For director M. Raihan Halim, the idea behind his film Banting (English title: Slam) began with an image of a girl standing in a wrestling ring. Through courage and determination, the girl becomes a respected professional wrestler.
Just like most sports-themed films such as Rocky and The Karate Kid, Banting has idealistic messages behind it as well. You can beat the odds if believe in yourself … as well as consuming raw eggs in the morning.
But the girl’s biggest challenge is not gulping raw eggs or taking on opponents twice her size. Instead, it would be wrestling the perceptions of being a young Muslim woman in a hijab.
“The film’s theme is really important. To me, it’s about saying that women who wear hijab can achieve their dreams. They shouldn’t let anyone tell them it’s impossible simply because of what they wear,” said Singaporean director Raihan at a press conference in Petaling Jaya, Selangor recently.
Banting stars Izyan Mellyna Ishak as the film’s heroine Yasmin Muhammad, a young woman who grows up in a strict household under the watchful eye of her conservative mother Halimah (played by Mastura Ahmad).
The film opens with Yasmin sharing some of her mother’s rules such as no rock music, no movies with kissing scenes and ultimately, no wrestling. Which is unfortunate for Yasmin who is a huge wrestling fan and has posters of professionals like John Cena in her room.
The fun (or problem, depending on how you look at it) begins when Yasmin secretly signs up to be a part of an all-female wrestling team.
When she finally proves her worth to no-nonsense coach Harry (James Taenaka), she gets to wrestle in the ring as Zarith Blade. But for how long can Yasmin continue to hide her secret life from her mother?
For Izyan, taking on the role was a no-brainer. “I had no hesitation at all about the role. I think it helps that I’m a wrestling fan and as a kid I used to imitate some of the moves,” said the bubbly actress with a laugh.
Izyan shared that the cast prepared themselves as wrestlers by practising with a professional team in Singapore. She performed most of the stunts in the movie.
The cast had a safe word on set. Whenever one of the actresses was in real distress, all she had to do was yell ‘squirrel’.
Apart from Yasmin, the film also features Gloria Tan as wrestler Queen Kong, Joanne Marie-Sim as the sexy military-inspired wrestler Pretty Baby and Abigail Chay the scrawny Lilian. There’s also Ashley Chan and Syaza Qistina Tan as tag team The Sisters.
Raihan was impressed by the dedication of his actresses on set. “I felt really bad whenever I had to ask the actresses to do another take because I could see that those moves look really painful. I can tell you this, women are definitely tougher than men.”
He also explained that the cast had a safe word on set.
“To look like you’re in pain is part of the act in professional wrestling. So most of the time, we were not too sure if someone was still in character or experiencing real pain. We used the safe word ‘squirrel’. Whenever one of the actresses was in real distress, all she had to do was yell ‘squirrel’”
Apart from its unique premise, Banting has the distinction of being the first commercially-produced Malay language Singaporean film since Pontianak in 1975. Raihan hopes that Banting will inspire other Singaporean filmmakers to deliver more Malay-language films.
“I do hope aspiring filmmakers will look at our movie and learn from whatever mistakes we have made. Perhaps, then they’d be inspired to keep doing something different for the film industry.”