Most box office movies shown in the cinemas of Muar Town in the sixties lasted for about a week or slightly more but there was one movie that lasted for more than a month and to the best of my knowledge, this record has not been broken since then. It was not a Malay movie, not an English movie. not a Chinese movie or Tamil movie but an Hindustani movie. Truly amazing.
Muarian Malays of my time were great fans of Hindustani movies which often made me wonder why. It made me wonder even more when the number of Indians watching a Hindustani movie was relatively small compared to the number of Malays, forget the Chinese. My first Hindi movie that I watched was Mother India sometime in the year 1957. I was too young to understand the story line and I could not understand a word what they were talking about and ended up sleeping on the lap of my maid-servant Mak Yang who was a devoted fan of Hindustani movies. Looking back, I wonder why she loved watching Hindustani movies given that she understood not a word of the language and to the best of my knowledge she was illiterate. The Malay sub-titles served her no purpose yet she just loved Hindustani movies and I believe she was not alone.
Besides the movie Mother India, I had watched quite a number of other Hindustani movies following Mak Yang who would remind me every minute of the day. We normally began our walk to the cinema immediately after dinner, a journey that would take us about half an hour of walking. Following Mak Yang to the moves would also be my three ‘sisters’ and most of the time the three of us would ended up sleeping. It would be a torturous moment to wake us up and there was one time she had to call the ticket usher to wake me up.
By the time Sangam was screened at the Cathay cinema in 1965, our adorable maid-servant was no longer working with us and every time when there was a Hindustani movie screened in town, I would not bother to watch. But this was one Hindustani movie that changed my mind because it was shown for more than a month and every day it was a full house. If it was not because of my two buddies, Halim and Yem, I would have stayed away from the movie.
“Hey, the movie Sangam is still on and it has been almost a month now. Shall we watch the movie?”, Halim asked the two of us. I shrugged off my shoulders but Yem seemed to quite agree with Halim’s suggestion. In fact, some earlier Hindustani movies shown in Muar town were watched by him without telling both Halim and me. He was a fan of Hindustani movies but kept it to himself because we always liked to tease friends who loved watching Hindustani movies.
“You know I don’t like Hindustani movie, and furthermore we don’t understand a word of the language”, I answered.
“But for a movie that can last for more than a month must be something special”, Halim answered back and this time he seemed to be pushing harder for me to agree. “We can always refer to the sub-titles”, he continued. Yem was smiling and then he broke the news.
“I’ve watched the movie. I accompanied my sister because she needed my company. And honestly, it is a very good movie. I think you both should watch it and I won’t be surprised if you would shed your tears at the end of the movie”.
“What? To cry seeing an Hindustani movie? We don’t even understand a word they say? No, its very stupid to cry.” I said to Yem while Halim starred at me smilingly.
“Never mind, why don’t you just accompany us”, Halim said to me.
After some persuasions from the two of them, I finally submitted and we decided to watch the movie that night. After all it was still two in the afternoon and we had plenty of time to get our tickets.
Most movies shown at the local cinemas would screen thrice a day; at 2.30pm, at 7.30pm and finally at 9.30pm. But for Sangam, it was shown only twice a day because it seemed that this movie lasted more than three hours and for that it could only screen at 2.30pm and 8.30pm. Most Hindustani movies are distinguished by their epic length. We decided to watch the second show.
The show would begin around 8.30pm and we left early to have our dinner at the kedai siang malam along Jalan Sisi. In spite of having watched the movie, Yem decided to come along and watched the movie a second time. While cycling three abreast, I asked Yem what was so fascinating about this Hindustani movie but Halim interrupted and told Yem not to say a word about the movie otherwise it would defeat the purpose of watching it.
When we arrived at the kedai siang malam which was a walking distance to the Cathay cinema, we noticed the area around the cinema was very crowded. It was only 7.30pm and the crowd seemed to be getting larger and larger. By the side of the road across the cinema, there were few buses parked on those reserved for cars and these buses were not those operated for the Muar town use. They were rented and chartered buses that came from other districts and sub-districts. Pak Ma’il’s restaurant was full and so was the next restaurant that served nasi briyani. This was very unusual for Muar town unless there was a big celebration like the Merdeka celebration. We had no choice but to have our dinner at a small warong located not far from the Cathay cinema.
