Wednesday, February 15, 2017
KAM RASLAN ~ Portrait of a Malaysian Author/Filmmaker/Humorist
Antares: Did you desire to become a filmmaker or writer - or both - as a kid? Or were your early ambitions entirely different?
Kam: Film came first, but I realized straight away that if I wanted to make a film I’d have to write it as well. So although the initial spur was film they went hand in hand. I got the film bug when I was around 17 and it hit me hard when I watched a Russian movie called The Mirror directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s a beautiful hypnotic movie and it’s very un-Hollywood - but it suggested to me that film is capable of something exceptional.
Writing for film is a strangely technical exercise that I’ve only really begun to truly understand very recently. Part of my difficulty with writing for film has been that I was inspired by the epic movies of David Lean, who directed Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago. I can find myself at the computer wanting to write, “The Red Army cavalry charges across the vast Russian Steppes and crushes the anti-Bolshevik Tsarists.” And then I immediately realize that I can’t afford that unless I can do it with a couple of Bangladeshis and Jit Murad. There are also other technical film narrative story-telling aspects that I won’t bore you with, but after a while they felt like constraints and I wanted to find a way to tell stories that could be realized and accessed immediately. So I started writing fiction and suddenly it felt liberating. Suddenly I could write stories that traveled continents and were set in the past. Also film is a slave to plot momentum, and character can become secondary. If you read the script of Die Hard there is nothing about the central character that you haven’t seen before and the only thing that makes it exceptional is Bruce Willis’ performance. With fiction the character can take over more and can say or, more especially, think things that are not necessarily plot related. But everything I’ve learnt from film has been vitally important, especially the desire to keep the story going and being concise.
A: Your elder brother Karim is an established writer. Does that make your relationship competitive or supportive?
K: I’m the youngest of three brothers. I’ve always looked up to them although we grew up quite separately. Johan is the eldest and he’s the chairman of Price Waterhouse Coopers in Malaysia and then there’s Karim, who’s a writer, lawyer and political consultant. Karim has been writing for a long time and is well-known for his Asean-wide political commentaries as well as his short stories. He has also, I believe, finished writing his novel. Karim and I write very different stuff so I don’t know if there can be any competitiveness. He’s always been very supportive and believed in me even before I did. One area that was a small cause for concern for me was that Karim wrote fiction long before I did and I always felt that was his area. So when I started writing fiction I worried that I was trespassing on his turf but he’s very supportive. All three of us look quite similar so I’m constantly being mistaken for one or the other. If somebody says they’ve read one of my articles in the paper I’ll wait to see if they liked it. If they did then I’ll take all the credit but if they didn’t then I’ll say, “I think you’ve mistaken me for my brother.” Sometimes I don’t bother to correct them at all because it might embarrass them and on one occasion I happened to be standing next to a notable Tan Sri who told me that he had decided to award his company’s business to me. I really didn’t know what to say because unless he wanted me to wash his cars then I really couldn’t have been much use to him. I think I shouted “Fire!” and ran away.
A: How have both your parents influenced you? Would they have preferred your opting for a less "nebulous" profession?
K: Our father died when I was four years old so our mother raised us alone. I can’t imagine what my father would have wanted me to do although I suspect it isn’t what I presently do. He was in banking at the time of his death and throughout my childhood I told people that I wanted to be a banker, even though I had no idea what that meant - anyway, that doesn’t seem to be a problem in Malaysian banking. My father’s influence came through his absence and through my imagining of him. Through his absence I grew up quite independently and have by and large discovered the world for myself. But he did leave behind the sense that he was somebody important. Throughout my life I’ve met countless people who don’t know me and didn’t know him but knew of him and respected him. It gave me a sense that one must achieve something big. It’s a blessing and a burden. But he was an avid photographer and he did leave behind hundreds of photographs and two movie cameras that I was obsessed with. I know that I was drawn to film because of those cameras and because they created a connection to him.
But I was raised by my mother so she has had a big influence on me. She worries about my financial state but she’s stopped suggesting I “do something in computers.” As I get older I become more like my mother and whenever my hair grows long my wife calls me Dorothy because I look like her. My mother is always apologizing for my hair as if it’s her fault. She plays the violin and tried to make me learn but I rebelled. It’s an impossible instrument. But the fact that I was always around classical music has had an enormous impact on me because I think it’s given me the patience to be able to appreciate not only things like Wagner but also slow Russian movies. But having said that, I was a very surly teenager and would disappear into my room and listen to David Bowie but recently my mother told me she’s a fan of Bowie. She’s full of surprises. She’s also very independent minded and has always let me make my own choices in life. She’s originally from South Wales and when she married a Malay in the 1950s and then moved all the way over to Malaysia it took either courage or foolish romanticism. I think that dichotomy is what I’ve inherited from my mother. And the hair.
