Actor-director Gavin Yap and actor, emcee and voice-over artist Chacko Vadaketh pay personal tributes to the celebrated actor, writer, playwright and theatre activist Jit Murad, who passed away recently.
Jit was the first person in the industry whom I met when I returned to Kuala Lumpur. It was late 2001 and I was scurrying around trying to get in touch with different people in the local arts scene to see if I could set up a meeting that might lead to some work. This approach would later lead to an ill-fated meeting with The Instant Café Theatre Company, where I famously declared that I had no interest in politics. Those of you familiar with ICT can imagine how well that meeting must have gone. But, anyway, that’s a story for another time.
I don’t remember how but one of the first numbers I managed to get was Jit’s and he was the first person I called. I left a message on his voicemail and, to my surprise, he called me back the very same day. I gave him the standard show opener that I gave everyone else — I’ve just returned from London, I’m looking for work, blah blah blah — and again, much to my surprise, he suggested we meet for dinner the following day.
Now, let me put a little perspective on this situation — this was Jit Murad in 2001. He was still in the midst of writing what would sadly be his final, but arguably most successful, play, Spilt Gravy on Rice. He was one of the most iconic and successful stand-up acts in the country. There was no need for him to meet me! I would have been happy with a phone call or an email. But meet me he did, and that should have given you an indication of the kind of man he was … how big his heart was and how kind and gentle a soul he was.
We met for dinner in Bangsar, and what I expected to be a quick meal ended up turning into a full night of bonding and shared laughter over shared quirks and experiences, accompanied by many a “sirap bandung”. Wink wink.
We talked about acting and writing and a whole host of filthy and glorious things that didn’t lead to any work but instead led to something even better — we became friends. In the years that followed, I would get to work with him both on- and off-stage, each time marvelling at his genius, which always seemed so effortless.
It’s funny, thinking back on it now; because he was a such a giant, such a titan of the Malaysian arts scene, and because he was always so disarmingly charming and open with me, it was easy for me to forget it. He was just Jit, my friend. But then I’d go watch Spilt Gravy or go watch him do stand-up and then I’d remember, “Oh yeah, that’s right … My friend’s a genius”. I would get such a thrill when I’d go to his one-man show and, as his friends will remember, he’d sometimes call out people he knew in the audience. At one of them, the first time he was telling a story, he looked straight at me and said, “You know what it’s like, right, Gav?” God … I felt like I had arrived. Haha.
My career would come full circle back to Jit when I directed his first play, Gold Rain and Hailstones, in 2019. It was such an emotional experience for me because, in many ways, the play was about all the things I was feeling when I first had that dinner with Jit in 2001 — Who am I? What does home mean? Was I ready for the “hailstones” of home? The play spoke to me on such a viscerally emotional level that I just had to do it. I knew these characters, it didn’t matter that they were Malay. I knew them, and I had to see them come to life. More importantly, I wanted to reintroduce audiences to Jit’s words.
Man, his words … If you were fortunate enough to be around in his time, to experience his plays and to meet him in his prime, you would know what I mean. There was no one like him. He wrote so beautifully and astutely about us, all of us. People always like to throw this question around, “What does it mean to be Malaysian?” I’ve always hated this question, as there was no real answer. But if you want an answer, then you should read Jit’s plays, any of them, because the answer is there. All the answers are there.
There is this saying how you should never meet your heroes. Well, that is sometimes true, but not in this case. I’m glad I met this hero. He was one of a kind, a true Malaysian original and I’m grateful that I got to call him a friend and even more grateful that I got to dance in his literary footsteps with Gold Rain and Hailstones, and that I got to sit with him as he watched it, night after night, fully aware that he was still relevant and loved, and that he always will be.
Jit was a couple of years my senior at the Victoria Institution and he was already a live-wire then, becoming Freshie King in Lower Six while I would go on to win that same title two years later. His brother Na’a, a couple of years my junior, is also a gifted and witty writer and actor and a friend of mine. His gracious, elegant and intelligent mother, Puan Sri Azizah (wife of former Malaysian director-general of education, Tan Sri Murad Mohamed Noor), was my Bahasa teacher and I used to go to their sprawling house in Damansara Heights for tuition classes.
Fast forward several years, I returned to KL after further studies in the UK and was keen to get involved in local theatre. I met English stockbroker Andrew Leci, who was also keen on the same. We teamed up with the Liberal Arts Society to put on Romeo and Juliet, with Andrew as director and starring Zahim Albakri as Romeo, Hayati Mokhtar as Juliet, Jit as Benvolio, Jo Kukathas as Mercutio, Sukania Venugopal as Lady Capulet, Iqbal Sheikh as the Nurse and myself as Lord Capulet. From this production, the Instant Café Theatre Company was born, with many of us becoming founder-members.
