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The consequences of bad habits

WITH the state of affairs in Malaysia today, one wonders what it would take for extremists to get riled up over what they might deem “inappropriate” and “sensitive” content. What kind of situation or context might pose a threat to those who fear encroachment upon their faith, and who only know how to react through intimidation and violence?

Picture of the Holy Bible
(Pic by sachyn / sxc.hu)
In 2006, there was a production in the now-defunct Actors Studio in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, titled The Gospel According to St Luke. What it was, was one man’s dramatic narration of the entire Gospel from the New Testament in the Holy Bible. The show was marketed as a non-religious, purely theatrical event. It was a showcase in storytelling, a performance.

“Along with the Qur’an and the writings of Buddha, [the stories in this gospel] have changed the planet and radically influenced civilisations,” actor Bruce Kuhn said in Off The Edge magazine, September 2006. “There is such truth and wisdom packed into this material that anyone is able to enjoy it, no matter his or her background or beliefs. There is no preaching, no selling of an ideology, or even explanation.

“I do hope people of other faiths feel free to see this,” Kuhn said.

Back then, three-and-a-quarter long years ago, it would be hard to imagine this kind of production so heatedly flaming the passions of those of immensely fragile faith. The problem is, given the “Allah” situation and the related arson attacks on and vandalism of places of worship and a school, is it so far off the mark to imagine that a show like this could now set someone off? Would certain quarters discern in such a production an effort to confuse and convert, even if none was intended?

What of other theatrical productions that contain religious, pertinently Christian, elements? How about musicals such as Nunsense, set in a Catholic nunnery? Or, if you could pardon this moment of self-involvement, a musical based on the Christmas story? Would these shows offend? Are audiences, performers and entire productions at risk of being firebombed or spray painted?


Movie poster (© 20th Century Fox;
source: Wiki commons)
The hills are alive…

The Sound of Music  was once a must-see viewing event, shown regularly on Malaysian free-to-air television. The movie musical has been much-loved since it premiered on the big screen in 1965. It was a firm favourite of RTM, which, if I’m not mistaken, even promoted it as part of its Christmas line-up in some years. Which is better than what ntv7 included in its Christmas schedule for 2009, but that’s another story altogether.

The Sound of Music has been staged as a theatre production in Malaysia. And in 2006, there was an event called Sing-A-Long-A-Sound of Music in Kuala Lumpur. Basically it was a screening of the movie, as in a cinema, except that audience members were free to dress up like the characters, cheer and jeer at the heroes and villains, and sing along karaoke-style with lyrics displayed on the screen. It was a lot of fun, but I wonder what would have been done, in the name of Allah, if some Muslim fans chose to dress up like Maria, the religious sister turned unwitting governess, or the Mother Superior. Would the guardians of either Islam or Catholicism have found this offensive, worthy of censure and protest?

Perhaps it might be safer not to hold these types of events anymore, lest we upset those who feel endangered by the portrayal of nuns. And maybe The Sound of Music movie should even be banned altogether, lest the scenes in the abbey, complete with Catholic crucifixes and choral music, confuse certain viewers or trigger off conversion en masse.

Thankfully, the happy truth is that the majority doesn’t seem to be pandering to the cowardly demands of the minority. People are still congregating at services for the various religions as per usual — perhaps even more determinedly so. And in the greater scheme of things, worrying about how the “Allah” situation and associated deeds of discord could affect the performing arts might seem rather trivial. But it goes to show that these occurrences of terrorism can affect, and are affecting, people, Malaysians or otherwise, as a whole, in all aspects of their lives — even their entertainment.


The Mother Superior (Peggy Wood) speaks to Maria (Julie Andrews) in the film version
of The Sound of Music (© 20th Century Fox; source: Wiki commons)

Afterthought

At the risk of giving the government ideas, perhaps the film version of The Sound of Music should be censored to remove all scenes in which a character who is a member of the religious appears. Never mind the elements of Nazism, then prevalent in Germany-invaded Austria as depicted in the movie; we probably relate to this aspect more than we realise. Oy.

And like the central characters in The Sound of Music, some of us might run away to safer pastures, seeking peace, justice and religious understanding — these are a few of our favourite things. Some of us might stay and strive for a better nation, climbing every mountain, forging every stream. While some of us might simply shrug and sigh resignedly: What do we do with a problem like Malaysia?


Nick Choo has always wanted to dress up like the Mother Superior.

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4 Responses to “The consequences of bad habits”

  1. Nick Choo misses another point: the question of cultural ownership. Something like a play in English or The Sound of Music is seen as a Western / English territory, and thus, within ‘safe’ boundaries. Something like the Bible in Malay or a Malay-like language is encroaching territories that many Malaysians, on account of being Malay and Muslim, have viewed as a threat to Malayness, which is synonymous with Muslim-ness.

  2. MarinaM says:

    Actually more pertinently, what happens to non-Muslim actors who look enough like Muslims to sometimes play Muslims too? Would they be barred from such roles? What about actors who play mualaf (converts) who, in real life, do not convert? How would they perform conversion scenes? Would these rulings be depriving actors of a livelihood?

  3. Carter says:

    Well said, Mr Choo! Your article made me want to break out into song in a nun’s habit. Levity aside, “The Sound of Music” has been showing for years without incident. It is a very popular movie, yet all this while its Christian themes haven’t triggered negative reaction or, thank Allah, mass conversion and confusion. Unfortunately, if “The Sound of Music” were to be screened today, in the face of Malaysia’s current socio-religio-political conflict, I’d bet my bottom dollar that there will be foolish people who will be unhappy. Only in the aftermath of Catholic-Muslim argument and church/mosque attacks could something as innocuous as “The Sound of Music” pose a threat, which is unfortunate and absolutely ludicrous, but seems to be entirely PLAUSIBLE given the fragile psyche of the pitchfork-waving, burning-torches mentality among the minority extremist Malay-Muslims.

  4. Dinesh says:

    In India, Muslim actors and actresses have no problems playing Hindu characters and vice versa. And Indians generally don’t riot when these things happen. That’s perhaps one reason Bollywood can grow so fast. And people are not confused whether Shahrukh Khan has become Hindu or not (his wife is Hindu by the way) or whether Hrithik Roshan has become Muslim (his wife is Muslim by the way).

    And Indians (the ones in India) don’t get “confused”.

    Nick, if the government took your article seriously, then they might have to ban television and radio, and all forms of arts performances. And no longer can Chinese, Indian and non-Malay [Malaysian] bumiputera play Jesus in Nativity plays. They will have to find Jewish children. Oy vey!


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