and ugly, not as pretty and slim as the Chinese actresses on film. The men were slothful in their dressing – now, if only they sported a cravat.

Even worse, he had begun to hate his life. His work. Everything was just dull, boring, bland. He wanted to be in the films! He wanted to be them!

He still was translating the films on Friday nights, but he began to be more frantic in his efforts.

Cikgu, you said that fellow said that he was angry with his father, but we see fairies dancing…”

“Keep quiet! How do you know? I’m the translator! Shut up!”

The villagers stared at him.

“Shut up! Shut up! I’m the translator, I would know!”

Cikgu, are you well in the head?”

He screamed.

The villagers panicked and called the Guru Besar, who huffed down the path in his sarong, with his sons. They grabbed Rosli, and brought him back to his house.

A bomoh’s services was sought, and Rosli was advised to sleep for a week. He had been possessed by some of the film characters, and they wanted to go back into the screen but couldn’t, as they were trapped in his body.

“So what do we do now?” Rosli’s mother asked.

“In a week, take him to the court again. If he translates like before, that means the demons have gone, but if he goes crazy again, then we will have a lot of work to do.”

All this, Rosli heard. Stupid simple-minded villagers! Bodoh lembu! There were no spirits in him, it was just envy and hatred for this life he had. Was this to be his life, to teach and translate every film on Friday nights? Babi, he screamed silently.

The next one week, he stayed at home, sleeping. He hardly took a bath; he felt no need. All he wanted to do was wait for Friday night, and translate again. He may envy those lives, but he could not deny the rush and pride he felt when his simple minded friends clapped and cheered at the end of a film.

That Friday night, they showed Casablanca. Everyone was awed by Ingrid Bergman’s cool beauty. And who didn’t think Bogart was cool, and handsome?

Rosli felt feverish. Suddenly, the film he was translating felt like a foreign film; like he was watching a film within a film. He was drawn to it.

“Cikgu?” one of his students asked.

Rosli walked closer to the screen.


“Cikgu Rosli! If you go any closer, the screen will tear and we can’t watch the film!”

“Eh, Cikgu kena sampuk ke?”

“Aaaa Cikgu buat apa tu?!”

Rosli could only see Ingrid’s lips. He greeted her in Bogart’s voice.

“Tolong! Tolong!” the audience shouted.

He heard them scream and shout, but he ignored them. He was going to join Bogart and Bergman in the film, and he was going to forget that life he had as a teacher and a lying translator. He reached out for them.

When he did turn back to look at his former life, he saw a torn screen, with puzzled and frightened villagers looking for him, through the tear, behind the screen, everywhere around the court and screen. He laughed and turned away, and disappeared into the blackness.