Our first show was held upstairs of Bon Ton, in Jalan Kia Peng. Thanks must go to Narelle McMurtrie for making that happen all within her magical restaurant set in a home. I remember us having to change on the balcony! Jit played a variety of characters and I recall cracking up every time he played Puan Siti, a pontificating government clerk, complete with a tudung fashioned out of a Bon Ton napkin. Jit was wickedly funny … a great mimic. Rene Choy, his campy Sungei Wang hairdresser alter ego, was born during an ICT show and went on to become one of his much-loved stand-up comedy personas. Jit shone a mirror on Malaysia and Malaysians in all our stunning variety and diversity and made us laugh at ourselves, but in a way that made us love ourselves — and each other — more. Much the same way Lat does with his cartoons, but with a lot more bite, for sure!
Jit’s plays were astonishing: poetic yet so funny and real. It was Middle-Class Malaysia, but from a Malay perspective. Another work, The Storyteller, in which I played the Ketua Kampung, was set in Kampung Tak Mandi. It was a unique celebration of rural Malaysia, accompanied by wonderfully exhilarating music by Saidah Rastam. But Jit was also a superbly riveting actor. He played Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, which was performed in a nightclub and directed by Rey Buono. Written by Moises Kaufman from transcripts of the trials and other materials, I thought it a tour de force of dazzling dialogue.
And if being a playwright and actor was not enough, Jit could also sing beautifully. I dare say no one could sing Sondheim like he could. Sadly, things kind of fell apart for Jit. Who knows what else he might have written or performed if things had been different? But he has already left us a precious and rich legacy in his works. Thank you for the memories, Jit. Rest in peace.
Luminaries from Malaysia’s arts and culture scene pay tribute to the late Jit Murad
DATUK RAMLI IBRAHIM
An actor and playwright, Jit Murad represented the new generation of theatre-makers who set the tone of Malaysian English theatre when he burst onto the scene in the late 1980s. Performing with the Instant Café Theatre Company, Jit was the darling of urban KL theatregoers thirsting for a night out of intelligent entertainment. Boyishly fresh, witty, flamboyant, Jit was genuinely funny and said his incisive punchlines with personal style, always spiced with a twinkle in his eye. His first play, Gold Rain and Hailstones (1992), and his last major one, Spilt Gravy on Rice (2015) were celebrated for articulating the hybridly nuanced Malaysian notion of “belonging” and “home”. As a playwright, Jit left a legacy of several original plays that brilliantly articulated the rich, multicultural Malaysian communities with all their flavoursome foibles. To his loyal followers, Jit was Malaysia’s answer to the combined wit and flair of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde. Onstage, Jit was able to get away with murder and leave his audience laughing all the way out of the door. For over a decade, he held his followers entertained and spellbound. With his demise, Jit Murad has left Malaysian theatre bereft of one of its brilliant stars and original creators.
PUAN SRI TIARA JACQUELINA
My dear friend, the incredibly talented actor, writer and comedian Jit Murad, died a few days ago, and his passing has left a huge void in me. I spent the last couple of days going over Facebook posts and our memories together, and thought I’d share this story in memory of him.
Both Jit and I landed supporting roles in a Hollywood movie shot in Malaysia called Beyond Rangoon. We played students involved in the uprising (I had an additional role as a desk clerk too — try to recognise me in the film’s official trailer). How lucky were we to have had the opportunity to work with the likes of director John Boorman, director of photography John Seale, and the precious experience of working alongside some of the best actresses in the world such as Patricia Arquette and Frances McDormand — who went on to win Academy Awards! Sadly, camera phones weren’t invented then, so there’s nothing on social media, and I lost the album of all the photos we took on set, sigh. I managed to find only a few of these movie stills online. But Jit got this special Polaroid moment with Patricia, which is now precious gold.
Anyway, Jit and I got a taste of the life and times of a bit-part actor on Beyond Rangoon. We would joke about how excited we were to be given the occasional speaking line, and sometimes even a close-up! I told Jit we should someday write a sitcom about the set life of two TV extras/wannabe stars, since we’d experienced it first hand — but, of course, we never got around to it. And, now, that remains forever in the archive of projects that will never come to be.
My dearest Jitson, I’ll miss your brilliant mind, your wicked humour, your charming boyish smile, the way you would practise your “flirting” with me (and I never minded it because I knew I was never your “type”) and I shall cherish all the memories we shared on our shoestring travels around the world and many escapades together. Rest well, my love. I’m so happy you’ll be reunited with Randy and your dearest Mak again. Till we met again, I love you lots, my darling Jitson.
I acted in my first play in 2002, auditioning for Spilt Gravy on Rice and winning the role of Hortense Chia. I had brilliant lines like “Hortense Chia. Is Hor-tense or Whore-relax?” It was so funny. It was also the first play I had ever read for and was simply floored by how bloody brilliant it was. Jit and I would sit on the sidelines, watching the other scenes while waiting for ours. Often, I would push him out when it was time for his scene. We won four Boh Cameronian Awards for it the next year. Jit, you are free now. You are with Randy. And please pinch Fay for me.
This article first appeared on Feb 21, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.