Feature by: Tiffany Limsico
From Benjamin McKay
It was Hassan Muthalib who first introduced me to you. Do you remember? You had a preview screening of Sepet at Leo Burnett. I was sort of new to KL, having been coming here off and on for several years working on my, as you later put it, “tiresome PhD.” Tiresome or not (and you may well be right), those early years here allowed me the opportunity to slowly fall in love with your country. So much so that I moved in permanently and in my own romance with Malaysia, your films have helped to temper at times the ‘difficult patches’, those infuriating moments encountered in all such passionate and torrid affairs, and so therefore I thank you for your films Kak Min.
And dear Yasmin I also thank you for your charm, your wit, your courage and your generosity. We crossed paths (and several times crossed swords!) on a semi-regular basis over the subsequent six or so years – sometimes at screenings, maybe a public forum, occasionally over lunch. I even had to share the stage with you once at one of those public forums you did so well. And if I felt under-prepared and inconsequential at that event, it did not matter, because you did all the talking anyway, so that when I left at the end I felt that I had vicariously received some of your public triumph.
You could of course be difficult, but you were rarely petty. You would introduce me to people as that “Australian critic”, and when they asked for more information I might add that I teach film studies at Monash University here in Malaysia. Quick as a flash, and always on cue, you would interject with something like, “He does write quite well so I forgive him for wasting his life in a university!” For an intelligent woman you had a persistent and unbending mistrust of the academy and those who serve it.
We once amicably crossed swords with each other in a conversation that included this line – “I create; I construct; you academicians deconstruct. What does that make all of you? Destroyers?” I defended the profession lightheartedly as I knew you were not going to be convinced otherwise, but dear Yasmin, I now have a small confession to make. In my dark moments of self-doubt (which are, trust me, rare) I sometimes wonder whether in some ways you had a point. ‘Creation’ and ‘Destruction’ – if I had had the temerity and courage to have challenged your suspicions of the academy further, I might have invoked that most complex of multiple-personality Gods and mentioned perhaps, Siva. But I am glad I remained timid. You no doubt would have still won the argument by closing it brusquely with the suggestion that I stop “being a wanker.”
Each new film of yours added to our understanding of Malaysia. And of course when you bravely tread on contested turf you found you had your detractors. So, in each subsequent film you addressed your detractors bravely. You might have thought that ‘intellectuals’ were a suspicious lot, but in your public and cinematic engagement with those detractors you were in a sense something of a public intellectual – a sentimentalist, yes, but a thinker as well. On matters sentimental I have always loved the way you embraced it rather than apologized for it. In a country that often finds it hard to weep for itself, you cathartically spun magic. In a land of many races where mistrust and stereotype have become ingrained as false truths, you made your audiences weep and laugh and miraculously empathize with ‘their other’, the ‘other’ who dwells within. If that occasionally required some sturdy manipulation, then so be it.
You never read any of my ‘academic’ papers on your work and I think we are both grateful for that. You did however enjoy the criticism I wrote in the mainstream media and I was always pleased with the generous way you took the criticism I gave. When I mentioned sentimentality occasionally and of course manipulation, you perhaps secretly read it as a compliment – and perhaps in some ways it was. When a group of us caught a late night screening of Talentime, afterwards at the mamak stall where we had assembled for the obligatory ‘deconstruction’ (you might see it as a postmortem?) we decided to text you to say how much we had loved the film. Minutes later as we sat with our teh tariks, my phone rang. It was you, Kak Min, and you had wanted a full critique. I was being genuine when I told you that I thought it was your best work to date. I hope you believed me.
I am waffling again Yasmin and I doubt you are surprised. I do so however, because I am avoiding the substance of this letter to you, and so therefore please accept my apologies.
I simply cannot believe you have gone. When I had received the call to say you had had a stroke I immediately jumped online for some necessary confirmation, for it felt like an absurd impossibility. Such impossibilities paled into comparison with the news of your passing and the subsequent grief. The grief and shock was not only palpable in those who knew you and loved you, and those like myself who knew you and loved you from a peripheral distance, but the outpouring from those who said that they had never met you but felt that they knew you, made the overall sense of grief all that more profound.
Online, in the newspapers, on the radio and television and yes, in the kopi tiams and mamaks, your passing was met with deep sadness and shock. By the banks of the murky Klang River in the heart of KL a graffiti mural of you sprang up overnight and people went to lay flowers and to take photographs and to perhaps ponder how long it would be before the city council scrubbed your image away.
Well many months have passed Kak Min and your mural is still there, having been joined now by many dozens more. It, and the others stand defiant and I suspect the petty bureaucrats now just hope that both time and the weather ultimately do their job for them.
Directors, especially Southeast Asian directors, are not supposed to be national figures and while I had always sensed your importance, the public outpouring following your passing surprised me for its impact. You were loved Yasmin. All the battles with narrow mindedness and the banalities of having to always defend your art were not in vain. Those films are identified as your films, and while many who grieved for you perhaps thought the films were about a Malaysia that does not yet exist, it is clear that your Malaysia is one that many genuinely yearn for.
You only met my partner on two occasions Yasmin, but he remembers with fondness your remark to me when I first introduced you both. You said, “He really is quite beautiful Benjamin. Make sure you don’t destroy him!” I got your pointed barb, and loved it for the way it resonated consistently with your suspicions about us academics, but please be rest assured Yasmin I will do no such thing! On that same meeting you did allow me to run by you some ideas I had about the course I was developing for my students on Malaysian cinema, and you were generous again with your advice, even when your witty skepticism came to the fore. I thank you for that.
In the months since your death I have completed my first semester teaching that unit on Malaysian Cinema. By way of closing this letter of love to you Yasmin, might I share with you the dedication that preceded one of my student’s final research papers? The subject concerned your work, as did a great number of the papers I received this year. She wrote:
“I dedicate my essay to the memory of the late Yasmin Ahmad. Malaysia does not have many national living treasures so for us to lose one is very sad. Long live Jason and Orked.”
Yasmin, your work was all about love. I hope from this letter you understand just how much you were loved in return.
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