A: As an Anglo-Malay educated in England, do you experience your genetic heritage as advantageous or disadvantageous in terms of "fitting in" with the Malaysian milieu? Do you sometimes feel estranged from the local social and political context?
A: One of your literary trademarks has been an acute sense of irony expressed as dry, sardonic wit. Does that come naturally or was it a conscious decision to write in that style? Have you tried other forms of writing, e.g., poetry, scifi, horror, journalistic?
A: Having spent the last 10 years as a scriptwriter and film director, does that tend to make you a visually oriented novelist? Do you, for instance, see your novel being turned into a movie?
K: Actually, it’s over 20 years, but, yes, I think it does help make me be aware of the importance of the visual. But to be visually concise because movie scripts waste very little time on description. I think that, very often, long descriptive passages are unnecessary. The reader needs to know where they are, what it looks like and what it means but often that can be simply stated as, “It was a big, scary-looking house.” People interact with and are influenced by their environment and I want to show that. I have a relatively long descriptive passage in one of my stories that describes the east coast monsoon but I did that because the monsoon is an essential backdrop and even a character in the story. My film background has also taught me the importance of sound and I’d like the reader to be able to hear the story as well as see it. But what I enjoyed while writing was being freed from film constraints. I wanted to be able to write an unfilmable epic without worrying about the money. If any movie producer read a script that said “The monsoon covers the land as far as the eye can see” they’d throw it away because it would mean waiting for the rain that might not come, and I know from experience that if you point the camera at the rain, it doesn’t look like it’s raining. So I think that the novel can be turned into a movie in the reader’s mind but I never wanted to write it with a view to filming it. But if anybody wants to, then please make the cheque payable to “Cash.”
A: What was the interval between the conceptualization of your novel and its completion? Were you working in a disciplined, regular way - or only when inspired?
A: How would you describe your worldview? If you possess no specific worldview, would you care to explain why?
A: Would you consider yourself prone towards pessimism or optimism? Does thinking about the future inspire in you despair or hope?
K: I always think that things can be better, which is a form of hope or optimism. All of us can do something to make things better, but I don’t think many do. I’m always astonished at how we can absorb rubbish into our lives and imagine that that’s just the way things are and we accept it. We’re too scared to be angry. I’m very worried about the future of this country. I certainly believe that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” After a brief moment when it looked otherwise our style of democracy is now entrenched. It’s like a train that’s waiting at the platform about to leave for the next stop but latecomers keep rushing in and the conductor keeps squeezing them into the train. The train will never leave. My only hope is that the rest of us, who know that we have no choice but to go to that next station, will build our own train.
A: Are you already planning, or have you begun, on a new novel? Any hints about the subject matter?
A: How has marriage affected your work as a writer?
K: I feel like I’ve known my wife all my life but we’ve only been married for a few years. She’s very patient with my slow rate but wanting to achieve something for her, or for us, is an important spur. She’s always able to contradict or inform my assumptions and, however painful it might be, we learn the most when we are wrong. Knowing her and her family has really broadened my horizons and their opinions and insights constantly reappear in my writings.
A: Have you discovered your life purpose... or given up the quest?
K: A long, long time ago I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night because in a flash I had understood my life’s purpose: “I must learn how to feed my body through the process of photosynthesis!” Since that night I’ve not really tried to think about it. I’d like to be able to write books that people want to read and I want to direct the movies that I want to direct. To be honest, my quest is to do what I want to do. And this might sound strange but with the Dato’ Hamid stories I want to show that the history of Malaysia is more interesting and epic than reading the papers might suggest. There are stories in between, alongside and behind. We may not be aware of it but we have all been part of a great big, global drama. Ultimately I want to do a piece of work that’s as perfect as a Beatles album. But that’s impossible.
*MCKK = Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, elite residential school established by the British Colonial government in 1905 to groom the sons of ruling class Malays for public office.
[First published December 2006 in The Hilt & posted here 28 June 2012]