Adapting A. Samad Ismail’s short story for the stage – Johan Jaaffar

Adapting A. Samad Ismail’s short story for the stage – Johan Jaaffar

In the second of a three-part series, a veteran journalist recounts putting up a play based on the legendary newsman’s work

I WAITED six agonising years to know what he thought of the play I directed based on his short story. In the May 1995 edition of Dewan Budaya, a magazine published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), Tan Sri A. Samad Ismail (Pak Samad) wrote an article entitled “Rumah Kedai Di Jalan Seladang: Catatan Ringkas.”

He was not particularly addressing the issue about the stage adaptation of Rumah Kedai Di Jalan Seladang. The article was about copyright infringement and the complaints by local writers when their works were adapted for TV or film without their permission and in many cases, were not paid a single sen.

He touched on the controversy surrounding the novel Hartini by Aziz Afkar adapted by Erma Fatima for TV. He was also referring to the case of the anthology of short stories, Mekar dan Segar, which was made a textbook for secondary schools which the publisher initially refused to pay royalties to the writers.

And he did mention my adaptation of his short story which was first published in the September 1988 edition of Dewan Sastera, DBP’s literary magazine.

It was the editor of Dewan Sastera at the time, the late Wan Omar Ahmad (better known by his pseudonym Sutung Umar RS) who managed to cajole him to write for the magazine. It took him 17 years to honour Dewan Sastera with his creative work. The late Usman Awang (Tongkat Warrant) was the first editor of the magazine that was first published in 1971.

And what a short story it was. Rumah Kedai Di Jalan Seladang was vintage Pak Samad. It was probably the longest short story ever published by Dewan Sastera (13 and a half printed pages long!) and probably one of the best.

Pak Samad at the gala performance of ‘Rumah Kedai Di Jalan Seladang’ at DBP, with Dr Anuar Nor Arai (right), Dr Anwar Rithwan and wife, Aishah. He came with his tie on! – Pic courtesy of Johan Jaafar

I was the head of DBP’s Magazine Division at the time. When Wan Omar showed me the short story, my first impression was, “Panjangnya!” (So long). It was typed on 26 pages of foolscap papers, with notes and corrections graffitied all over. And glaring spelling mistakes, too.

“Boss baca dulu,” (Boss read it first). Wan Omar left the short story on my table.

I read the first page. I continued reading the second page. I was hooked. And I completed reading all 26 pages in one go. I was consumed by the characters, the narrative and the background. I was drained mentally. It was a reading experience I seldom experienced. It was great literature.

It was about a young reporter thrown into the real world during the Japanese Occupation. Leman, the main character, found a world of joy, sadness, destitution, loneliness, hunger, betrayal and sacrifices in Singapore at the time.

Leman met Mak Nah Bee (or Mak Wan) who kept three women, Tina, Nani dan Leha, who were dancers at a nearby cabaret. They each have sad stories of their own. Mak Nah Bee had a daughter, Kalsum, trying to make sense of the madness around her.

Mak Nah Bee also had Juki, an Indonesian worker who was her conduit to the world of the black market. She was close to Takahashi – a middle-ranking Japanese military officer, who loved Tina. Takahashi was the saviour of Mak Nah Bee’s big family in trying times. And there was Datuk Makruf, the corrupt Malay officer who fell for Leha.

Leman visited the ailing Mak Nah Bee many years later, that was how the short story started. The happy home he used to know was gone. Tina had died, Leha and Nani disappeared – perhaps to start a new life. Kalsum had abandoned her. Juki died in a Japanese prison for his involvement in the black market. Takahashi was incarcerated for stealing military supplies and Datuk Makruf was found drowned.

Jalil Hamid as Takahashi and Khatijah Tan as Nani. – Pic courtesy of Johan Jaafar
In the forward to my adaptation, Pak Samad wrote, “the characters paid a high price to avoid the feelings of despair and hopelessness encountered by others during the time. Nani, Mak Nah Bee, Tina and Leha – they all have to sacrifice their dignity to live comfortably, so as not to suffer and to live in destitution .”

I believe ‘Rumah Kedai Di Jalan Seladang’ was autobiographical. Leman is not entirely Pak Samad but close. In the Dewan Budaya article, he admitted that many of the characters in ‘Rumah Kedai Di Jalan Seladang’ were based on real people that he knew. He even admitted that he had “girlfriend keliling pinggang” (girlfriends in abundance) just like Leman in the story.

Even Kalsum was named after the real-life Kalsum, whom he felt for, and Mak Nah Bee (the same name in the short story) was hoping Leman would marry the girl one day. He admitted the “kakak-kakak” (older sisters) that he befriended were living in Mak Nah Bee’s house, just like in the short story. Pak Samad admitted he lived at Mak Nah Bee’s place whenever he had the chance.

