As mentioned earlier, Salawati was one of the locally made movies that flew under my radar, and I wasn't aware of it until the poster appeared in a local cinema chain. Written and directed by American Marc X Grigoroff, the film made its world premiere in Seattle earlier this year, and looking at its story, it's actually quite a bold attempt to address a genreal deficiency in movies made here, where it's typically (and I tend to believe not by choice) focused predominantly on the majority race, with others being non-existent, or sidelined to minor roles, often stereotypical ones.
That of course doesn't reflect the representation of our multi-cultural heritage and multi-racial society, and fair enough, I suppose it's a challenge to try and mix things up a little, given that not everyone is multi-lingual. There are attempts in the past of course, like Wee Li Lin's Gone Shopping with one story arc on an Indian girl, or City Sharks' group of actors and characters of different races, and Jack Neo movies of late as well, usually in minor roles played out for laughs. Naturally it will be very artificial if this is not done properly, in that there's no point doing something for the sake of doing it. One wonders if it’s really possible to allow it to come through naturally, and I guess there’s no silver bullet solution to this, except to await the time where someone will show us the way to do so very naturally.
As a foreigner looking from the outside, the appeal would be to see how one would interpret the modern Singapore society, its quirks and all, in a different light, providing opportunity for us to examine and hold a mirror up to ourselves. And it's no surprise too that in a general sense we can be quite an uncaring bunch, especially when dealing with strangers, and one even suspects if the pursuit of economic wealth can be so overbearing that we may have lost our humanity, to be able to offer assistance to total strangers, or forgetting how to be Good Samaritans to fellow human beings during their times of need. This thought doesn’t really ring through, not until the last act, but when it did, you’ll be set off pondering over it.
The opening of the film thrusts us deep into the theme the director wishes to explore, that of death and its effects on the people around the deceased. We see the preparation of a shroud, and the washing of a body in preparation for burial, and we soon learn that it is Shahim, brother of the titular character Salawati (Siti Aisyah Masgot), who had witnessed her brother's untimely and unfortunate demise from a drowning incident, one which she blames herself for not able to do enough because she’s not water savvy.
Despite distinct stories, there are some interesting parallels across them. The Malay family is experiencing the aftermath of a tragedy, with the mother Fatimah talking about feeling real pain, and Ishak the father talks about real death. Through what are essentially monologues, the characters bring out deep anguish in their bewilderment, even questioning their faith and asking Whys. Contrast this with the Chinese man and his treatment of his family, where he’s quite nonchalant about their welfare, thinking that economic wealth automatically creates a happy home. But at what price?
Salawati makes us sit back and think a little, of the usual lapses we fall into each time we take our beloved family members for granted. One family has lost their son, while the other is not treasuring his, and the irony and hypocrisy of it all is that the Chinese salesman can talk about pro-family policies with a straight face when hawking his products to customers.
If you manage to sit through a somewhat measured pace, you'll discover that the payload actually comes right at the end, where it built its tension to be released in a crescendo of emotions, while also leaving room for plenty of debate and interpretation. Well, it's like telling you two faces of a coin, in being able to forgive or to have sought revenge, and depending on which camp you subscribe to, you'll interpret the events in thoroughly different ways.
Initially I had thought that Salawati was made up of three distinct shorts, followed by the usual of having its characters interact at one point to provide some legitimacy to justify their presence and selection to be included in a combined narrative. It still shuttles between narrative threads and at some point it did look as if there might be some creativity (that wasn’t) with the juxtaposition of time. It continues to fall back on some stereotypes when touching on issues like cab drivers, and certain jokes and mannerisms. Amongst all the arcs, I thought the Indian one was a little weak because of this aspect.
In any case, Marc has shown a possible way to incorporate all races into one film given almost equal portions, in a film about death physically, the death of family relationships, being stuck in a dead end job, and the death of humanity in seemingly richer folks bring lost in their pursuit of wealth, and ordinary folks presented in a more down to earth fashion, who are more willing to extend a helping hand to a neighbour in need.