Many young Malaysians are probably not aware of this but in the 1940s there were many locals who sought their fortune by becoming sailors on board British ships. One such individual was Othman, a fisherman from Malacca who wants a better life for himself and his family.
“After he got married, he was inspired to be a better man,” says Remy Ishak, who plays the lead Othman in the film Pulang.”
The historical drama is based on true events, in fact revolving around the grandfather of Ahmad Izham Omar, the chief executive officer of Primeworks Studios who produced the film.
“My grandfather left Malacca in 1946 to work on a cargo ship in Singapore and sailed around the world. He visited various destinations and sent postcards to my father,” Ahmad Izham was quoted as saying in an interview with the News Straits Times.
He never had the opportunity to meet his grandfather but in 2010, he made his way to Liverpool to look for the grave of his grandfather.
“When I asked Ahmad Izham, he couldn’t tell me much about his character,” says Remy. “His father Hj. Omar described him as being very secretive, someone who didn’t talk much.”
Using his creative license, Remy came to the conclusion that Othman must have been suffering from feelings of guilt for having left his family, which was the reason for his reserved character.
“Before Malaysia got independence, it was not easy to become someone. From a fisherman to a sailor, for someone who could not speak English,” Remy elaborates. “It is like moving from zero to becoming a hero. He was not from a rich family and he was living alone, by himself.”
Though Othman’s story may appear to be quite unusual, he was just one of many who eventually settled abroad after becoming sailors. When Ahmad Izham went to look for his grandfather’s cemetery, he discovered that there were many other Malaysian sailors who had been buried in the same cemetery.
“My grandfather’s adventure may form the essence of Pulang, but we also made the film as a tribute to unsung heroes, the sailors who helped stamp our country’s name on the map,” Ahmad Izham said in the same interview.
“Not all of them came home, some started new lives in Liverpool, Rotterdam and Sri Lanka. Pulang seeks to enlighten Malaysians about them.”
Pulang is directed by Kabir Bhatia. It is written by Mira Mustaffa and Ahmad Izham. It also stars Puteri Aishah, Azrel Ismail and Datuk Jalaluddin Hassan. While it is a historical drama, Remy explored trying to get into the psyche of Othman, imagining what it would have felt like to leave his family while trying to secure a better future.
“With most characters, I try to apply what I have been through in my life,” he says. “I can feel what Othman feels.”
A film like Pulang, Remy says, is an example of how the Malaysian film industry is “getting there.” No doubt, he adds, Malaysian films still have a lot of catching up to do compared to Thailand and Indonesia but the recognition is increasing.
“There are a new wave of filmmakers who are making the effort to sell their products outside,” he says. “They try to participate in every film festival. ”
With Malaysia now heralding a new era, Remy hopes that there will be more effort to develop the entertainment industry.
“It is said that the Malaysian film industry is going down because we don’t have artistic license. There are lots of stories that we can’t share in the movies. That makes us lag behind Indonesia and Thailand. We hope that we will be allowed to have a voice through our art and that the government will take care of the people in the industry.”
For himself, Remy aspires to go beyond the “typical male lead role. I try to be better every day,” he says. “The producers and the actors want to do something else but the audience sometimes want the typical storyline. We cannot feed them the same thing over and over again but we have to change slowly.”
Photography by Bibo Aswan
Creative Direction by Ibnu Aswan
Assistance by Joyce Lim
Grooming by Alvin Loh
Special thanks to Sheraton Hotel Petaling Jaya