“Do you think we can get the tickets?” I asked Halim as we began our dinner of nasi lemak bungkus.
“Now I am not too sure. I never thought after a month of screening, it would still attract such a big crowd”, answered Halim.
We asked the warong owner whether this had been going on since the cinema screened ‘Sangam’? The man nodded and while busy serving some of his customers, he told us that those who came to watch the movie were those as far as Semerah from the south and Sungei Mati from the north. There were others from Panchor, Pagoh and from other remote villages in the district; and almost all who came were Malays. Since the movie was shown for more than a month, he experienced sales almost six times that his usual daily turnover. Obviously he had no complaints.
“I think we’d better park our bicycles here”, Yem said as we almost finished our dinner. Halim agreed and so after our dinner we took our stroll towards the cinema. The crowd was really big with most of the faces alien to us and we hardly noticed one familiar face around. As we reached the ticket counter, it was closed with the sign “Full House” written on a small cardboard.
“Let’s look for the guy who sells the ‘black market’ tickets”, Halim suggested. I was not too keen to succumb to this kind of daylight robbery and suggested that we might as well go to some other places or just go home. He disagreed and insisted that we watch this movie tonight since we were already at the cinema.
It was common that every time a box office movie reached town, some people would benefit and these were those ticket sellers themselves. They would form a consortium of touts selling tickets at inflated prices sometime even triple from the original price. Halim happened to know one of them and so we bought our tickets at $1.70cents; an extra 0.50cents for the back seat row. I was grumbling because at 0.50cents I could enjoy a plate of mi bandung and a glass of iced tea and I thought it was absurd to sacrifice my 0.50cents for a Hindustani movie.
While waiting for the show to begin, we mingled around and talked to anybody we felt like to. From some of these conversations, we learned that those who came to watch the movie were from all corners of Muar district. From the north, they came in buses; Kesang, Sungei Mati, Bukit Gambir and Tanjung Agas as well as those from the sub-district of Tangkak. From the south; Parit Korma, Parit Bakar, Parit Jawa, Semerah and all the ‘parits’ that you could think of. The hawkers were doing fantastic sales; the kacang putih sellers, the cendol man, the ice kacang seller, the hawkers with all kinds of junk food and they were all grinning so widely. This scene kept on repeating until the last day of the show, and it had always been since the first day of ‘Sangam’.
Of course there were many bachelors who took the opportunity to date their likely future wives who hailed from different parts of the district. They were dressed to ‘kill’ with flowery shirts most suitable to watch Hindustani movies. Their thin moustache that were carefully shaved made them looked very much like their idols in the movies. Their jambul prominently displayed above their foreheads. And their young dates would keep on smiling covering their mouths while their eyes looked everywhere to see just in case if some neighbours or relatives happened to be around. Young mothers too were seen busy feeding their newly born babies and few others trying very hard to make them sleep. Elderly folks too came with the men wearing their coats with matching kain pelekat and their black songkok on their heads. We were praying that these people with their tall songkoks would not be sitting in front of us. And among these colourful people, were three young urban lads with one spotting a Beatle hairdo, one walked like James Bond and the third who was with glasses thought he looked like Peter of Peter and Gordon.
It was bow 8.15pm and the crowd began to slowly enter the cinema hall and we followed suit. To reach the entrance alone took us about five minutes. When we reached the door, we could see the hall was almost full with few still standing around looking for their seat, just like looking for durians in the undergrowth during the night. The music filling the hall was obviously that of the Hindi songs. But what was so stuffy in the hall was the smoke puffed by smokers that kept on filling the hall and we could see the smoke rising toward the ceiling.
Then the lights went off and it was darkness and we could not walk but just stood still waiting for the usher to pass our way. The advertisement slots began to roll and we could see some parts of the hall but we still needed the usher to show our seats. The sound of some babies crying too could be heard. Then the show began and there was complete silence except for some cries of some babies. That night was not my lucky night; I sat beside an elderly woman who had perhaps watched the movie more than ten times. She would tell her friend sitting next to her of what to expect and she would sing along every time the songs were sung.
The show began with young Sunder, his childhood buddy Gopal and a young girl named Radha playing together. The elderly woman then told her friend that these two boys would one day fall in love with this same girl. Once in a while after telling her friend, she would look at me maybe hoping that I heard what she said. Whenever she looked at me, I pretended not to notice.
