The Daulat Title Screen


Dept. of Unfulfilled Promise


There is no great secret to writing a Machiavellian character. Popular fiction is littered with them: Littlefinger. Frank and Claire Underwood. Negan. Tony Soprano. The difficulty lies in getting them right. The best of them are subtle creatures, so nuanced in their actions that we, the audience, can’t help but be seduced by their twisted logic. (It’s what makes Mahathir such an enduring figure in our political lives.) And if that’s too much to ask, then you could always just get Vanida Imran to kneel in front of a larger than life portrait of Machiavelli. It’s a bit on the nose, but it should do the trick.


The biggest problem with Daulat – of which there are quite a few – is that it keeps talking at me, telling not showing, preaching the gospel like those born again. It is a movie so in thrall with itself, with what it’s trying to be, that it seems to have forgotten that the purpose of cinema, above all else, is to tell a good story. It is a screenplay so concerned with symbols and moments that it neglects to develop the conversations, and characters, and chain of events necessary to make those symbols and moments meaningful.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tony Eusoff plays Hassan in the movie Daulat.

The movie, a roman-à-clef of Malaysian politics, takes a look at the inner lives – both political and personal – of the losing side following the events of a general election. Its plot is built around a simple question: “So, your corrupt regime lost an election, now what do you do?” And while all the names have been changed to protect the guilty, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who’s who in this sordid tale. There are no saviours here. Everyone is fair game. Daulat is as much a rebuke of the Pakatan Harapan government as it is a derision of UMNO and their tactics.

Daulat tries to portray politics as completely and utterly self-serving. Not something reduced to evil by compromise and consequence. But the very source of evil. It’s great insight being that bad people run the country, irrespective of which side they come from.

The effort is praiseworthy. The ambition is worthy of admiration. And in an artistic space dominated by fear and censorship, by mind-numbing complacency, in the creative wasteland we call Malaysian cinema, the very act of making a political thriller like this is an incredibly brave one by all those involved.

It is in the execution where Daulat falls short.

Vanida Imran plays Suri in Daulat.

The movie centres on Suri (Vanida Imran), a close advisor to her party’s leader, with a hidden hand in the media, and a remarkably open relationship with her husband, who plots and schemes her way to the top. There are few scruples and even fewer loyalties. She is someone for whom morality runs a distant second to ambition. Sound familiar? Well it should. The arc of the film is almost an exact replica of the first season of Netflix’s House of Cards – right down to an overwrought chess metaphor.


But doing House of Cards is hard. It was absolutely ingenious in its conception. And even more so in its construction. Every plot point and piece of dialogue trickily and intricately layered in order to pull off satire and seriousness in equal measure. Not forgetting it’s greatest trick, creating such profoundly hateful characters and still have the audience root for them.

The moral here is this. If you’re going to crib from the best, you need to make damn sure you pull it off.

Daulat does not.

Now there is nothing wrong with a ripped-from-the-headlines plot. Except maybe when you rip every single headline: corruption, murder, sex, lies, and videotape. (Quite literally.) You can be a movie about something or a movie about nothing. But a movie about everything is always, always problematic.

As a parody of our politics being no different than your average Drama Minggu Ini, Daulat fails by not leaning harder into those soapy tropes.

As a piece of satire, it fails as a consequence of being almost too safe. Satire should be an exaggerated depiction of the way things are. One that speaks truth to power by taking things to illogical extremes. But nothing that any of the characters say or do in Daulat is particularly shocking or surprising. Like when the leader of the Islamic party fails to condemn the bombing of a nightclub in Kuala Lumpur because those who died were sinners. Or when an ineffectual Deputy Prime Minister doesn’t support the outlawing of marital rape. That isn’t satire. This is merely a sad reflection of our reality. It isn’t writing, it’s transcribing.

In fact, every character in Daulat is mirrored so closely to reality that barely any time is spent developing them as individuals in their own right. They are barely disguised stand-ins. Each one relying on the emotional baggage of their real world counterparts to do all the heavy lifting. What this means is that we, the audience, are forced to judge their choices, not by virtue of their actions on screen, but by what we understand of their Doppelgängers.

There are fleeting moments, however, in which these characters threaten to grow beyond how they’re written. Like Sangeeta Krishnasamy’s Melissa, a liberal politician who is willing to sacrifice her principles in the short term for future political gains. Or when Vanida Imran’s Suri confronts a weaselly man looking to blackmail her family. But they are far and few between. Often undercut by swathes of unnecessary exposition like, at the midway point, when Suri decides to give an impromptu PowerPoint presentation about “Median Voter Theorem”.


A good story is one that’s driven by character, by the choices they make and the consequences of their actions. All of it needs to be from the page. All of it needs to be on the screen. A good movie needs to build a believable world with compelling characters and have them be contained within those 101 or so minutes.

House of Cards worked because it truly was a twisted reflection of Washington. Here, Putrajaya, with all of its murder, mystery, drama, and tension feels like a darker version of Daulat.

101 minutes
Director: Imran Sheik
Writers: Imran Sheik and Haziq Jamaludin
Cast: Vanida Imran, Rashidi Ishak, Tony Eusoff, Jasmine Suraya Chin, Cristina Suzanne, and Zul Zamir

For another take on Daulat, you can check out Iain McNally’s review here.

Daulat is now streaming on Mubi.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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