KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA – Theatremaker Shafeeq Shajahan has a dream: to be there when Malaysia becomes a creative hub within Asia, and to be a key driving force towards that.
“Back when I was studying in London, I kept trying to play their games, and directed cabarets and other shows the Western audience would respond to,” says Shafeeq. “But when I went into various youth programmes, those environments exposed me to more writers of colour, and their advice was to double down on authenticity and the stories you grew up with. It may seem foreign, but it is in specificity that you find universality. So that’s when I had this lightbulb, I shouldn’t keep playing this game I don’t entirely know, and in fact, focus on what I do know and what I’m good at, which led to works like Sepet the Musical.”
“I believe in the potential of Malaysian and Southeast Asian stories,” he continues. “I think we should invest in them more – they inspired me when I was young, and there’s so much talent all around us. We were lucky that we were able to get back on our feet quite fast over the COVID period – Malaysia was one of the first countries to get rid of their Movement Control Order, and we were able to put on shows again. Everyone was in a state of fear, but we were able to establish sense of calm and reassurance.”
This week, Shafeeq’s acclaimed, award-winning theatre company, Liver & Lung will be presenting their milestone 10th musical – Melur The Musical. Written and directed by Shafeeq, the musical tackles one of Malaysia’s most terrifying horror icons: the Pontianak, as Melur the Musical premieres this Thursday at the newly opened Petaling Jaya Performing Arts Centre, at 1 Utama shopping mall.
“Unfortunately there are limited players in Malaysia, and not many venues. There needs to be a stronger infrastructure to promote investment and mentorship, and so much of the time, we’re building things from scratch, educating people, and growing the scene ourselves,” says Shafeeq. “The barrier to entry to the arts is very high for people looking to start, and for a good 4-5 years, the company was doing work in cafes and makeshift spaces. I hope that with the arrival of new venues like PJPAC, there will be an increased democratisation of the market.”
Set in colonial Malaya, Melur The Musical depicts the spell-binding story of two women, Melur and Cempaka, as they navigate British rule. Things take a cruel turn when Cempaka’s husband, the British High Commissioner, commits a murderous crime and the characters experience the wrath of a supernatural creature, now a bloodthirsty Pontianak determined for revenge.
“My mother is Singaporean actually, and she has 11 sisters, giving me 12 maternal figures in my life, and they span the whole spectrum of femininity and beliefs, from crystal-loving tarot readers, to staunch Islamic teachers. In a way, the characters in Melur are inspired by my aunties, and showcase some polar opposites in personality,” says Shafeeq. “And I’m glad I got to represent them in some way – they’ve always been involved in the show, from my mum designing my costumes to coming to support in the audience.”
But this isn’t just going to be a show that’ll send shivers down your spine – Shafeeq promises that there’s a deeper message behind it, and of course, plenty of emotion that might see you rooting for the Pontianak amidst the outpouring of blood. “Some of the best horror films go beyond just jump scares, and incorporate elements of romance, history, and politics,” says Shefeeq. “There’s definitely enough to appease the average horror enthusiast, with jump scares, smells, lighting, and horror tropes. But there’s so much more to it. Sometimes, I try to sneak in other messages beyond the story itself.”
“I’m reminded of when we did Sepet the Musical, which was adapted from Yasmin Ahmad’s hugely successful film. I kept wondering if I was the right person to do it, but I thought about how beyond just showing interracial love, Sepet could also be seen as a show that was about how love is love is love,” he continues. “So now with Melur, yes it’s partly a horror musical fun night out (and there really are a lot of horror diehards in Malaysia). But the show is also set during the Malayan Emergency, something that often goes forgotten and has a lot to do with British colonial influence clamping down on the country, and one of the biggest impacts that had is how it ended up dividing the Chinese and the Malays.”
“In our national anthem, there’s a line that goes ‘tanah tumpahnya darahku’, which means ‘my blood spilt on this land’, and shows just how connected we are to the land. The Pontianak is often a symbol of the grief women go through during childbirth, and represents the cultural anxieties women have. She’s also recognised by the smell of jasmine, and in the musical, when the jasmine blooms, it becomes a symbol of how the earth is taking back what was stolen. So it actually becomes a very feminised story of the land, and how colonialism has ‘raped’ the land, and in return, it comes back to make you atone for your sins, and amidst the Malaysian Emergency and ideas of intergenerational trauma, is a reminder against colonialism.”
