By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

DESPITE the hue and cry on social media about the banishing of Filipino and Panitikan (Philippine Literature) from the G.E. (General Education) curriculum, these weren’t even required subjects during much of the last century. Filipino Literature (classics like Balagtas’ Ibong Adarna or translations of Rizal’s Noli and Fili) was taught in high school, and Balarila (Filipino Grammar) in the elementary grades. This was way before the millennials’ time. Today’s high school SAP (Special Arts Program) syllabus may include digital filmmaking. Anyone with a smart phone can be a filmmaker or actor, using social media to distribute one’s creations. The recent scholarly conference “Interseksyon: Pelikula, Panitikan at Wikang Filipino” drew an unexpected crowd which necessitated changing the original venue from the UP Mass Comm Auditorium to the much larger Cine Adarna. National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) Vice-Chair Teddy Co cited film and TV as the convergence of various art forms (e.g., performing arts, literature) with new technologies.

Filipinos of decades past learned their Panitikan and Filipino not in any classroom, but at the movie theaters which numbered 300 before WWII. The theaters of yore affirmed Filipino class divisions with the pang-masa (for the masses) orchestra, and the costlier balcony and loge, whose well-heeled patrons preferred Hollywood movies. The bakya (wooden clogs) crowd or hoi-polloi watched the sineng Tagalog (Tagalog-language movies). Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera credits the popularity of these locally produced Filipino movies, also radio and later television programs, for the spread of our national language since the American Colonial Period. The three media platforms of movies, radio, and TV are the most accessible and widely consumed art forms (they occasionally rise to that level) for Filipinos. Generally, we are not serious readers, nor museum, gallery or theater-goers.

The researcher Carmencita Momblanco found over half of the 1,500 Philippine movies produced from 1919 to 1950 (few survived intact or at all), were adaptations of popular Tagalog novels serialized in Liwayway Magazine or rendered as komiks (comics) in other publications. These were leisure reading for the masses, not high art for the literati. Their popularity gave many Filipinos fluency in Tagalog. Even before Filipino became the official language, Tagalog-speakers were considered at an advantage because Manila was the center of commerce, politics and culture. The major movie studios were also here.

Movie themes then were comfortingly mundane experiences of romantic or family love, fantasy, and melodrama. Favorite themes were: the maltreated child (Tahan na Empoy, Mga Batang Yagit); the decadent rich oppressing the noble poor, usually two lovers — one rich, one poor; the tulisan (hoodlum) with a heart of gold. People wanted to be entertained — no political propaganda, history lessons, or painful psycho-drama. The written dialogue in the serialized novel or komiks balloons might be delivered practically verbatim onscreen. Often, the original authors also wrote the screenplays.

Dr. Nicanor Tiongson described the direct transposition from stage to screen of theater forms, i.e., corrido (metrical romances), (melo)drama, and bodabil (vaudeville or variety show). Romantic or farcical mistaken identity plots were crowd-pleasers. The first full length Filipino film, Dalagang Bukid, was a sarsuela, the Pinoy version of the MGM musicale, which morphed into the “Juke Box Musicales” of the 1960s and ’70s, launching Nida Blanca and Nora Aunor into the cosmos. The sarsuela stage troupes, many from the provinces, reprised their stage roles on film. Former President Diosdado Macapagal, part of the Sarsuela de Lubao, Pampanga passed on his acting genes to his daughter, former President now House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The stage versions often originated from written literature or komiks. It was a fruitful cross-pollination, still evident in such hackneyed favorites as Enteng Kabisote, now on its 10th rehash.

The movie studio system here was established by the Spanish-speaking wealthy of the mid-20th century. They saw the sineng Tagalog as a great business opportunity. Over 800 sineng Tagalog were made in the 1950s, with more than half by LVN studios. Dr. Roland Tolentino of UP Mass Comm calls Tagalog/Filipino the language of “soft power,” as opposed to English, the language of the political and economic elites.

The movie studio system gave rise to Filipino fan culture and the cult of celebrityhood. The price of admission made movie-going largely a middle-class activity. Middle-class aspirations and values were portrayed on-screen, influencing consumer-spending and giving rise to the movie star celebrity product endorser (eg., the late FPJ, Kris Aquino and Coco Martin). By 1957, a matinee movie idol, Rogelio dela Rosa, had parlayed his popularity to win a Senate seat, making show business a glamorous gateway to government service.

Dolphy and Panchito, Bentot and Chichay, Pugo and Tugo, Bayani Casimiro and Aruray — all these well-loved comedians started on the bodabil stage. Their familiar roles as bumbling servants and sidekicks are still good for easy laughs, as are unconventional looks and physical deformity. These funny men’s movie dialogue was usually “Indian-Koboy” style: improvised or unscripted. The paid screenplay writer was a rarity back then. Dr. Roland Tolentino showed how over the years, the stilted flowery Tagalog of pre- and post WWII films evolved into more realistic conversational styles with lots of slang and American colloquialisms.

A grammar Nazi in the audience decried how Taglish and gay lingo (Sward Speak or Bekinese) have infiltrated the movies/TV and become mainstream. She would have us return to a mythical past and take prior restraint to a whole new level, through the creation of a government office to vet movie/TV scripts and ensure that these were all only in the purest orthodox Filipino. Any violators would not be shown. Not going to happen, Dr. Tolentino flat out declared. Human language is alive and free: ever-changing, dynamic, continuously evolving. Besides, the Ateneo’s Gary Devilles pointed out, there is no such thing as pure Filipino. Even Balagtas used Spanish terms. The language of cinema and TV is not just spoken but also visual. Thus, even Filipinos who are not exactly fluent in English still enjoy the visuality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Without the resources to make cinematic spectaculars and to compete with the Hollywood blockbusters for a larger share of the market, Dr. Tiongson suggested that Filipino filmmakers might harken back to the literary and theatrical traditions in which their forebears had been steeped for centuries. These seem to have been imprinted in our national DNA. The popularity of rap battles, as shown in Treb Montero’s Respeto resonates with centuries’ old indigenous poetic jousts such as the duplo and karagatan. He pointed out that as admirable and excellent as the craft and conventions of Filipino independent-style filmmaking are, the indies are lucky to get a 20% audience share. The best have won international festival acclaim. The challenge is to get the remaining 80% of the Pinoy audiences to watch.