Watching Talentime at CRCS: A look into identity

Ira Chuarsa | CRCS | Class Journal

In the midst of overwhelming homeworks of various courses at CRCS, the Religion and Film course comes to the rescue. Students can learn and at the same time enjoy watching movies. One of the movies we watched was a love-themed, yet delivering multicultural issues, movie titled Talentime (2009) directed by Yasmin Ahmad, a Malaysian. Reflecting on the movie, Dr Kelli Swazey, the lecturer of the course, then discussed theories of identity with specific focus on identity and media in contemporary Southeast Asia.

Media is believed to be representing events, people, situations and issues in daily life. But, is it true that media represents the real world? Or rather, more of the other way around, isn’t it the media instead that constructs the reality, having a power to shape societies’ discourse?

Stuart Hall defines representation as a process of exchanging meaning in society or culture using images and languages, and meaning changes all the time. Meaning depends on how we interpret something or someone, and identity, including how we understand nationality, can change depending on how we understand the concept following our knowledge development and on the influence of discourse and power relations.

According to Hall, mass media as a device of communication always relates to power. He argues that media representations of ethnic minorities have often been constructed, either intentionally or unintentionally, to create or control how individuals understand their identities and others’. This often results in under-/mis-representation and stereotypes (fixed image). There is a tendency of media to empower certain stereotypes, especially when it wants to sell; for instance, stereotypes about black people portrayed as criminals much more than the white and Arabs as terrorists. In Southeast Asia, as can be seen in Talentime, stereotypes have been prevalent about Chinese and Indians.

The movie Talentime is a comedy that at the same time explores stigmatization, prejudice and clashes due to racial and religious issues in family and social life in the multiethnic and multireligious society of Malaysia. Yasmin Ahmad tried to show one of the misconceptions on religion and ethnicity which are often understood as inseparable in Malaysia. The fact that she herself experienced interracial and interreligious relations in her real life has possibly inspired her in making the movie.

The prejudice between Hindu Indians and Muslim Malays; the stigma of a Muslim Indian toward a Chinese; and the forbidden love between a Hindu and a Muslim make Talentime movie worth reflecting. There are some scenes that hit the nail on the head. When Mahesh’s uncle, an Indian Hindu is killed in a conflict that involves Muslim Malays and Hindu Indians, Mahesh’s mother ranted and blamed the Muslim Malays: “Why do Muslims pray to their God every day and yet do not have a conscience by killing my brother?” Mahesh’s sister said: “Why not if they are Muslims, Mom?” One can see prejudice here. And the movie continued the story that the hatred carried on when Mahesh’s mother forbids the relationship between Mahesh and Melur, a Muslim girl. 

Another scene is when a friend of Melur’s mother, a Muslim Indian who really hates Mey Ling, Melur’s family’s Chinese helper , is told that Mey Ling has converted to Islam. Melur asked why Mey Ling still uses her Chinese name after converting to Islam instead of changing her name into an “Islamic” name. That’s the time when Muler’s sister answers back: “Mey Ling has converted to be Muslim, not Arab or Malay.” This is a thing that many in Malaysia often forget: Ethnicity and religion are not the same thing.

Talentime movie portrays multicultural and multireligious issues that many other countries have been encountering for so long, including Indonesia. Unlike Malaysian Chinese, who are still free to use their Chinese name and not being forced to change their name into non-Chinese names, Indonesian Chinese were “banned” to use Chinese names as their official names during the New Order. What Indonesian Chinese did at that time was to modify their Chinese family name (marga) into a name that is less Chinese and more “Indonesian”. For instance, people with a Chinese family name “Tan” would change the family name into “Tanadi”, “Tanuwijaya”, or “Tanoesudibyo”. “Wong” would be changed into “Wongso”, “Wongsonegoro” or “Juwono”. And “Chua” would be modified into “Chuadri”, “Chuaniago” or “Chuarsa”.

A name is someone’s identity. Batak, Ambonese, Papuan, Balinese, Manadonese, etc. identities can be easily recognized by their family names. But, for Chinese, their identities can’t be recognized by their names since Chinese family names were prohibited. If a Chinese name as an identity is hardly acknowledged, how can Indonesian Chinese people’s identity and existence in this multiethnic country can be wholly acknowledged?

Language is part of identity as well. In the Talentime movie, the Chinese characters speak both Mandarin and Cantonese to each other. In reality, nearly all Malaysian Chinese are able to speak Chinese fluently. In comparison, majority of Indonesian Chinese can’t speak Mandarin Chinese language because of, again, the New Order regime’s anti-Chinese policies. Most Indonesian Chinese can only speak Chinese dialects such as Hokkian and/or Hakka.

From the movie, portraying a critical look toward the perceived intertwined relation between ethnicity and religion, until Southeast Asian states’ policies toward ethnic minorities, we can reflect on how power relations shape how nationality and identity are represented by the media and lived everyday.

*Ira Chuarsa is CRCS student of the 2017 batch.

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