You’ve been involved in performing arts from a young age. How did it all begin?
Since I was young, I’ve been acting in films, TV, and on stage but what I’ve always wanted to do was to be a producer. As an actor you don’t have much of a creative choice, but as a producer, you’re driving the project and can select themes or issues that matter to you or the society. When I started acting in Indonesia in 1987, I was approached by a famous Indonesian producer, Bustal Nawawi. We made a deal: if I signed on to act in four films under his production company, he’d teach me the business of film-making and train me to be a producer. I said yes, and that was how it all began for me.
How was the transition from acting to producing?
In the mid-1990s, I was involved in producing TV sitcoms, like Spanar Jaya which ran for eight seasons and was very successful. In 2003, I turned to film and this was how Puteri Gunung Ledang: The Movie (Malaysia’s first big budget film, which Tiara Jacquelina starred in and co-produced) came about. It was challenging. There was no one to show us how things were done, and many tough and expensive lessons were learnt. It was difficult to market to Malaysians, some who had lost faith in the local film industry. Promoting the film overseas was even tougher, as we had to get international distributors to take an interest in a Malay-language film, when they did not understand the language and cultural context. We pushed through and sold it to several markets, including Europe and China. The movie caught the eye of people at the Academy Awards, making PGL the first Malaysian film to be considered for a nomination in the Foreign Film category. To be shortlisted was a big deal for us, and it’s still one of the highest points of my career to date.
Tell us about Malaysia’s longest-running musical, MUD: Our Story of Kuala Lumpur. How did the idea for that come about?
MUD is produced by Enfiniti Vision Media, of which I am founder and group chairman. As a company, we go for themes with strong positive values, which contribute to the conversation of national unity. It’s our way of making a difference. MUD tells the story of how KL was founded and the three friends, Mamat, Meng and Muthiah, who came to the frontier town in search of opportunities and a new life. Through their journey, we encounter a host of colourful characters, each with their own enduring personalities and stories. These form the cultural mosaic of what we all now know as modern KL. The production presented the best opportunity for us to give our foreign friends and visitors to KL the quickest introduction to the city and its history. For locals born and bred in this city, my team and I wanted to help give ourselves a stronger sense of belonging and identity.
Is MUD for everyone?
At Enfiniti, we hope to create magical, unforgettable experiences. In that vein, MUD is designed to be interactive and immersive, with the hope that audiences can connect emotionally with our journey I feel it’s important for us as Malaysians to never lose touch with our roots. Culturally, we are discovering many things that make us different from one another – our religious beliefs, traditions and lifestyles. We can do with a gentle reminder of how that unique difference has made us who we’ve become today, and how important it is that we don't lose sight of this as we progress as a nation. Our talented, multiracial cast members are passionate and committed in telling the story of their forefathers. They are Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, Kadazan, Melanau and Iban who live and breathe the message of unity onstage as well as offstage. What no one else gets to see backstage, twice a day, every day, is the cast and stage management crew joining hands in a circle, performing a multi-faith prayer. That’s next-level national unity, in my book.
The show has been ongoing for over two years. How do you keep it fresh?
As an actor, it is your responsibility to your role to always keep it fresh for yourself and for the audience. Of course it sounds a lot easier than it is in practice. What the actors have done for themselves is quite clever. They sometimes rotate their roles and on some nights, you have the guy who plays Meng playing something else. It keeps them from being bored, and allows them to keep exercising their ability to play different characters.
What are some of the challenges in keeping the production running?
We try to keep this humble show going every day, in spite of the fluctuating tourist arrivals and logistic challenges. It has evolved and changed so much in the past few years. At times, I’ve been its harshest critic because my team knows how I always push hard for nothing less than perfection. It takes a lot, physically and emotionally, to attain that. What keeps us going is the love and support we receive through the MUDKL Facebook and Instagram pages and on TripAdvisor. And here we are today, the longest-running show in Malaysian history, against all odds.
What are your thoughts on your company being considered a pioneer in musical productions in Malaysia?
To some extent, people do consider Enfiniti as a company that has changed the face of Malaysian musical theatre and the performing arts scene. Back when we were making our first musical, in the style of Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, it was the first large-scale production of its kind here. This was ambitious for its time because many Malaysians don’t go to the theatre! Some don’t even know we have a national theatre, while others just couldn’t picture theatre like Broadway or West End, but sung in the Malay language. I suppose if anything, I’m resilient, stubborn and I’ll never take no for an answer. We believed in our product, and that Malaysia needed to be equally rich culturally and artistically, as we are economically. That kept us going, since we knew we had a strong story to tell. The rest of it is musical theatre history now.
What more can be done to promote the local performing arts scene, especially among the younger generation?
With MUD, we love having young audiences from schools, colleges and universities in the theatre. It warms our hearts to see how the story onstage affects them in a positive way. I feel that even if we can touch a handful of young Malaysians every time, it will be enough to inspire them to keep the unity story going, especially when we are faced with challenging times. In 2011, I set up the Enfiniti Academy, which I hope would be an incubator, not only for the next generation of world-class performers, but also to develop future innovative leaders and creative thinkers of Malaysia. This was something unheard of as people never used to send their children to drama classes in the old days. Five years later, we’ve had over 1,000 students passing through our doors. The journey has never been easy but it has been a good one.