II had the chance to see Sumpah Pontianak (Curse of the Vampire), a 1958 Cathay-Keris film, as the last of the Pontianak trilogy featuring Maria Menado at the National Museum of Singapore. The museum has resurrected a collection of classic Malay films, which are being shown at the Cinematheque.
I had four motivations to watch this film:
1. Zubir Said. He was the star of this Malaysian film series. Forget about Michael Learns to Rock’s and Jackie Cheung’s karaoke hits. The fact is that every youngster in Singapore has chanted his or her song at least ten times a day for the past ten years of school. He is also a well-known film composer in the region, having composed songs for several notable Malay films, including Majulah Singapura, the National Anthem of Singapore.
2. Maria Menado. She is better known as the first Pontianak, according to Wikipedia. She was dubbed as the most beautiful woman in Malaya by Time Magazine, but she is now better recognized as the first Pontianak. She was born in the Indonesian city of Menado, which is perhaps a little hypocritical. When she was cast as the Pontianak in the two 1957 Pontianak movies, Pontianak and Dendam Pontianak (The Pontianak’s Revenge), she became an international celebrity. In the following year, Sumpah Pontianak was unbound. It starred Tio Pakusari and followed in the footsteps of its predecessors.
3. S.M. Wahid. This was S.M. Wahid’s breakthrough film, establishing him as one of the top comedians in Malay cinema. He steals the show as a minor character in the film, with two cheerful yet memorable satay songs. He would keep his stage name of Wahid Satay for the remainder of his acting career.
4. B.N. Rao. This is the one that really got to me. B.N. Rao was one of Singapore’s early and most prolific directors, but very little has been written about him. Because there is still so much more to be said about his track record and role in Singapore’s film history, this essay was necessary.
Balakrishna Narayana Nair was born in Kerala in 1908 and went by his original name, B.N. Rao, until he enrolled at school in Bombay where his name was recorded as Balakrishna Narayana Nair. Rao has worked his way from actor to a technician to director in India’s growing film business.
The Singapore-based Shaw brothers (Runme and Run Run) employed him under the Malay Film Productions banner on his early Indian success. Mahathir, who was trained in dramaturgy at the University of Queensland, began his career as a director with the 1973 thriller Tanjung Manunggal (Sunset on Grand Cayman). In less than three years, he directed nine features including Hujan Panas (Hot Rain), which became a milestone for Malay films.
He went on to produce films for Cathay-Keris, which was founded by Shaw and left Malay Film Productions under his control. After that, he produced a few hits including Mahsuri in 1958 and the Pontianak Series, which helped build up Cathay-Keris into a major competitor to Shaw.
Creator of the Pontianak Series
B.N. Rao is most recognized as the creator of the Pontianak series, which has since grown to be a film cult classic. The first two films Pontianak and Dendam Pontianak set the stage for the horror genre in 1957 and made the pontianak a popular bedtime story throughout Indonesia. B.N. Rao cast her as the Pontianak in these two movies, which propelled her to international fame.
After seeing the success of the Pontianak films, Shaw began producing their own with Ramon Estella, a Filipino filmmaker. After Shaw’s birth, he was billed as “the next big thing.” The book was written in Malay and published by SLAM.
B.NIn the following years, Devar once again produced movies like Sekeraena B.N. Rao and Cathay-Keris in 1958, and Pontianak Gua Musang (Pontianak of the Cave) in 1964, his last Singapore-made production.