Banting, Singapore's first commercial Malay film since the 70s, is a feel-good comedy

Banting, by film-maker M. Raihan Halim (below), revolves around a tudung-wearing young woman (played by Izyan Mellyna Ishak, above) who defies her mother when she joins a professional wrestling troupe.
Banting, by film-maker M. Raihan Halim (below), revolves around a tudung-wearing young woman (played by Izyan Mellyna Ishak, above) who defies her mother when she joins a professional wrestling troupe.PHOTOS: PAPAHAN FILMS
Banting, by film-maker M. Raihan Halim (below), revolves around a tudung-wearing young woman (played by Izyan Mellyna Ishak, above) who defies her mother when she joins a professional wrestling troupe.
Banting, by film-maker M. Raihan Halim (below), revolves around a tudung-wearing young woman (played by Izyan Mellyna Ishak, above) who defies her mother when she joins a professional wrestling troupe.PHOTOS: PAPAHAN FILMS

Serious movies shown here inspired M. Raihan Halim to make feel-good comedy Banting

The serious tone of the Muslim stories reaching Singapore screens is what inspired film-maker M. Raihan Halim to make a picture that was the opposite in mood.

"The Muslim stories we get are so heavy," he says. The ones people will remember are The Kite Runner (2007), an American drama production about Afghan children caught in a war, and A Separation (2011), the Academy Award-winning Iranian film about the dissolution of a marriage.

"None of them are light-hearted, so I thought, 'Why not tell a funny story about the life of Malay-Muslims in Singapore?'" he says.

The result is the feel-good comedy-drama Banting, which is Malay for slam - the move used by the tudung-wearing young woman at the centre of the story.

Raihan's debut feature tells the story of Yasmin, who defies her mother and the expectations of her friends when she joins an all-female professional wrestling troupe.

The project brings together influences from his favourite films, including the emotions in the 2002 sports underdog story Bend It Like Beckham and the cartoon-like comedy style of Hong Kong director Stephen Chow. Raihan's own boyhood love of professional wrestling also figures in the film.

"A lot of Malay boys love soccer, but I couldn't stand it," says the 32-year-old, who is the eldest of three children, with a laugh. He found wrestling to be an exciting  mix of storytelling, celebrity glamour and great stunts.

All these elements come together in a movie with an uplifting message, that one should not let cultural stereotyping define one's limits.

He says: "I have a lot of friends who wear the tudung and many people believe it's a sign of oppression. My friends who wear it do what they love - they dirt-bike, they skydive. It doesn't stop them. That was something I wanted to explore."

The graduate of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's film and media studies school brought in actors he knew from producing shows for MediaCorp's Suria and Channel 5.

The actors include Izyan Mellyna Ishak as the aspiring wrestler, Yasmin; Mastura Ahmad as her conservative mother, Halimah; Fauzie Laily as Zaidy Salihin, her best friend; and Jimmy Taenaka as Harry, the gruff trainer.

The film opens on Friday on one screen, at a Cathay cineplex. This might be a small opening, but the movie is the first local Malay-language film since the 1970s to get a commercial release here.

In a typical year, there are more films in Korean, Japanese and Thai finding cinema screens here than in Malay.

Raihan, who is married with no kids, acknowledges that lack of distribution here for Malay films comes from lack of audience demand.

"We don't have a real Malay film industry here, compared with Malaysia," he says.

The Malay-language television scene is by far a safer bet financially than feature films.

Raihan's script was among eight films that won $250,000 in funding from the New Talent Feature Grant in 2012, a pool that helps new film-makers. The rest of the film's $700,000 budget comes from his production company, Papahan Films.

He understands the risk, and knows that it will take a lot of marketing on television, newspapers and social media to bring in an audience.

"There is a reason to make Malay films. It's not about representing the Malay community, it's that there are Malay stories to be told. One of the reasons we made Banting was to show that it could be done."

johnlui@sph.com.sg

Banting opens in cinemas on Friday.