JUNE 28 — The Kelantanese shadow puppet theatre known as wayang kulit uses the Hikayat Seri Rama, a Malay adaptation of the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, as its source.
But it often further interprets and retells the story as a form of syncretism; sometimes telling it another way, or even focusing on the side-stories rather than the main narrative.
As part of this adaptation, the wayang kulit has established a clown duo that acts as comic relief: Pak Dogol, the pot-bellied, magical servant of Seri Rama (the Malay adaptation of deity-prince Rama), and his best friend Wak Long.
It is this duo we see in the opening scenes of Pak Dogo, a tele-film written and directed by Sabri Yunus, who despite starting out as a comedy actor, has evolved into a custodian of sorts of Kelantanese culture in his later years.
The importance of Pak Dogo, or rather the duo’s comedy, is established early on as we see a young Senik (played by Issey Fazlisham, who recently had to explain that he is indeed not Sabri’s son despite the resemblance) winning a popularity duel against Mat Sin.
This is due partly to his deft lighter-toned, down-to-earth theatre featuring the duo, compared to the latter’s more literary performance.
The prize? The puppet of the titular Pak Dogol — the “l” is silent in the local dialect — but Mat Sin was initially reluctant to part ways with the beloved character.
“One thing you have to know, this Pak Dogol was handed down from my ancestors. So even if you can use it, it won’t be for long,” Mat Sin said ominously as he finally handed the puppet over to Senik, foreshadowing that this film is not a simple romance drama as advertised, but rather leaning towards horror.
We skip to 35 years later; I loved how Sabri never explained when exactly this story is set until much later in the film, trusting the audience to understand that this happened in the near past, for reasons which I will dissect later.
The setting is Kampung Pantai Senak, presumably in the coastal village with the same name in Bachok, north-east of Kota Baru towards the South China Sea.
Coconut trees dot the horizon of white sandy beaches and pristine waters as we are introduced to Kkoya Anak Selayang (Asrulfaizal Kamaruzaman), the tok dalang protegé of Senik, now known as Pak Do.
Kkoya has three more months before he marries Salmi (Raysha Risroze), but faces reluctance and opposition from both his mother and Salmi’s parents.
When he graduates from trainee to full-fledged tok dalang, he inherits the Pak Dogol puppet and his life is forever changed.
This movie lovingly portrays the easy-going coastal life in Kelantan, contrasting it with the intricate performance of wayang kulit — from the change of kerosene lamp to light bulb behind the screen, to the symphony of the musical troupe, even to the mysticism surrounding it, the incantations and invocations that happen before a performance.
It was this mysticism that caused wayang kulit, together with other performance arts such as mak yong and main puteri, to be banned by the Islamist PAS state administration in Kelantan.
It was only last year that a two-decade blanket ban was lifted by Kelantan, following a stern call by United Nations special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, which received the backing of many in the public.
But the move does not equal freedom, as the government insisted that performances be Shariah-compliant, which cultural activists say will eventually kill the arts.
But is it ever possible to separate mysticism and the arts?
In the Ramayana, Rama is the avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu, and this take was secularised in Hikayat Seri Rama especially with the coming of Islam to the region.
The stories normally centre around the “trinity” of characters: Rama, his wife Siti Dewi (the Malay version of Sita), and Maharaja Rawana (ditto Ravana) who covets Sita.
Similarly, Pak Dogo presents Sabri’s modernised take on the trinity with Kkoya, Salmi, and Sidek (Along Ezendy), with the two men warring (a little too literally) over the woman — a comparison that Kkoya alludes to in the story.
Kkoya’s best friend Ripin (played by Sabri’s actual son Saidi) fills in the role of Lakshmana, the younger warrior-brother of Rama, and his object of affection Maheran (Qul’ain Saari) likewise for Urmila, the younger sister of Sita.
And here, Senik or Pak Do plays the influential role of Pak Dogol — funny-looking but wise beyond his years, and his mastery of the supernatural is a boon for Rama.
In the wayang kulit, Pak Dogol is portrayed as a dark-skinned man (an example of colourism from the past) with a big belly, but this appearance is a facade of his true identity — Dewa Sang Yang Tunggal, the most powerful of all deities.
Pak Dogo shows how traditionally the tok dalang reveres the Pak Dogol puppet, for it is believed to bring both supernatural boon and bane depending on how it is treated.
The puppet was hung up high in Kkoya’s room, and he “fed” the puppet regularly in a ritual which included smoking it with incense and marking a white cloth wrapped around its neck with his saliva and a jasmine garland.
“Aku jaga kau, kau kena jaga aku,” Kkoya implores Pak Dogol to return each other’s favours, prior to performing.
Pak Dogol here holds magic — symbolising the mysticism, the spell-binding qualities of the art.
Here, Kkoya the artist takes an oath to protect and preserve the art, and if he does so, Pak Dogol the art will imbue him with splendour and beauty.
Just like Pak Dogo, art brought much boon to Kkoya, from fame and adoration of his villagers, the respect of his peers and master, to the love of Salmi. But only if Kkoya continues to revere it in turn.
Art demands its due. It can also bring jealousy and enmity. It does not pay well, not in this country. It demands an artist’s whole life. “Have you seen a tok dalang working other jobs?” Senik asked Kkoya when the latter requested an apprenticeship.
Art has its own life, and sometimes art lives beyond its creator’s initial intention. Once Kkoya no longer believes in Pak Dogol, therefore no longer believing in his own art, his life crumbles.
It has now been decades since the time portrayed in Pak Dogo and last month, artist Izat Arif received a legal warning after parodying entrepreneur Vivy Yusof, herself facing several plagiarism accusations.
In his artwork with Vivy’s image, Izat proclaimed: “At the end of the day, art is not essential pun.”
In Malaysia, the traditional arts faces a dual threat — from religious zealots eager to erase non-conforming traditions, and from modernists who believe the field inferior to science and technology.
Without its traditional arts, the Malays are nothing, just a hollow social construct borne out of political gains and segregationism. Detractors are right to fear the arts, because just like Pak Dogo, it holds massive power beyond its trivial facade.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.