Melur the Musical is performed by talented cast members Tria Aziz, Mila Mohsin, Kai Chalmers, and Anwar Rusdini, all of whom were carefully chosen for their roles. “In terms of directorial style, I’m highly collaborative, and I will be the first to admit I know the least, compared to my actors, my composers and my crew,” he says. “What I do as a director then is to create a safe space of exploration, while also making sure it has my stamp on it – it’s going to be somewhat Bollywood influenced, as that was my first exposure to entertainment, and it’s a story I’ve wanted to bring to life for years.”
Tria Aziz in particular, who is a three-time BOH Cameronian recipient, will play the titular role of Melur. “There is so much untapped talent in Malaysia, and Tria has been performing for so many years and won awards, but has yet to star in a lead role. It’s hard to find lead roles for older women, and I’m glad to be able to provide that opportunity – she’s an amazing singer and she’ll rock your socks off,” says Shafeeq.
There has been no expense spared this time. Shafeeq is joined by frequent collaborators Badrish, co-composer of Sepet The Musical, and Vasilis Konstantinides, Cypriot musician and pianist, in composing the music for Melur, and the show itself will feature a live 9-piece band. “It’s the biggest piece we ever done, and beyond the band and the composers, the musical itself spans three time periods, so we had to transpose the melodies and make them match each era, and that requires such a diverse skillset,” says Shafeeq. “Composing is an intimate experience, and I think some of the best songs I’ve written come from a place I’m not entirely familiar with, a place within me that’s hidden away.”
And that is when Shafeeq explains how the theme of trauma itself is a very personal topic for him. “The Pontianak is a figure that is always abused, she was raped and killed and comes back as a vengeful ghost. It was maybe only about midway through that I realise I was writing about trauma I went through myself, and how difficult it was for me to move on,” he admits. “It took me therapy to reconcile with my sources of trauma, and even then, it took me a long time to become a better person. That’s why the first act is about trauma and traumatic experiences, while the second act is about how it grows and festers if you don’t ‘let the jasmine bloom’, and heal.”
“Essentially, I want people who watch this show to have a better understanding of femininity and how much women go through in society across generations, and the consequences of the trauma we put women through,” he continues. “So I would love the audience to leave with a greater desire to respect the women in their lives, and perhaps think about trauma and relief, and how sometimes, the only way to make things better, is to reconcile with the truth. This is also a story about the foundations of Malaysian identity, where audience members can really understand the sacrifices former PM Tunku Abdul Rahman made, and how much has gone into making this a unified multiracial country, and why we need to keep honouring that.”
On the future of the arts scene in Malaysia, Shafeeq knows there is still a long way to go, but believes that they will get there someday. “There is so much negativity in Malaysia, and being a non-secular country, it ends up having a lot of moral policing, like how there was a raid at REXKL some months ago, and you wonder whether at any point, everything will suddenly be taken away from you,” says Shafeeq. “You end up self-policing, self-censoring, but then you think, if we don’t take the risk, then who will? I think there is hope – I believe in the power of humanity and that people are fundamentally empathetic. That’s why I tell stories: sometimes that’s the most subliminal, effective way of changing minds.”
“I know that Melur is quite a big ask for first time theatregoers, because it’s complex and spans multiple time periods. But I believe that Liver & Lung have been around long enough and shown ‘easy’ musicals and the fanbase we’ve grown knows what a good musical looks like to appreciate Melur,” he says. “At this stage, it’s important to keep pushing. I don’t think we believe enough in the potential of our own stories and don’t give them the chance they deserve. There are people who will watch Phantom of the Opera and The Sound of Music, which are globally accredited brands, but we really need people to give local stuff a chance and for the government to endorse it.”
“Ultimately, I do have a day job in tech, and I do have a strong business acumen. I think theatre should be profitable, and we’ve achieved that so far with Liver & Lung. But as time goes by, I think, it’s really not about profits, but it needs investing in by authorities, because the arts are public good. If you don’t have that, you won’t be able to nurture and mentor young people and incentivise them, because we need to find sustainable ways to empower young theatremakers,” he concludes. “Whatever that is for me, whether as a future grant giver, or to continue creating, you have to keep pushing, or they’ll win. It’s not a case where you will win overnight, but that’s why I’m staying positive, and know that I’m going to be there, no matter how long it takes, for Malaysia to become the creative hub it can be.”
Photo Credit: Liver & Lung
Melur the Musical plays from 16th to 26th February 2023 at PJPAC, Kuala Lumpur. Tickets available here
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