JANUARY 19 — The first time we meet the family of Razif (Rashidi Ishak), he is getting ready for work, his ironed clothes delivered to him by the maid.
His wife Mona (Elly Mazlein) is doing yoga in the other bedroom.
The couple have not shared a bed for some time, locked in a loveless marriage and on the verge of divorce.
Their eldest, daughter Laila (Riena Diana) is lying on her bed posting a thirst trap (#WokeUpLikeThis), while son Imran (Kamarul Eqifshah) is locked in a dark room with the curtains drawn, playing a first-person shooter video game.
It does not take long for their world to be turned upside down. It turns out that Razif had been cooking the books for crime boss Tuan Suhaimi (Nam Ron), only to be nabbed by an anti-corruption agency in a sting operation.
Offering to snitch on his boss, Razif and his family are forced into a witness protection programme... and take on the country life.
That is the premise of Kampung People, a 13-episode comedy series by Wan Hasliza Wan Zainuddin that ran over the course of four weeks early this year on local channel TV3, that has received rave reviews from Malay viewers especially the young.
The show only grew in popularity after full episodes were uploaded on TV3’s YouTube channel as soon as they were aired.
Each episode was viewed roughly one million times, with the pilot episode’s views now at over two million.
This made the pilot the second most-watched drama episode on TV3’s YouTube channel, only eclipsed by Episode 26 of the wildly popular romance soap 7 Hari Mencintaiku in 2016, that many touted as perhaps the most-watched soap in recent times.
In many of the comments on Kampung People on YouTube, viewers attributed their love for the series to its fresh tone in a time slot largely dominated by cringy romance soaps with plots so trite and predictable that even a card game has been made as parody (see: Drama Pukul 7) .
This fact has even been made into a meta running joke in this series, with the appearance of romance novels with sarcastic titles like the trilogy of Pinjamkanlah Suamiku, Pulangkanlah Suamiku and Ambiklah Suamiku Ini, and the jewel in the crown: Laut, I Miss U (a reference to a certain popular rape-apologia title).
That is not to say that the show is flawless. Getting through the first few episodes was painful, with over-the-top acting and ear-splitting shrieks from the female leads, needless considering how competent and charismatic they are.
The story did not really shift into second gear until around one-third in, and the jokes only started getting LOL-funny after the first half. But if you can get over all that, you will be rewarded with a pop culture gem.
At first glance, the show seemed to be a harsh mockery of the rural community. Even the English title Kampung People was uttered by child actor Kamarul with the disdainful sneer of an urbanite.
The villagers are shown as lazy gossips more often to be found in a coffee shop, rather than somewhere working. When their cover identity was announced (named Abu Bakar, Minah, Ruziah and Adam) the characters laughed their asses off at the provincial sound of them.
But then one realises that the stereotyping is also levelled at the urbane Razif family. Laila’s bimbo attitude and faux Valley-girl English with atrocious grammar are a common prejudice towards urban youths, with Riena herself admitting she drew her influence from controversial Insta-famous King Coco. Imran is overweight, and in Malay parlance a kaki bangku.
Razif and Mona are hardly model parents. Decades of relying on their domestic workers (three of them!) had made them incapable of even the simplest domestic tasks, and despairingly detached from their children.
The moral roots of this show is perhaps how materialism and money control our lives, regardless of whether we live in a city or village.
No longer with a cushy job, Razif has to learn farming from scratch in order to provide for his family. Without her husband’s credit card, Mona has to literally beg for a washing machine and vacuum cleaner. Cut off from unlimited allowance, Laila has to discover baking while Imran has to resort to juvenile crime.
A particularly biting scene involves the so-called Surau Gang who had to deal with the realities of their meagre mosque funds. Faced with the choice of spending within their means to fix a leaking roof, or wanton spending to renovate the still-okay toilets, the committee gleefully chose the latter.
A bountiful harvest of corn — a sign of honest work — puts a smile on the face of Razif, but like other farmers he still has to contend with the rising costs of living. When looking for a job to sustain herself, Laila is shocked by the low wages in the village.
It is too easy for us to fall back on the so-called “urban-rural divide” when it comes to socio-political discourse. A subtext in this series reminds us that the real schism is between the working class and the elites — who can afford “justice” — as exemplified by the villain Tuan Suhaimi.
While facing corruption charges, Suhaimi can still afford sycophants who continue to support him in court (does this remind you of a certain “boss”?).
Legal loopholes allow him to delay hearing dates by pretending to be in a car crash (also sounds too familiar). And even when he is convicted, he easily files an appeal.
It is also telling that what makes this series lovable is also the concluding message, that the joys in life can be found in being with your loved ones, not material goods. That even away from urban comfort, one can still be happy.
Sometimes, all it takes is a change of scenery.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.