If Datuk Rosnani Jamil had taken the brickbats thrown at her, she’d never have thrown her heart into acting. But she had enough self-belief to disregard critics disparaging everything from her looks to her talent, and charted a career in showbusiness that spanned six decades.
Known fondly as Mak Nani, she has distinguished herself as a pioneering director. The secret, she says, is for women to believe in their talents and strive for greater things.
“Women have to be firm. Believe in yourself and think positive. You’ve got to have the fighting spirit to climb the ladder,” says Rosnani, who was also a scriptwriter and voiceover talent.
Her earliest test was when she was mocked for being plain and called an 'ugly ducking'. Instead of being disheartened, she took it in stride.
“Over the years, I’ve met people with different characters. Some actors called me ‘si hitam’ (black girl) while others compared my looks to beautiful actresses like Maria Menado and Kasma Booty. Despite the brickbats, it’s always a better option to stay calm and carry on,” she says.
But even after she proved her acting chops, Rosnani found herself subjected to doubts and scorn when she took on a directing role in the 1980s. Back then, Malaysian women filmmakers were far and few between as they were perceived to lack the abilities for the director’s chair.
“People didn’t respect my capabilities as a director. There was a lot of discrimination and scepticism,” recalls Rosnani, who made her directorial debut in 1987 with the romantic film Mawar Merah.
It had all the elements – good actors, script, soundtrack – and won a string of awards at the 7th Malaysian Film Fest including Best Actor, Best Budding Actress, Best Script and Best Original Story. She also wrote the screenplay.
Despite the accolades, critics still questioned Rosnani’s directing ability. Some commented that her late husband Datuk Jamil Sulong had directed the film but she took the credit.
“Don’t worry too much about criticism. The secret to my success is confidence and being steadfast in my choices,” she says.
A year after Mawar Merah, Rosnani tasted success again with Tuah, a period drama she produced that was screened at the 1990 Montreal Film Fest in Canada. The film was directed by her son, Anwardi Jamil Sulong.
“I am proud that a Malaysian film produced by a woman was featured at the prestigious film festival. At the event, I met many female directors and scriptwriters who acknowledged my achievements. Being able to gain recognition from other women was the icing on the cake,” she says.
Rosnani’s success paved the way for more female directors and talented women filmmakers who have gone on to put Malaysia on the world map. In 1997, Datin Paduka Shuhaimi Baba clinched Best Foreign Film for Layar Lara at the Brussels International Independent Film Fest.
In 2000, Erma Fatima made the country proud by clinching the Best Director award at the 7th Pyongyang International Film Fest for her film Perempuan Melayu Terakhir.
“It is important to make full use of life to ensure you have a legacy that people can remember you by,” says Rosnani who released her autobiography, Dato Rosnani Jamil: Dari Sungai Geringging Ke Kota London, in celebration of her 83rd birthday last month.
Rags to riches
Rosnani was born of Pakistani and Minangkabau lineage in Sumatera, Indonesia, is 1936. In 1941, her family fled to Singapore during the Japanese Occupation. Her family was poor and her mother worked several jobs to feed many mouths.
To help her family make ends meet, Rosnani worked as a waitress and dancer in Happy World Club, Singapore. Her moment came when filmmaker Tan Sri L Krishnan noticed her dancing at the club. He approached her to audition for a role in the 1952 movie, Lupa Daratan.
“By God’s grace, I was offered the lead role in the movie, produced by (the now defunct) Malay Film Productions. I was only 16 years old. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to rub shoulders alongside stars like Siput Sarawak, Kasma Booty and Maria Menado,” she recalls.
But Rosmani’s journey wasn’t as smooth as her induction to showbiz. The biggest hurdle she had to overcome was the language barrier between her and directors who spoke only English, which meant she was at a loss.
In the 1950s, only a handful of Singaporean Malay actors could speak English fluently, and Rosnani was not one of them. Unfazed, she enrolled in night school to learn the language, even though she had to do it on the sly.
“Back then, actresses weren’t allowed to be seen in public to protect our image. When my manager found out about my classes, I was reprimanded. But I argued with him until he relented.”
The classes helped Rosnani improve her proficiency and enabled her to communicate well with filmmakers. It gave the ambitious actress an advantage and she clinched more roles.
Among the notable films she has acted in are Anakku Sazali, Nasib Si Labu Labi, Suara Kekasih and Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam II. She has also starred in TV dramas such as Bapa Borek, Suraya and Villa Cinta Daddy.
All in, Rosnani has acted in about 40 films, making her one of the most prolific actresses in the local film industry. She also learnt about TV and radio production after joining Singapore Broadcasting Corporation in the mid-60s.
“To be a cut above the rest, ensure you have education. Sign up for courses and improve your skills. It is also vital for women to have a vision for their future,” she says.
In 1967, Rosnani and her family moved to KL where she landed a job as a dubbing coordinator at RTM. She went on to hone her skills in film editing, scripting and voiceovers.
Three years later, she won a scholarship to study in London where she completed her diploma studies in TV production and makeup at the Television And Film Academy. She worked as a parttime producer for BBC Radio.
“Always have a vision for the future. To be a cut above the rest, it is equally important to hone your skills and strive for bigger dreams,” she says.
In 2016, Rosnani retired from showbiz after directing her last movie, Mawar Putih. These days, the mother of four enjoys spending time with her eight grandchildren and tending to her spacious garden in Janda Baik, Pahang.
Producer and filmmaker Datuk Yusof Haslam describes Rosnani as “a woman of substance”. He continues to be amazed by her dedication to film.
“Her resilience never fails to surprise me. The younger generation should read her autobiography. It talks about her experiences and struggles, and how she overcame many challenges through sheer grit. Over the years, I’ve learnt so much from Rosnani and her late husband.”
Say Rosnani, “I’ve gone full circle in my career. It has been an interesting life, filled with bittersweet memories. In life, it is important to leave behind a legacy of hard work and dedication to empowering women.”