25th anniversary interviews/

Kubhaer T. Jethwani

A filmmaker who works in advertising production and more recently, feature films (including 'Mission Impossible 4 - Ghost Protocol'), Kubhaer T. Jethwani has been associated with Five Arts Centre since 2000, performing in productions such as 'Kecoh'(2000), 'Lebih Kecoh' (2001), 'Stadium' (2002), The Actors Studio's 'A Man for All Seasons' (2004) and dramalab's 'Otak Tak Center' (2004). He was a member of the ARTicle 19 and Akshen youth theatre collectives, and has directed several short films, inclduding 'Westbound' (2007) and 'Togel' (2007). 'Koobz' was also one of Cleo Malaysia's 50 Eligible Bachelors in 2009.

Kubhaer Jethwani

Tell us about your entry point to Five Arts Centre.

Marion D’Cruz, who is very kam ching with Mohan Ambikaipaker, who was the cikgu-in-charge of our youth arts collective ARTicle 19, came to watch one of our performances at Taylor’s College back in 1999.

Then when everyone started graduating, a funny thing happened where students never joined in from the years below. Without any continuity in Taylor’s, the identity of ARTicle 19 instead graduated along with its members and thus was in danger of not having a physical home.

Marion heard about the situation, then offered us the use of the Five Arts rehearsal space in exchange for general production slave labour. Five Arts would also give us workshops if we were keen, and without knowing how dahsyat these people really were, we just followed along and suddenly Anne James was teaching us vocals and breathing, Arifwaran was showing us movement stuff, and Krishen Jit was kepoh-ing in our rehearsals with Marion cracking producer whips in the office above… all this in exchange for some front-of-house which we would have been glad to do ANYWAY? Full production support for ARTicle 19 - all we had to do was show up.

What a deal. I’m still reeling from everything I’ve got out of it.

I think you’re a good performer, why don’t you act more? (June Tan)

Thanks June. I think you are awesome too.

I was very clear to myself when I joined advertising production that I was going to focus on this one thing and see where it takes me. I’ve had seven succesful years (touch wood) of having my blinkers on and I’m beginning to branch out to feature films, but still with the idea that I need to focus on filmmaking and not theatre, and being behind-the-camera, not in front of it.

I recognize that film is where my career is, and even though acting is a passion of mine, I don’t see myself doing it full time. Calling it a dalliance hardly does it justice, but if the schedule and the economics of taking time off for rehearsals and then a performance makes sense, then I’m always open to performing…

Also, acting just doesn’t pay enough.

Do you miss acting on stage? (Ivy N. Josiah)

I didn’t realise how much I missed it until I got a chance to scratch that itch in Checkpoint Theatre’s 'The Good, The Bad, & The Sholay' (2011) down in Singapore. After a seven-year hiatus, opening night was such a rush and I was so incredibly nervous… but the moment we got going, it was such a memorable hour and a half. Every sinew in my body had been tuned over the last two months for that one moment. I had never felt more ready for anything, and then I remembered that I feel like this everytime I do a performance on-stage. I was beaming during the curtain call, like some happy dog that had been caged for far too long. I wish more of my friends and loved ones could have made it down to Singapore to watch the show.

When are we gonna see you blonde again? Seriously, what's the difference between your day job and the cutthroat world of theatre? (Chew Kin Wah)

I haven’t shaved my head in a month and a half now. This is the longest I’ve gone without a haircut since I made the decision to go bald. The results of this experiment clearly show that the odds of me being blonde again are slim to none - perhaps a blonde wig.

I wouldn’t regard the Malaysian theatre world as being cutthroat, but then again, I think the scene is just that - a scene, rather than an industry. It is small, incestous, comfortable, and not big enough to sustain much competition and thus no reason to be cutthroat. Advertising production is a much dirtier game, with infinitely more gossiping, but the gossip isn’t as funny lah. I guess theatre people are really more creative.

The biggest difference though is that theatre still has a larger emphasis on the creative process. Advertising production is hardly creative, with economics and business being the main driving factor behind most of the decisions that we make. It also feels a lot more insidious because once you start being privy to market research and the thought process that goes into a 30 second commercial, all so that you buy more soap or whatever, then you realise how manipulative the advertising industry is. Most theatre companies just want bums on seats and good reviews.

Why are you doing film and not theatre? Please elaborate as I feel many young people prefer to do film rather than theatre. (Anne James)

Well, I got into advertising production for purely economic reasons. I imagined that it would be a good mix of business and art but quickly found out that it was all business, art was incidental. I stuck with it because I quickly realised that it was the best film school around, but it only teaches you the technical aspects of it. Filmmaking, like all art, needs a good dose of soul, which can be learned. I’ve 'graduated' technically, but now I’m teaching myself the soul, which requires a great deal of patience and reading and asking the right questions and empathy and all of that other good stuff. Working on feature films and short films exponentially teaches you soul. Commercials have a way of sucking the life out of things.

I think film has taken over the'glamour' factor when young people think about the arts. In the late 90s and early 2000s, the digital revolution was still coming around and theatre was definitely king. As ARTicle 19 and then Akshen, we were a bunch of young people just doing our thing in theatre but constantly being bombarded with a steady stream of wide-eyed parents and kids asking how they can get involved and star in a play. Fast forward 11 years and that stream of wide-eyed enthusiasts still exist, but instead of wanting to be actors, I hear more about people wanting to be film directors. Still, I think this is hardly a problem, for the film industry that is. The more eager people are about wanting to generate art of any kind, the better. I’m hardly bothered by their motivations.

