Award-winning actress Sharifah Amani and her family of Malay-Chinese-Bengali descent speak to Sunday Star about being Malaysian, making movies that transcend race, gender and religion, and carrying on the late Yasmin Ahmad’s legacy.
SEEING Fatimah Abu Bakar, 59, hanging out with her four talented daughters is like watching a Malaysian version of the Kardashians. The girls are loud, funny and opinionated. Unlike the latter, however, they are down-to-earth talents with a strong aversion to glamour.
Fatimah, a former journalist, consultant and veteran actress from Penang, is proud that her daughters – radio announcer, actress and TV host Sharifah Aleya, 31, actress-filmmaker Sharifah Amani, 28, actress Sharifah Aleysha, 21, and student-actress Sharifah Aryana, 18 – have all followed in her footsteps and become stars in their own right.
Each of the girls has had at least a role in some of the country’s most memorable movies, such as Selubung, Idola, Trauma, Mimpi Moon, Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam, Talentime, Muallaf and Mukhsin.
Amani picked up the Most Promising Actress award in the 18th Malaysian Film Festival (2005) for her lead role in the late film director, writer and scriptwriter Yasmin Ahmad’s critically-acclaimed Sepet, and the following year, the Best Actress award in Gubra (the sequel to Sepet).
It has been five years since Yasmin’s passing, and the girls, who have all acted in her movies, are adamant in continuing her legacy by telling stories about real Malaysians.
> What does being Malaysian mean to you?
Fatimah: We are “most Malaysian” when we are abroad. Being Malaysian means that it is okay to be different. It doesn’t mean you are wrong. We are a tapestry of colours. If you remove even one thread, it won’t be as beautiful. Everyone has something to give.
Aleya: Sometimes we don’t realise how much freedom we have. If you have passion and drive, you can go as far as you want. Fifty-seven is still very young. We still have a long way to go with many more mistakes to make but we will learn and end up better than anyone else. That is the Malaysian spirit.
Amani: Being Malaysian is such a blessing. Our imperfections make us perfect. We have so many ways to express ourselves – through our food, art and culture. There is no other nation like ours. We are all individuals. We take influences from all over and still manage to make it Malaysian.
Aleysha: To be colourful. We are the most colourful nation in the whole wide world. We care about traditions. There is an abundance of colours and no matter which hue you mix and match, it will still look good. When you meet a fellow Malaysian abroad, you will click immediately because we just get each other no matter which race we belong to.
Aryana: To be honest and proud of where we came from.
> Fatimah, you’ve stressed on being respectful and not intentionally hurting people’s feelings. Do you think that is what this country is most lacking in?
Fatimah: Yes, increasingly so. But I don’t know if we have really become more disrespectful as a nation or is it that such voices are only being amplified now because of social media. I am appalled, though, that I rarely hear “please, thank you and excuse me”.
I always tell budding artistes: “How can you be big when you neglect the small things?” I am proud that young Malaysians are now daring to speak up – in entertainment, music, politics, whatever. They are coming out to lend their voices and rightfully so. And people of my generation and older should help make their path easier and not overstay our welcome. We must have faith that they have their own minds. Just because we do not agree with their opinions does not mean they are wrong.
> What is the secret to making a movie everyone can relate to, a truly Malaysian production that unites?
Fatimah: Surround yourself with positive vibes. Don’t belittle, ignore or label a person or community. There shouldn’t be a rigid checklist on how to make a Malaysian movie but we must show our spirit, culture and language, warts and all. Be honest. Don’t be afraid of our flaws. Experiment. I’d like to see the day when we no longer refer to someone as Malaysian Chinese or Malaysian Indian. It is Malaysian, period.
Aleya: If your intention is pure, you will touch someone. It doesn’t matter which culture you come from, but be sincere and make movies from the heart. Movies like The Journey are so important. Even in music, we need to break down barriers, which artistes like Jaclyn Victor, Amir Jahari and DJ Fuzz have done. We have to keep pushing boundaries, like rapping in Negri Sembilan or Kelantan dialects.
Amani: I don’t know. I don’t think even Yasmin knew. She just told stories that she knew well... stories about herself. If you have the right intention, work with like-minded people and those who share the same values, be true to yourself and your country, you can make an interesting film. We are all humans who want stories we can relate to... stories that evolve.
Aleysha: If you portray life as it is, you will see unity. When you see another in pain no matter what race, you will help. The Journey wasn’t about unity but it brought people together. The Journey was about a father and daughter relationship... it was about life. In the city, you see racist moments because we are surrounded by issues like the plight of the foreign workers but in places like Penang, you have a Hokkien-speaking Indian aunty selling pasembur. Performers should showcase themes of love, family and how people care for each other.
Aryana: You want to show foreigners who we are? You want to make a Malaysian film? Just walk around with a camera. There is no need to look for unity or to stress on it in a movie. It is there. We just need to chill out and continue living our lives. It doesn’t matter whether you come from an Indian, Chinese or Malay background because if you talk about being human, everyone will get it. I want to tell stories about things I know, to let that honesty come through. I’m not sure which career path I want to take yet but I’d love to work with my sisters and harness all their talents. We are very driven.
> You’ve all had the privilege of working with Yasmin. What do you remember most about her?
Aleya: She made films for her parents to enjoy and to make them proud. She was more of an energy than a (physical) being. She taught me sincerity. She was full of love and was forever trying to be a matchmaker (laughs). I will always remember how she would go for her prayers and when filming resumed, she’d put on her mascara behind the cameras even as she was directing. She would always fulfil her religious duties and make her parents happy. Then she’d make sure she looked gorgeous.
