New play ‘Masam Manis’ explores bittersweet conundrum of private and public personas in conservative Malaysia

(From left) ‘Masam Manis’ director Ridhwan Saidi, actors Mia Sabrina Mahadir, Lew Shu Ni, Sadiq M. Jamil and producer Nurul Aizam talk about adapting the 1965 P. Ramlee comedy ‘Masam-Masam Manis’. — Pictures by Miera Zulyana
(From left) ‘Masam Manis’ director Ridhwan Saidi, actors Mia Sabrina Mahadir, Lew Shu Ni, Sadiq M. Jamil and producer Nurul Aizam talk about adapting the 1965 P. Ramlee comedy ‘Masam-Masam Manis’. — Pictures by Miera Zulyana

PETALING JAYA, Feb 10 — Is a person different in private from his or her public persona?

In Ridhwan Saidi’s upcoming play Masam Manis, the playwright explores the phenomenon of private and public identities and the spaces they occupy.

The play is a loose adaptation of the 1965 P. Ramlee comedy Masam-Masam Manis which tells the story of a couple who embark on a romantic relationship unaware they are bickering neighbours in a boarding house.

“I developed the play based on this film because the setting is interesting — in private, the neighbours don’t know that they are a couple and in public, they are friends.

“Another thing that’s great about the film, the relationship syncs with the space in that the space resembles the relationship,” Ridhwan told Malay Mail.

Masam Manis is the theatre maker and novelist’s third play under his Theatre Normcore series.

The one addition that brings the classic Malay film into contemporary setting is an android created by a dating application that both lead characters use.

The architecture graduate said he has always been fascinated by buildings and human habitation along with our relationships with each other and technology.

Ridhwan, a trained architect turned playwright was interested in human beings’ relationship with the spaces they inhabit.
Ridhwan, a trained architect turned playwright was interested in human beings’ relationship with the spaces they inhabit.

Masam Manis stars three actors — Lew Shu Ni plays the bot while the neighbours are played by Mia Sabrina Mahadir and Sadiq M. Jamil.

“Human beings have different personas on dating apps and in the case of Mia’s character, she can buka aurat in a private space but when she meets her date in public, she’s covered up,” Ridhwan said.

“For Sadiq’s character, he loves crossdressing in his private space so there’s a duality to our personalities in terms of what we show society and how we are in private.”

Sadiq said preparing for the role of Mar/Maria has been fun but he finds nailing the script’s deadpan humour a challenge.

Mia, who has worked with Ridhwan on four other plays, said the best strategy was to throw all acting training out the window and not overthink.

“My character wears a jubah and a scarf but is also on Tinder.

“You can see how it can be challenging for an actor because you have to find where her sexual desire comes from to be on Tinder,” said Mia who plays Hanim.

On whether people are conscious of how personal and public spaces affect their behaviour, Lew said it was common to have multiple personas in traditional societies like Malaysia.

‘Masam Manis’ features three actors, Lew, Sadiq and Mia. — Pictures by Miera Zulyana
‘Masam Manis’ features three actors, Lew, Sadiq and Mia. — Pictures by Miera Zulyana

“It’s more conservative in this country so we do have to have different personas for various situations.

“I’m quite used to it but people do find difficulties adapting — I meet different types of people and they have different expectations in terms of human interaction,” Lew shared.

The other theme that is explored in the play is the city and rural binary.

Lew said there is a misconception that one is granted more freedom in the city to express themselves but that freedom comes with the price of people being less caring of others on the pretext of respecting personal space.

“It’s an interesting dynamic to explore — a lot of people think they can be more of themselves when they come to the city but eventually, they have to hide most parts of themselves,” Lew said.

Describing the play’s leads as unlikeable due to their contradicting personalities at home and outside of home, Mia pointed out the slippery slope that is false appearances.

“For example, if a person isn’t wearing tudung and a religious person is around them, they won’t say it to the person’s face but on Facebook they suddenly can.

“It shows that there is a part of us we hide and that’s why Malaysians don’t have our own identity — that’s kind of sad and at the same time kind of worrying because you cannot be your own self.

Masam Manis will be staged at KongsiKL, Old Klang Road from March 12 until March 15. 

The play is performed in Malay with English subtitles.

Tickets are priced at RM 30 for early birds and RM40, call 012 388 7889 (Tasha)/012 833 1335 (CK) to book or visit here for more details.

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