It is also important to remember that the medium of filmmaking is going through this digital revolution right now that has completely democratised the process in ways that theatre hasn’t been able to replicate. All you need is a video camera, which your phone probably has built-in, and off you go. Edit it and throw some music on with your laptop, upload it to YouTube, share it with people around the world, and you’ve got an audience.

How to attract them back to theatre? That requires some serious thought.

Over the last few years, despite your busy commercial filmmaking schedule, you've managed to make some short films, like 'Westbound' (2007). Why haven't you made more works?? (Fahmi Fadzil)

There haven’t been “some” short films, just the one.

I haven’t made more because in many respects I’ve been working non-stop since I joined the world of advertising production, which is a feat I am proud of since it is such a fickle industry. To have constant work is a compliment. That being said, when I get an iota of free time, I tend to be lazy and waste it away by just being social or just chilling at home.

I SHOULD be making more of my own stuff. Music videos, short films, whatever, but right now, any free time feels like such a blessing… and I’m still lazy lah.

Now that you are doing film, how can your expertise in film be fed into Five Arts? (Marion D’Cruz)

I’m not sure, but I’d be very keen to sit down and brainstorm some ideas about how I could be used better by The Firm. Workshops come to mind. I’ve also got some ideas on how to better document our projects on video… not the usual three-camera set-up stuff. I think there is a better way to document performances that let the energy of the live show come through on the recording. Enquire within.

Off the top of my head, I’ve spent most of my time being a First Assistant Director, which is akin to being a stage manager on steroids, so the option of stage managing shows is always there.

What’s your favourite Five Arts project?

Easily it would be Rhythm in Bronze’s 'New Music for the Malaysian Gamelan' (2001) at The Actor’s Studio Bangsar. I was involved on the production side and ended up doing front-of-house every night for the show… but the music… it was sublime.

Watching the RiB ladies do their thing on stage with their crazy happy smiles and infectious energy was always such a thrill. That same show had collaborations with Hands Percussion and Kamarul. I used to stand by the door and watch as much of the show as work would permit, just layan-ing the chills down my spine as they played. The CD we released hardly does the show any justice, but then again, any recording of RiB would be hard to match up.

If you could be in any stage performance that was ever performed, anywhereinthe world, anytime in the past - which play and performance would it be, and why? (Suhaila Merican)

I can easily identify so many shows that I’m glad I wasn’t a part of, and I’m definitely thankful for all the ones I did participate in.

Hmm… something with a lot of nudity where everyone on the cast was having sex with each other? Just kidding. I don’t know lah, I somehow don’t place any importance on stuff like that… and even if it were a show that I thoroughly enjoyed watching, I’m not sure me being in the peformance would have helped either the show or even myself. If you had to twist my arm, I’d say 'Baling (membaling)' (2005-6). There was something about throwing those stools around that captivated me.

What is the Next Big Thing in the next 5 years? (Mac Chan)

I think its hard and stupid to ignore social media and the impact the internet is having on the world right now. People are consuming culture more than ever before, but in ways that we never thought possible. Look at smart phones, in a scant few years they went from luxury to almost necessity, and eventually you won’t be able to ignore them at all.

I think we have a few options as artists:

i. Get people to somehow put their phones down for a few moments and be present with us during that time, either watching a show, or walking through a gallery, or a film, etc.

ii. Deliver that show, that gallery, that film onto their phones so that they don’t have to put their phones down (because they weren’t going to anyway) and then they can ‘consume’ it anywhere at anytime.

iii. Find someway to interact with them on a very personal level as part of the show, gallery, or film. For the first time we can communicate and interact directly with individual audience members, no matter how far away they are or however many people there are.

To raise funds for Five Arts would you agree to a public shaving of all your body hair? Also, what ‘torture’ would you put the members through (exempting me) in order to creatively raise funds for Five Arts? (Lew Chee Seong)

People would definitely pay money so that they wouldn’t have to see a public shaving of my body hair, so yeah, why not?

Maybe a good way to raise funds for Five Arts would be to have a theatre community-wide Sports Day or Futsal Tournament. Something large that could involve more of the personalities from other companies and then large corporations could get involved as sponsors and such, then we divide it all up at the end of the day.

What would you change with FAC? (Ravi Navaratnam)

Oof. I have no idea. We could always use more money to pay people better, or redo the whole office as a gorgeous little arts centre… but besides those really shallow answers, I’m not sure.

Why are you still a member of Five Arts Centre? (Chee Sek Thim)

Because you guys haven‘t kicked me out yet…

I’m still on my unofficial sabbatical and nowhere closer to answering why I’m still a member of Five Arts in the first place… but the community is very important to me, and has definitely informed a large part of my personality, my opinions, and even my aesthetic. I may not be very active at showing it, but I love you all very much.

Is that a reason to stay within an arts collective? Not really, but it just means that I can rely on that to steady me until I find out WHY I’m still within it… does that make sense?

Let's settle this once and for all - is there such a thing as a "Five Arts style"?

I think FAC projects always quest for a very Malaysian context, and we all know internally that FAC loves a good discussion, and thus even the art that is generated always feels very devised or crowd-sourced or democratic.

We’ve also got, all of us, a remarkably large thumb that we like to use on the nose of convention, so our work tends to be accidentally quirky or ‘experimental’ if you will. This is also true of our co-conspirators, the regulars and the one-timers alike, most of whom are usually not theatre practioners in the traditional sense of the word… playing with visual artists and musicians and office workers and non-actors and just the kind of people that we like to play with, Five Arts tends to generate work that is visually arresting (on a budget) and very one-kind.

Does that mean that there is a STYLE? Eh, who really cares besides those who are too lazy to disccuss what they’ve just seen beyond a blanket comment that says nothing and everything at the same time. Birds of a feather flock, drink, discuss, laugh, love and generate work together… that is a given.

28 June 2011