Two steps forward, one step back: On Dalam Botol, Malaysia’s first ‘gay’ film

Written for the LSE equality and diversity blog

For a country keen on displaying its hyper-modernity, Malaysian law and social attitudes on sexual morality in general have always had a conservative bent. While there are pockets of change, much of the public discourse on sex and morality are dominated by sexist and homophobic language. A blanket government control on discussion and representations of sexuality in the media regularly results in sensationalism, misinformation, and the deepening of greater confusion about sexual and gender diversity. This confusion is reflected in the new film by Raja Azmi Raja Sulaiman, Dalam Botol (In a bottle). While the film signals a small but momentous phase in the country’s censorship laws on the depiction of homosexual characters in the media, the film itself stands as an intriguing cinematic object of fascination and curiosity as it secured 1 million ringgit ($330,000) at Malaysian cinemas.

Dalam Botol tells the story of a man who undergoes a sex reassignment surgery to please his male lover, stores his severed penis in the eponymous bottle, only to be rejected by his lover. Dejected, the transsexual man/woman returns to his village and falls for a woman. Although based on the experiences of the producer’s friend who regretted having a sex-reassignment procedure, the film has been pointed out as misleading by Malaysian LGBT activists as it conflates gay with transgender identities.

While Raja Azmi claims to tell a love story with a cautionary twist, its narrative is not easily separated from how alternative sexualities and genders are perceived in Malaysia where gay men are sometimes confused for trans women who need to undergo sex reassignment surgery to become female, while both transgender women and gay men are sometimes subsumed under the category ‘effeminate’ men. Furthermore, Raja Azmi’s insistence that the film’s moral subtext should function as a deterrent against sex reassignment surgery serves only to reinforce the assumption that transgender and homosexual identities are not only temporary but a deplorable state of affairs to be rejected.

To be fair to Malaysia’s cultural genealogy of genders and sexualities, the conception of gay identities did not come into public currency until the 1980s. Even then, the term closest to the Western understanding of the word ‘gay’ is pondan, a derogatory word used for effeminate men or transwomen. The term ‘homosexual’ has different connotations in different cultural and economic contexts. But with the expansion of the ‘global gay’ emanating from the ‘Anglophone’ world reaching the industrialised capitals of the developing world, Malaysia included, we find localised conceptions of the ‘global gay’ in hybridised gay identities. Malaysian gay identities are savvy consumers of Western LGBT media and have close ties with human rights organisations, but they are also concentrated in the urban centres of the country. How the LGBT community in Malaysia perceive Raja Azmi’s film is very much a product of this global cultural exchange and local politics.

The conflict in conceptions of transgender and homosexual identities exist between Malaysian LGBT groups and the cinematic vision of producer and scriptwriter Raja Azmi may arise from linguistic and class differences. Many middle-class Malaysian gay and lesbians adopt the epistemological separation of gender and biological sex developed by Western sociologists and sexologists and understand their work in English, while most working class Malaysians do not have access to knowing much gender theory.

The fact that media attention on alternative genders and sexualities in recent Malaysian films have only come to the fore in recent years with films like Dalam Botol, 2 Alam (Two Worlds), Bukak Api (Open Fire), Pecah Lobang (Broken Hole), and numerous Malay television dramas with transgender characters demonstrates a new but limited awareness about non-normative gender and sexuality. Lesbian characters in films such as Rozana Cinta ’87 (Rozana Love) did not court great controversy in 1987. It was only during the public humiliation of the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 when the country’s dominant discourse on homosexuality was re-established with a politically homophobic turn and pushed gay identities in the spotlight. Last December, Awzan Ismail, an openly gay Malay Muslim man received death threats after posting a Youtube video for a gay youth acceptance campaign ‘It Gets Better’.

The level of negative attention targeted at Awzan Ismail was significantly disproportionate compared to the videos posted by his fellow gay and lesbian Chinese Malaysians. The hostility and misinformation on sexual and gender minorities in Malaysia appear to boil down to much of the attitudes and social and religio-political hegemony of the majority Malay Muslims.

Historically, Malaysia’s social fabric has been shaped by racial politics under the paternalistic thumb of largely Malay Muslim politicians. While the country is on the surface a peaceful multi-ethnic nation, underneath the veneer lie racial tensions arising from the constitutionally-sanctioned superiority of the Malays and indigenous groups, termed the bumiputera, which make sensitive issues such as race, sexuality, and religion a minefield for those who challenge the conservative status quo.

Small social transformations are constantly afoot in Malaysia and the country’s increasingly politicised youth appear to set the wheels of change into motion. Independent films by Malaysian film makers engage more positively with LGBT issues than films that grab national headlines like Dalam Botol. It will, however, still take time when a critical mass for change is reached in the country’s seats of power to witness a greater level of social acceptance of trans and gay people in Malaysia.

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