After years of waiting, Spilt Gravy Ke Mana Tumpahnya Kuah hits the screens in Malaysia on 9th June. We speak to Datuk Zahim Albakri (director/co-screenwriter) and June Tan (co-screenwriter) on what it took for the film, adapted from a play, to reach this moment.
One privilege of being an artist is the experience of creating something from nothing, to then usher it into the universe. For the team behind the film Spilt Gravy Ke Mana Tumpahnya Kuah however, the journey took a bit longer than usual: 11 years from production to its imminent premiere on 9th June.
It is close to double that time if one considers that the source text for the film adaptation—the play, Spilt Gravy on Rice—was first staged in 2002. The play, written by renowned Malaysian playwright Jit Murad, tells the story of Bapak, a dying father who wants to connect with his five adult children, an assortment of characters, each with their own issues and idiosyncrasies. The setting of the play, a leafy colonial-era bungalow, is a palpable presence in the play. Partly inspired by the actual family home of Zahim Albakri, Jit’s long-time collaborator and friend, it was the sale of this same house to a property developer that set-in motion work on the film.
June Tan, the film’s co-screenwriter, alongside Jit and Zahim (who also directs and stars in the film) recalls when the news came over dinner one evening. “Zahim kept mentioning his family had sold the house. It took me a while to catch on that it was his way of saying, it was now or never for the film!” After the stage run, the cast and crew had taken to imagining what a screen version would look like, and who would be in the cast. Tan was the stage manager of the stage production, and was eager to play a scriptwriting role for the film.
In a twist of events, the house, in an upscale Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood close to the Twin Towers, and its surrounding buildings were eventually acquired by the government to build a MRT station. For the film too, things took an untoward turn: years of being held up at the Film Censorship Board.
The rigmarole of red tape is nothing new to the local arts community. Yet, Zahim describes the hours of meetings at the Home Ministry building in Putrajaya as akin to being guided by well-meaning, albeit rigid, tutors. The officers offered their opinions on expletives, supernatural elements and LGBT themes scene by scene.
“They liked the film, and wanted it to screen. They gave suggestions on the edits for the film to be approved. I sensed that they were trying to predict what the public response to the film could be, and were recommending corrections.”
“You know how it is, even one complaint could potentially shut down a production,” Tan adds. “But maybe this means it’s time for the audiences to step forward and say we’re ready for such art, we want to see these stories in Malaysia,” she continues.
Reflections on Malaysia and Malaysians are prevalent in Spilt Gravy Ke Mana Tumpahnya Kuah, a title that comes from a Malay proverb roughly similar to “chip off the old block.”
A testament to Jit’s writing is how endearingly real each character comes across to anyone familiar with KL’s Malay upper middle-class world circa the early 2000s. Their quirks and individual responses to the pressures of modern life in a society with conservative social mores extends universal appeal however, and will feel familiar despite the specifics of the film’s Malaysian milieu.
If the play script is anything to go by, the film will have the audience laughing heartily, with moments of tender reflection in between. One character is an outspoken cultural critic who gets a rude shock when her commentary is deemed out of line. Another is someone who sponges off his siblings as a vocation, while yet another is a conventionally successful man who grapples with masculinity as he tries to do right by his family and society. Veteran actor Dato’ Rahim Razali headlines as Bapak, the patriarch who is, literally, confronted by his mortality in the form of two sharply dressed angels on Grim Reaper duty. Played by Jit, and actor-comedian Harith Iskander, the duo bring comedic wit to the topic of life and death, blurring the distinction between reality and imagination.
Other cast members are drawn from a formidable line-up from Malaysian theatre, film, music and literature, including actor and singer Sean Ghazi as Husni, writer and poet Bernice Chauly as Kalsom and Na’a Murad as Darwis. They play three of the five siblings, whose lives and entanglements create a riot of voices finding their way in a demanding, unforgiving society. It leaves one wanting to cackle and cry in equal parts and wondering, ‘Why can’t it be easier to just be?’
Back to the topic of time: Spilt Gravy Ke Mana Tumpahnya Kuah‘s long walk to screening has had the surprise effect of making the film a source of curiosity and intrigue to outsiders. Acquiring a cult status, it had a private screening at a local literary festival in 2018, giving its small audience the status of the cool kids who got to watch “that film.”
After rounds of edits, in late 2019 the team finally submitted a version of the film that the Film Censorship Board considered acceptable. Spilt Gravy Ke Mana Tumpahnya Kuah was cleared to screen. But then the pandemic hit, and it was put on hold yet again.
Finally, the long-awaited day is here. How does it feel now that there’s light at the end of the tunnel?
“I’m starting to panic. There’s a lot to think about until we premiere, to get the word out,” shares Zahim with a laugh.
For Tan, it’s a poignant moment. Spilt Gravy Ke Mana Tumpahnya Kuah was her first feature film script, and since then she has built a solid career in screenwriting. To have her first script finally see the light of day prompts personal reflections on how far the team members have come in 11 years, and by extension, how Malaysia has fared in this time too.
“The film is not outdated, but is quite clearly of its time. The thing about change is you can only sense it once you’ve stayed put somewhere. For me, the five siblings represent different spaces in Malaysia. It’s a sort of pushback, to say that hey, we need to have these spaces in the country. Even if it might feel that the ones that remain are shrinking.”
The most sombre note comes from remembering those who left along the way. There was the production manager, Kevin Patrick Achuthan, housekeeper pakcik, Om Bin Win, who was on location throughout filming, casting assistant, Gan Hui Yee, and a wardrobe stylist from the stage run, Richard Schubert. And then of course, the playwright too is no longer with us. Jit passed away earlier this year, leaving a nation to mourn its loss.
“The Jit trademark is still very strong in the original script, and he carried it into the film. My role was to convert his words into another genre. But the cloth—if we can call it that—that I was given to work with was already very colourful,” shares Tan.
“Jit was an extraordinary talent, literally a genius. To have had the chance to collaborate with him on all our projects was such a gift to me, because he let me take his genius and play with it, even change some of it. It’s a shame he’s not going to be here for the premiere. But I like to think he’s up there looking down on us,” Zahim shares, his voice trailing off.