Amani: I was very much trained by her. My love for performing was my little secret until she came along and exposed me to the world of filmmaking. On Talent Time, she let me work with the crew and I realised how much I wanted to be a filmmaker. She never forced anything on anyone. She would have prayer breaks on set but never forced anyone to pray. She was very devoted to her parents. She’d tell me: “Don’t complain, they gave you life. What else do you want?” She told me to always apologise to my parents (whenever we fought) because as children, it is our duty to make them happy and proud.
Aleshya: She let us do our own thing but would guide us along the way. She was such a genuine person. Before going to sleep every day, she’d make sure to forgive those who had hurt her first. She showed me how to treat people well.
Aryana: She taught me how to be strong and feminine at the same time. She would comb my hair and tell me to sit up straight, constantly reminding me that women have so many qualities that let us go further in life.
> What made Yasmin’s work special?
Aleya: When she made movies, she never saw colour and that was what my mum taught us. It feels like Yasmin was telling our story but on a much larger scale.
Amani: She was one of the few directors who could tell a truly Malaysian story. Her work was never one-sided. People called her an idealist but she took what was beautiful about Malaysians and played it up. She didn’t need slogans.
> Yasmin’s dream was to be the Woody Allen of Malaysia, she once said. Is that your aspiration too, Amani?
Amani: Very much so. I’m very visual. It’s funny but my sisters used to call me Woody Allen when I was younger. I want to tell stories. I am interested in what makes people tick. I am working on a script now that will involve my sisters.
> Do you feel pressure in continuing her legacy?
Amani: Even before Yasmin, there was my mum, Aleya and (Datin Paduka) Shuhaimi Baba whose work I love. Things are only a burden if you let them be. Yasmin’s legacy must continue and I want to do it. She understood that the more local you make a film, the more international its appeal. I want to stir the pot and get a dialogue going.
Aleshya: There were comments that a short film I did recently had nuances of Yasmin. It wasn’t conscious and I was quite surprised at the feedback. I do what I want because when you are afraid (of living up to expectations), you will mess up.
> Who are the local players you think deserve credit for growing the industry right now?
Aleya: The KRU brothers! Where would Malaysian hip-hop be without them? They are trendsetters and at the same time, they are trend followers who are constantly learning and evolving. They adapt and survive. And I really envy the bravery of Projek Disco Baldi (comedy ensemble). We have bundles of talents just waiting to explode.
Amani: People like Iedil Putra, Farah Rani, Sherry Al-Hadad, Megat Sharizal and Redza Minhat are all from theatre. They just got together and started to make sketches for Projek Disco Baldi. Now under Playground Productions, they also came up with Terbaik Dari Langit, which is coming out in December. Imagine a group with no movie-making knowledge out creating their own opportunities. They are not just sitting around asking why our industry (is) like this. People like Nik Amir Mustapha, Bront Palarae and AG Coco are all talents who create their own destiny. No money never mind, pinjam dan buat dulu.
Nam Ron is one of my sifus. He is such a brilliant mind yet very humble – such a beautiful playwright. They are really young! The problem here is that we don’t know how to preserve our talents. We squeeze them dry and chuck them aside. But it’s exciting now because people are coming up with different things. Everyone is leading by example. This is the essence of indie.
Aleysha: In our industry, there are selfish people who are not interested in nurturing because they are worried about people becoming better than them. So I am appreciative that groups like Revolution Stage and Five Arts Centre are there to educate performers. They have all kinds workshops, training and stagings. They really care about kids who are genuinely interested. Five Arts is so open and will help you if you want to do something. These people are really happy to help you grow.
Aryana: Projek Disco Baldi. Those involved are all successful in their own right but are even stronger when working together. They’ve shown that you don’t have to sell out to make it good. We also need more talents like the KRU brothers, who are not just creative people but are also entrepreneurs. There’s Syafie Naswip (her co-actor in Mukhsin) who just keeps getting better. He went on to do Songlap and I keep telling him not to be so awesome because we are supposed to be contemporaries. Wait for me (laughs)!
> Are you your children’s worst critic, Fatimah?
Fatimah: Yes! They are always so afraid when I watch them perform. I don’t know why. I suppose it’s because they don’t want to disappoint me.
> Amani was once criticised for speaking in English at an awards ceremony and later going bald for her role in Mualaf. Do you think that Malaysians are judgmental?
Fatimah: I’d like to believe that Malaysians are generally not. The judgmental ones are the minority and, unfortunately, their voices are louder because of social media.
> Fatimah, you have described your family as emotionally volatile. Do you see yourself as a Malaysian Kris Kardashian? Do you have any plans to film a reality show?
Fatimah: We’ve had at least two offers but the family is not comfortable with the idea of a reality show. There would be a lot of censoring if we did it (laughs). Plus, we are allergic to glamour. You must respect your craft. I don’t have Kris’ drive. She’s more of a businesswoman while my role first and foremost is to be their mother.
Besides, I am too busy with my own life as a daughter, mother, wife, grandmother, trainer, consultant and actress to be my children’s manager. At my age, though, I have to choose my roles carefully, not because I am picky but because I don’t have much time left to waste on things that I don’t enjoy doing.
Aleya: It’s hard to find a family like ours where everyone is involved in the industry. We will claw each other’s face off sometimes but I am very protective of my sisters.