B.N. Rao - Man behind the Pontianak

B.N. Rao – Man behind the Pontianak

Sumpah Pontianak

I had the opportunity to watch Sumpah Pontianak (Curse of the Vampire), a 1958 Cathay-Keris film as the last of the Pontianak trilogy starring Maria Menado, at the National Museum of Singapore. As part of the Cinematheque programme, Majulah! The Film Music of Zubir Said, the museum has brought back a series of classic Malay films featuring some of his most memorable film music compositions.

A screenshot of Sumpah Pontianak.

A screenshot of Sumpah Pontianak.

I had four reasons to watch this film:

1. Zubir Said. He was the focal point of this Malay film programme. Forget about the karaoke favourites of Michael Learns to Rock and Jacky Cheung. The truth is every kid in Singapore has sung his song every weekday morning for at least ten schooling years. He is the composer of Majulah Singapura, the National Anthem of Singapore and also several film music in the notable Malay film history.

2. Maria Menado. Once dubbed as the most beautiful woman in Malaya by Times Magazine, she is better known as the first Pontianak. It is perhaps a little ironic that she was born in Menado, Indonesia. Maria shot to international fame when she was cast as the Pontianak in the two 1957 Pontianak movies: Pontianak and Dendam Pontianak (The Pontianak’s Revenge). Sumpah Pontianak was released in the next year following the genre success.

The Straits Times Annual for 1957 with Maria Menado on cover

Maria Menado on the cover of The Straits TImes Annual for 1957. Image courtesy of Malaysia Design Archive.

3. S.M. Wahid. This was the film that launched S.M. Wahid’s career as one of the top comedians of Malay cinema. As a minor character in the film, he steals the scene with two cheeky yet memorable songs about satay. He would eventually retain his stage name of Wahid Satay for the rest of his film career.

Pak Wahid Satay with Dr Rohana Zubir. Image courtesy of Nicholas Yeo.

4. B.N. Rao. This was the most compelling one for me. Little has been mentioned about B.N. Rao but he was one of the earliest and most prolific of directors in Singapore film history. More has to be said about his track record and contribution to the film history in Singapore, hence the need for this post.

P. Ramlee (left) with director B.N. Rao on the right.

B.N. Rao

Born as Balakrishna Narayana Nair in Kerala in 1908, he became B.N. Rao when his name was mistakenly registered during school admission in Bombay. Rao worked his way from actor and technician to eventually director in the growing film industry in India.

On his success of early Indian films, the Singapore-based Shaw brothers (Runme and Run Run) hired him under the banner of Malay Film Productions. In less than three years, he directed nine movies including Hujan Panas (Hot Rain), which became a benchmark for Malay films for the longest time.

He left Malay Film Productions under Shaw to join Cathay-Keris. He then directed a few hits such as Mahsuri in 1958 and the Pontianak Series, which eventually positioned Cathay-Keris as a serious challenger to Shaw.

Shaw's Malay Film Productions

Shaw’s Malay Film Productions. Image courtesy of Malaysia Design Archive.

Screen logo featuring the Cathay-Keris. Image courtesy of Malaysia Design Archive.

Creator of the Pontianak Series

B.N. Rao is best known as the creator of the Pontianak series, which is now a film cult classic. The first two films Pontianak and Dendam Pontianak launched the horror genre in 1957 and made the pontianak a favourite bedtime scare tale in the region. These two films brought Maria Menado much international stardom as B.N. Rao had cast her as the Pontianak.

Having seen the success of the Pontianak movies, Shaw would begin making their own with Filipino director Ramon Estella. What followed were Anak Pontianak (Son of Pontianak), Pontianak Kembali (The Pontianak Returns), and Pusaka Pontianak (The Pontianak Legacy) by Shaw.

Advertisement for the release of Pontianak Gua Musang. Image courtesy of Malaysia Design Archive.

B.N. Rao and Cathay-Keris would answer the call with Sumpah Pontianak in 1958, and Pontianak Gua Musang (The Pontianak of the Cave) in 1964, which was his last Singapore-made movie.

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