When the three of them reached adulthood, Sunder wanted to be a pilot and to serve under the Indian Army while Gopal went to study Law. Radha grew to be a beautiful woman and she had kept her heart only for Gopal. Sunder however was head over heals in love with Radha and he had the impression that she was deeply in love with him too. But as far as Radha was concerned, it was not even a ‘torn between two lovers’ because her heart was only for Gopal.
One day, after being commissioned as a pilot,Sunder was called for national duty and he was to deliver some ammunition and food to the Indian army at the borders of Khasmir. Before leaving, Sunder met Gopal whom he trusted implicitly and requested his childhood friend to look after Radha whom he hoped to marry after his return. Although he was likewise in love with Radha, Gopal sacrificed his love for his friend’s sake, promised his good friend that he would gladly look after Radha until he returned. Even before Sunder had to fly to Khasmir, I knew it beforehand because I heard that elderly lady telling her friend.
Gopal became a magistrate and now his parents were hoping for him to get married and their choice was Radha and she too was in love with him. Of course from the beginning of the movie up to this stage, few songs had been sung with each song lasting for more than five minutes. At every verse the singer would be spotted wearing different shirts and at different places. And that elderly woman besides me would sing along as well, sometimes her voice was louder than the song and she would keep staring at me.
Some men complemented the songs with their own brand of percussion; a match box, a match stick and a rubber band. The match stick would be tied on top of the box with the rubber band with the stick’s head bulging out. They would strike the stick head with their fingers and the tail would produce a ‘tut’ sound. When almost all of the men did that, the sound would reach a crescendo and echoed throughout the cinema hall. It would be very lively when the songs were of the fast tempo. They would dance or shake their bodies while sitting and it would appear that they were in some kind of a trance like during a tahlil in a Muslim’s kenduri of doa’ selamat.
Then a bad news reached the ears of the family; that Sunder’s aircraft had crashed and he was believed to have been dead but that elderly woman besides me cautioned her friend that Sunder actually survived the crash. Now with Sunder dead, Gopal and Radha could plan their wedding day and Gopal himself felt relieved for not having to keep his promise to Sunder. After some interesting scenes before the wedding, Sunder appeared and now Gopal was extremely upset and he must now pleased his childhood buddy to hand over Radha to him.
It was from this moment that the movie became more exciting and full of suspense. After their wedding, Sunder and Radha spent their honeymoon overseas somewhere in Europe and they sang few songs. The song would begin in London and by the second verse they were already in Paris and of course with different shirts.
One day after their honeymoon, Sunder invited Gopal to their house and there was one scene when Sunder played the piano and sang a beautiful song called “Dost Dost Na Raha”. I must admit I liked the song very much as it has a very nice melody. Some people cried after the song ended.
The height of the story was when Sunder discovered a love letter written by someone addressed to Radha. Now he damanded her to reveal the identity of the writer which she refused. The elderly woman besides me told her friend that it was Gopal who wrote the letter. To know what happened next, I’d suggest you watch the movie on Youtube with the English sub-titles.
When the show ended, the lights inside the hall began to lit and almost everyone had misty eyes. While all of us moved slowly toward the exit door, I asked the elderly woman who sat besides me:
“Mak Cik, berapa kali dah tengok wayang ni?” (Auntie, how many times have you watched this movie?)
She looked and smiled shyly at me while giving a soft answer: “Baru tiga kali” (Only three times).
“Oh patutlah Mak Cik tahu cerita daripada mula sampai habis: (No wonder you know the story from the start till the end). She smiled again and said, “Besok nak tengok lagi, nak bawak jiran sebelah” (Tomorrow I’ll be watching again bringing along my neighbour).
“So, how do you like the movie?” Halim asked me as we walked toward our bicycles. Yem just smiled waiting for my answer. I finally had to agree with both of them that it was indeed a good movie.
On the way back home, the three of us sang the song of “Dost Dost Na Raha”, but we sang our version of course, and we sang loudly breaking the silent of the night:
“Dosh dosh nak raha
Hey khabar nak raha
Zin degil, Hamid terror
Hey khabar mana raha.
Then I asked Halim, “If I had a girlfriend, then I had to go to war, would you look after her until I return?”
Halim immediately replied: “No problem. But what if she fell in love with me?”
Till this day, the movie Sangam maintain its record screening at the cinema in Muar town for more than a month.