Pak Samad asked why I chose ‘Rumah Kedai Di Jalan Seladang’ rather than his two favourite short stories ‘Bung Leman’ or ‘Ah Kaw Masuk Syurga’. My choice was simple, despite being episodic, it had a great story, intriguing plot and incredible characters.

And it was about his life in his early adult years. The fictitious road he called Jalan Seladang in the short story was actually Jalan Lembu (Lembu Road) in Singapore. Back then the notorious red-light district was from Lavender Street to the infamous New World establishment, which reaches out to Desker Road, Maud Road and Syed Alwi Road. It was the “Wan Chai” (Hong Kong’s red-light district) of Singapore or Belakang Mati of Kuala Lumpur.

Tan Sri Johan Jaafar says he was anxious about how he would react to my play. – The Vibes file pic

Jalan Lembu was a short distance from Jalan Besar where the football stadium was located. Next to the stadium was Victoria School where Pak Samad went to school before the war. According to him, it was the legendary Ishak Haji Muhammad (better known as Pak Sako), a veteran journalist at Utusan Melayu at the time, who introduced Pak Samad to the robust, boisterous and crazy nightlife in the 40s. He was hardly 17 at the time, a cadet journalist with Utusan Melayu.

He admitted, “sedikit sebanyak pendedahan di rumah itu mematang dan mendewasakan saya.” (The exposure at the house matured and made me grow up). He was referring to Mak Nah Bee’s house.

The short story moved me in more ways than one. I knew I had to adapt the story for the stage. I knew I had to bring the heart-wrenching portrayal of the lives of these mere mortals in extraordinary circumstances for the audience to see.

I have adapted Anwar Rithwan’s novel Hari-Hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman earlier. In fact, I won the Hadiah Sastera Kebangsaan (National Literary Award) for my adaptation, the first time an adaptation was recognised by the national literary award. For two years, Badan Budaya (the DBP theatre group) staged the play (1984 and 1985). In 1996, I brought A Samad Said’s classic novel, Salina to the stage.

I assembled some of the finest young actors for Rumah Kedai Di Jalan Seladang. Mohd Sabri Yunus, whom I introduced in Hari-Hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman as Tuk Selampit, played the part of Leman.

Sabri made his name later as actor, comedian and director. He won the Best Director Award for his direction for the telemovie Sanggul Beracun at TV3’s Anugerah Skrin. Wan Maimunah Aziz played Mak Nah Bee, Kahtijah Tan was Nani, Nor Adierah Rahim was Leha, Tina was Shahreza Mahmud. Bohari Ibrahim played Juki, Datuk Makruf was played by Mohd Ali Osman, Jalil Hamid was Lieutenant Takahashi, and Saodah Wahid played the part of Kalsum.

Many of them went on to become well-known actors and actresses on stage, on TV and in film.

Frankly, it was a labour of love. I liked the short story. So, too, the players. We put a lot of effort into it. It was staged in conjunction with Malaysia Fest 1989 held in Kuala Lumpur. Pak Samad came to one of the rehearsals. He was smuggled in by Wan Omar.

He came to the show on the first night at Balai Budaya DBP (now Balai Budaya Tun Syed Nasir). It was September 17, 1989. I was understandably nervous. I knew him. But I was anxious about how he would react to my play.

I was watching him from one corner of the stage. There were scenes where I saw him becoming visibly moved. And there were instances when his signature laughter filled the hall. I knew I did a good job.

However, that night he refrained from commenting about the play, though he conveyed his appreciation to me, the players and the crew. I had to wait for another six years to get his real opinion on it!

In the article, he mentioned that his wife kept pinching him seeking clarification if Leman was him. And if the scenes in the play involved him. “Dia berbisik kepada saya bertanya, benarkah bahawa saya dalam masa pendudukan Jepun itu tinggal bersama pelacur”, he wrote. (She whispered to me asking if it was true that during the Japanese Occupation I lived with prostitutes).

His answer, “Awak percayakah cerita ini, awak percayakah Leman itu saya? Ini cerita rekaan sahaja.” (Do you believe this story; do you believe Leman is me? This is merely fiction).

His wife told me before they left, “Macam cerita betul kan?” (It’s like a true story, right?”)

I didn’t answer her. Pak Samad quickly ushered her out of the hall.

By the time he wrote the piece in Dewan Budaya six years later, Puan Sri Hamidah Hassan had long been gone.

Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar was an accomplished stage actor, director and playwright. He has acted under the direction of Mustapha Noor, Othman Haji Zainuddin, Hatta Azad Khan, Zakaria Ariffin and others. He was a journalist and former chairman of DBP and Media Prima Bhd. He is the 12th recipient of the National Journalism Laurette (Tokoh Wartawan Negara). He is working on his memoir, 1998: An Editor’s Story.

source – The Vibes

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