Can a trip to the movies in Rangoon in 1954 tell us anything about Burma at the time? I think it can. In fact, I think it sheds a good deal of light on a fascinating lost world.
The 1950s-1960s was an amazing time in Southeast Asia. It was a time of optimism and experimentation, but many of the experiments ultimately failed.
Sihanouk tried to create a neutral “Oasis of Peace” in Cambodia. In the 1960s, a “modern Khmer” architectural style emerged, and a distinct Khmer sound was created in the world of popular music, but this all came to a terrible end during the Khmer Rouge years in the 1970s.
In South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem sought to forge a non-Communist path toward the future. The cultural and intellectual world of South Vietnam maintained a great deal from the French colonial period, had connections with the “Free Chinese” world of Taiwan and Hong Kong, and increasingly came in contact with the US, but this world likewise came to a tragic end in the 1970s.
Sukarno’s Indonesia was also a fascinating place. Balancing between the Communist and Capitalist halves of the Cold War world, Indonesian sought to create a space for themselves and other newly decolonized nations, but this age of hope and experimentation was brought to a close by the advent of military rule in 1965.
Today, Sihanouk’s Cambodia, Ngo Dinh Diem’s Vietnam, and Sukarno’s Indonesia are long gone, and in fact they are completely forgotten in many ways. This is a shame because these were all fascinating places, and fascinating times.
Burma in the 1950s was also part of this grand experiment to build postcolonial societies on ones own terms. And I think we can get a sense of this when we go to the movies in Rangoon in 1954.
Sure there were some Hollywood movies to see, but the majority of movies were from India.
Like Burma, India was also trying to forge a path to the future which steered clear of the extremes of the Cold War. Nonetheless, there was sympathy among some people in places like India and Burma for the values which the Soviet Union promoted, and Soviet aid was accepted.
It should then not surprise us to find that Russian movies started to be shown in Burma at the time, such as “Sadko,” the first Russian film with Burmese subtitles.
The Soviets, after all, were technologically savvy and had some great artists. The “Men of Daring” in “Super-Russian Colour” with its “tens of thousands of stampeding horses” was undoubtedly a product of such technological expertise and artistry.
Indians, however, were likewise very capable. And there is nothing that made this more obvious then “Shahensha” which was “The First Indian Gevacolor To Beat Out The Hollywood Colors!”
I’m not sure what “Gevacolor” was, but this is around the time that “Technicolor” was popular, so it was obviously another cutting-edge technology for producing color films.
As part of this world which was progressing towards the future, the Burmese of course had to produce movies of their own. The result in 1954 was “The People Win Through,” a film version of a play which had been written by Burmese Prime Minister U Nu.
In looking at these movie advertisements, what struck me is that I had not heard of these films. To me that is a sign of the degree to which this world of 1950s Burma has disappeared.
But this world was not restricted to Burma. Instead, Burma at the time was part of a new world which just starting to emerge at that time. For various reasons, this world in Burma, like its counterparts in places like Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, did not survive.
Now it is largely forgotten, but for the people who lived through that time it was undoubtedly an exciting period when they felt like they were living in a modern moment and moving toward the future.
The “what ifs” of the past are fascinating. What if this world in Burma had continued to develop? And what if Sihanouk’s “Oasis of Peace” had survived? And what if Ngo Dinh Diem’s and Sukarno’s visions of society had endured?
And what if we still saw the world in Gevacolor?