My Mother-In-Law (1962) Ibu Mertuaku

Country: Malaysia
Language: Malay
Director: P Ramlee
Starring: P Ramlee, Sarimah, Ahmad Mahmud, Mak Dara, Ahmad Nisfu
Theme: Romance

IMDB: 6.4/10

Film Festivals:
1963 Asian Film Festival
1963 Paris International Film Festival

Awards: 1963 Asian Film Festival (Tokyo) — Most Versatile Talent

Ibu Mertuaku (1962) is one of the cinematic masterpieces from the seminal filmmaker P. Ramlee, who also took on the lead protagonist role of Kassim Selamat in the film. Centering on the tragic love affair between the poor musician and Sabriah (Samirah), the only daughter of a wealthy widow, the movie takes a sorry turn midway with a distinct paradigmic shift in the tone of the film from that of a light-hearted comedy to a tragic melodrama.

Sabriah is a major fangirl of Kassim Selamat and harbors a major crush on him. So major, in fact, that she calls in on a radio programme that he is a live musician for (in a sign of anachronism where radio dramas were still in fad). Flirting with him, she arranges for a meet-up that very night in a several comedic scenes, and they fall in love. But her widowed mother disapproves, given the proletariat background of the poor musician, and proceeds to disown her, the mother’s plans to matchmake her with a wealthy eye doctor foiled. They travel to Malaysia for a life of poverty, and Sabriah persuades Kassim Selamat to give up his love of music and become an odd-job labourer (how being an ordinary construction site worker without any specific skill is any better than being a talented musician actually baffles me) with the conviction that as long as Kassim Selamat is not involved in music, her mother would more readily take them back into the family and provide for them. They live in poverty in the basement of a mansion. But that is to no avail. Sabriah gets pregnant, and returns to Singapore to give birth when the manipulative mother sends a note to Kassim Selamat that his wife died during childbirth. Housed in the basement, we see a postman handing him the postcard in a scene that has the postman looking down on Kassim (00:13, Part 6) as he stands by the doorway. The devastated Selamat cried himself blind and his talents were soon rediscovered at a house he took lodging at. In a twist of fate, he becomes a regional talent and touring the region brought him back to Singapore under a pseudonym, where his ex-wife was in the audience to watch his performance. Guilty, she persuades her eye doctor husband to give him a free eye operation, and what ensues is an exposé of the cruelty of the mother amid Kassim’s disappointment of Sabriah.

I am however baffled with certain plot decisions, though these would be necessary for the development of the story. For instance, can’t Sabriah just stay away knowing the sheer amount of pain she has caused Kassim Selamat, and that she is nothing but trouble? Why must she be around to see Kassim following the eye operation? Does she really expect the “uncanny resemblance” excuse to work? Given Sabriah’s closeness to her mother and how much she listens to her, wouldn’t she have warned her mother that Kassim was back? Why did her mother-in-law so readily see Kassim Selamat considering how she had manipulated him in the past? Does she really expect history to not catch up with her, for Kassim to want to visit the grave of his ex-wife? Indeed, the ensuing tragedy could really very much have been awarded, a melodramatic sequence that betrays reality. In the climax that involved the famous explicit and gory eye-stabbing scene, P Ramlee shoots the cutlery on display on the wall at an angle (who on earth displays cutlery on the wall in a bedroom!) that follows Kassim Selamat’s gaze as he sits by the bed contemplating reality and his subsequent actions. The camera cuts between Kassim Selamat and the forks several times, thereby attributing huge significance to the otherwise innocuous forks. The camera shows Selamat approaching the fork and picking it up, gathering courage, but cuts away at the direct point of impact to a scene of his current love, Chombin, who wakes up with a start screaming (2:15; Part 13). Through semiotics, we know what has happened. The camera then cuts back to Kassim Selamat and his bloodied eyes, with the clichéd lightning as accompaniment to the intensity of what had happened, that payback and retribution had befallen the rich family as chaos take over.

The film was a contemporary criticism of the rich-poor divide in Malaysia at that point of time, and the consequent belitting of the proletariat class among the bourgeois. It is perhaps also an uncanny coincidence that the rich family was housed in Singapore, where rapid progress meant its economy would overtake that of Malaysia’s in subsequent years. It is, too, rather unfortunate that these Malay films have failed to gain international recognition as compared to their Chinese or Indian counterparts, but rather remain relatively restricted within the Southeast Asian region