Jit Murad: The Malaysian Who Pushed The Boundaries of Laughter

During the 1990s, Malaysia’s longest-serving premier Mahathir Mohamad — an authoritarian loved, despised and feared almost in equal measure by his people — was invited to an evening of comedy where he and his government were to be ridiculed. Never one to turn down a dare, Mahathir went, actually laughed at himself and before leaving, quipped to his hosts: “The Black Maria (police truck) will be around to pick you all up tomorrow”.

Jit Murad also chuckled as his famous guest drove away. If someone had the gonads to poke fun at his country’s political strongman and walk away with his head still on his shoulders, it had to be him.

Shocking and intelligently amusing to the point he was funny without trying — that essentially was Murad.

“There will never be another Jit Murad,” Harith Iskander, an internationally-acclaimed Malaysian comedian, said on the morning of Feb. 12, 2022, after Murad was pronounced dead at his home at the age of 62 from what was described to be a cardiac arrest.

“The country has lost a true genius,” Harith wrote on Instagram of the playwright-actor-director and art-and-social critic who over a 30-year period examined Malaysian society through the use of intellectually-diverse theatre.

Murad’s wit was sharp and dark. One of his reviews of a local staging of Hamlet was called “To Bitch or Not to Bitch”.

Like many stand-up comics who blossomed in an era Murad helped create, Iskander remembered getting a career step-up from the theatre company co-founded by the veteran satirist. “I used to watch you in @instantcafetheatre and then got invited to be part of the gang – and that’s when we became friends,” Iskander wrote.

Instant Cafe Theater was where it all began for a generation of Malaysians who either loved performing comedy or watching it or both.

Murad co-founded the theatre company in 1989 with three friends: Jo Kukathas, Andrew Leci and Zahim Albakri. He had returned to Malaysia a few years earlier after studying sociology and urban planning in Chicago, and ending up with a master’s degree in 20th century art history from San Francisco.

Malaysian society in the late 1980s and early 1990s was relatively meek. Public ridiculing of the government or people in power was rare, if not unheard of. Murad and his three friends changed that.

Instant Cafe Theatre introduced political satire that ordinary Malaysians found shocking, hilarious and irresistible, all at once. It did comedy in theatre and serious plays in nightclubs. It did Shakespeare in the outdoors. Soon, one of the coolest things a company could do for its annual dinner was to have a surprise performance by ICT, as the theatre troupe had come to be known by its shorthand.

Then an odd thing happened.

INSTANT CAFE THEATRE founding members (from left) Murad, Kukathas, Leci and Albakri. Picture by The Star.

From just corporate events, the theatre company began getting shows from state-run agencies too. Instead of getting shut down, now Murad, Kukathas, Leci and Albakri were getting invited to perform at government events, where along with a bunch of new funny talents, they wrote and performed even more outrageous material about those in power. Within a few years, ICT’s brand of riotous stop-at-nothing comedy became such a phenomenal hit that it ended up performing for its most famous Malaysian guest: Mahathir Mohamad.

The theatre company aside, Murad’s own acting credits were diverse and prolific.

He appeared in the restagings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo & Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Death of a Salesman, Death & The Maiden, Black Comedy, An Actor’s Nightmare, Art As Is, Talking AIDS, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and A Man For All Seasons.

Lin Jaafar (left) and Jit Murad in their 2-person play ‘Goldrain and Hailstones’ – picture by The Star

He did movies: Mat Gelap (1990), Selubung (1992), Beyond Rangoon (1995), Perempuan Melayu Terakhir (1999), Mimpi Moon (2000), Waris Jari Hantu (2007) 1957: Hati Malaya (2007), Talentime (2009) Split Gravy On Rice (2015)

He did television with Dunia Rees dan Ina in 1995 and Neon in 2003.

But his hallmark remained his plays and the wit he infused into them, right from the title which sometimes played on his first name (Jit), that he used as a metaphor for sh*t: Jit Hits The Fan (2003), Full of Jit (2007) and One Load of Bull Jit (2009).

His other works as a playwright were The Storyteller (1996), based on South-East Asian spoken traditions; and Gold Rain & Hailstones (1992) — which examined the notions of home, belonging and identity that resonate time and again through various stages of the production (so celebrated it was that there was a restaging in 2019).

The film Spilt Gravy On Rice won four awards at the inaugural Cameronian Arts Award 2003 while Visits (2002) was hailed for its comedy reworked from a three-monologue effort from the early 1990s.

Jit Murad, best actor for Gold Rain & Hailstones at the 5th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards – Picture by The Star

Like his plays, Murad’s career often resonated beyond the stage, as he crafted scripts that illuminated both his depth as an intellectual and brain for black comedy. He was forever pushing the boundaries of laughter, to see how much more his audience — and targets — could take. His thinking was: If people could laugh at themselves, it meant they were somewhat accepting of their idiocy, and perhaps they could change for the better, nah?

Jit Murad onstage as Renee Choy – an offbeat hairstylist with an exaggerated colloquial Chinese accent. The Star pix by Andrew Chong

Murad was also constantly looking to grow beyond himself, toward creating a theatre and arts community that puts Malaysia’s best foot forward in comedy. This quest led him to start Dramalab in 1993 with ICT’s Albakri, establishing an offshoot of Instant Cafe, which encouraged new writing and theatre debutants.

Thus, the tributes that flowed in for him were from both the young and old that celebrated his near-selfless existence.

“I love you so much, Uncle Jit,” wrote actress Sharifah Amani Syed Zainal Rashid Al-Yahya. “I will forever tell the story of how you came to my kindergarten to pick up your nephew, but it was me that ran into your arms first.”

Malaysian member of parliament and caricature artist Fahmi Fadzil recalled working with Murad on the 2004 staging of A Man For All Seasons, adding that he would forever miss his “acerbic wit, incisive commentaries on social life, and bonhomie.”

Music producer and songwriter Aubrey Suwito described Murad as “truly a creative soul”; comedian Phoon Chi Ho called him “the only true genius in our local comedy scene” while Pete Teo, another musician and filmmaker wrote: “You were always the brightest star among us restless children”.

“Jit is Wit,” fellow playwright Niki Cheong proclaimed of Murad, borrowing the phrase coined by Ann Lee, another luminary in the game.

Iskander, the internationally-acclaimed Malaysian comedian, said Murad was special because he “openly lived a life so honest and unworried about what others thought”.

Before and After: Kukathas and Murad in a 1990 photo by SC Shekar for Black Comedy (left) and before his demise.

Iskander also recalled a time when they hung out day after day chatting about books, among other things.

Indeed, books — aside from films and, of course, plays — were Murad’s soul, as his founding colleague from Instant Cafe Kukathas would attest.

The Murad-Kukathas bond transcended work, friendship and art. It was she who confirmed his demise to the Malaysian media on the morning of Feb. 12, 2022. She also knew of his voracious appetite for the written word, calling him a “book thief” in a poignant Facebook post about his burial.

“He’s here if you want to visit,” Kukathas, an ambassador of dark wit herself, said in the post, referring to a picture of Murad’s grave. “He’ll ask you to bring a book ,,, which you will never get back.”

 * Adapted from The Star and  The Malay Mail 

* Banner picture: Jit Murad during a rehearsal for Instant Cafe Theatre’s first full-length play, featuring Eugene Ionesco’s ‘The Lesson’ and Peter Shaffer’s ‘Black Comedy’, in Kuala Lumpur in October 1990. Picture by The Star

A young Murad. Picture by The Malay Mail

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