HELLO! Magazine, Issue 8, September 2007
Fatimah Abu Bakar shares photos from her family album and talks passionately about her four daughters
By Sophia Goh
At first glance, Fatimah Abu Bakar is diminutive yet distinguished, the kind of lady you look at and think twice about messing with. Up close however, she’s hugely personable and animated – a great joy to talk to, still not someone you mess with, but definitely someone you could call ‘mama’. After all, being a mother is a huge part of what Aunty Fati, as she is affectionately called, is all about. As the matriarch behind industry darlings Sharifah Aleya, Sharifah Amani, Sharifah Aleysha and Sharifah Aryana, she is first and above all a mother, then a journalist, actress, acting coach, media consultant, trainer, mentor…
“I love [my daughters] like crazy, but one of them, I won’t say who but of course her name is Sharifah Amani, can’t drive, so on top of everything I have to be her driver, so ya, very busy la,” she says, the laughter in her voice betraying her feigned annoyance. She lights up when the topic of her daughters is broached, and is hardly the prim and proper image she portrays in photographs. “Oh, luckily I didn’t swear,” she says mid-sentence when the car we are riding in suddenly swerves to the left. As if we could ever imagine Aunty Fati swearing.
Even though her youngest daughter, Aryana, is only 12, this super-mum is already dreading the day her children move out. “Sooner or later, I will experience the ‘empty nest syndrome’ where all my birds will fly away and all that is left will be me and my old man,” she laments dramatically – and laughs. When it’s pointed out that her youngest daughter is barely in her teens and won’t be leaving anytime soon, she agrees, but adds: “You never know nowadays, [children] all want to leave early. They all think they’re so independent…”
“I’m the sort that even when [Aleya] and [Amani] were much younger, I’d have them come and sleep in the same bed with me, and their father will be like, ‘Aren’t they old enough to sleep in their own room’,” she explains, almost wistfully. “They had their own room, but I’m the sort who thinks it’s nicer for us all to sleep together, like we’re camping. I love that.”
“I suppose it’s because that’s what I had growing up as a child, my parents were like that, we loved camping and getting all cosy together, so ya la,” she adds.
When the topic of conversation is changed to Pensonic Pride, a television series filmed in conjunction with the nation’s 50th birthday, Aunty Fati seems almost horrified that she might be considered one of the country’s foremost success icons in her industry. “Oh I really don’t know,” she muses when asked if she knew why she was among the chosen. “It’s a bit embarrassing. But I’m very honoured, very touched.”
“Actually, the first time I was approached, I thought it was a one-off advertisement, and subsequently it’s become like a television show but I think there are many more deserving people,” she says.
Who are your personal icons of success?
Top on my list is definitely Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah. She is the epitome of the very clever, very brave, forward thinking, very strong emotionally and spiritually, Malaysian woman. This is the kind of person I think every Malaysian woman should look to and strive to be like. I also truly admire Oprah Winfrey, because she has built up everything she has today from nothing. She had an abusive childhood and she went through so many things where other women would have given up, but she didn’t. And one thing I really admire her for is Oprah’s Angel Network, where she encourages people to give back to society. She establishes schools for girls in Africa, gives scholarships to the underprivileged… she’s really given back to society.
What projects are you currently involved in?
I’m quite busy with my training workshop where I train broadcast journalists, and I’m also coaching actors. I still work with the Akademi Fantasia 5 students, who I call my children, because even though the season is over, I go to Linda Jasmine’s Performing Arts Studio where I train them in conversational English and work with them in terms of presentation and performance. Apart from that, I’m also looking at some scripts. I’ve had to turn down some roles because I just don’t have the time, but there’s one script that I’m particularly interested in. Then there’s also my writing, which I do under my company, Salt Media Consultancy. We produce a women’s magazine called Madam Chair. I’m busy but on top of that, what makes me even more gila [crazy] are my children! [laughs]
Tell us about your children.
I’ve got four daughters. Sharifah Aleya is 24 years old and she’s an actor, DJ and radio and television host. There’s Amani who is really looking forward to the release of Muallaf, where she had to have her head shaved – she’s also considering two other movies and a television series. Aleysha, who plays Rohana in Muallaf, is my third daughter. She’s 14 years old and currently busy with her schoolwork. And Aryana, my youngest, is 12 years old and played Orked in Mukhsin. She will be sitting for her UPSR this year and even though she was invited to Paris with Yasmin Ahmad and Amani middle of this year, her father didn’t allow her to make the trip so she was a bit disappointed. But we said, never mind, you’ve been to Berlin (Germany) already so that’s enough. She’s been quite lucky.
And how does your husband cope with five women in the house?
Five mad women, you mean [laughs]. I don’t know, I must check his blood pressure every now and then. But no, he’s used to it. I think it helps that he’s also in the creative line. Even though he’s a businessman by profession, his passion is photography and he’s had exhibitions with some of Malaysia’s leading photographers. So it’s not like he’s completely out of the creative loop. He doesn’t have much of a choice if he can’t take mad women; he’s stuck for life [laughs]!
Describe a typical day in the life of your family.
Okay, there’s no typical day. I suppose you could call us a very dysfunctional family. Mummy is doing something, then daddy is doing something else, but we always make sure one of us picks up the kids from school. And I’ll be screaming at Amani to make sure she makes whatever appointment she’s got on time. But we do try to sit down and have dinner together. What I really enjoy are the rare moments when all six of us can get together and we’ll drive to maybe Port Klang to have seafood and then go home and watch a movie together. Our all-time favourite is Shrek, it’s like our tradition. But these outings are very rare now and I do miss that.
What was your reaction to Sharifah Amani shaving her head?
I knew she was going to do it months beforehand, but even though you try to prepare yourself, it’s still a shock to see your daughter… I mean, she had hair right down to her butt and she’s had that hair for years! And of all my daughters, Amani is the vainest. She’s the one with all the make-up. When they were younger, if there was evidence of any of my daughters having gone through my bag looking for makeup, chances are it was Amani. So for her to go completely bald was, I thought, very brave of her. But I understood why she did it. I would have done it. It’s something you don’t even think twice about because if you look at the script and the storyline, it’s meant to be for this character.
Do you think your background has influenced your approach to motherhood?
Oh I really don’t know. I’ve always been very melodramatic and I suppose that having worked with equally mad people, I’ve learnt that it’s okay to be mad, you know, provided you channel it the right way. I feel that I’ve been very lucky to have had supportive friends and teachers. I owe a lot of what I am as a person, an actor and a journalist today to people like Suhaimi Baba, the late Mustafa Noor, Masna Rudin… there are so many people I have to thank. And of course, Yasmin Ahmad, even though she is younger than me, I’ve learnt so much from her about giving, forgiving and not being afraid to be yourself. Hopefully, all this has influenced me so that when I talk to my girls, I tell them that this is the way to be. I tell them it’s not going to be easy because many people cannot accept girls who are too outspoken and too honest, but you just have to keep being yourself. Like what Amani went through [when she shaved her head] and all that – we hang on, and I suppose it helps that we have each other.
What did you say when your children wanted to go into showbiz?
It was not a conscious decision in the beginning. Everything that has happened was, I suppose, meant to happen, probably fated. Although Amani has always known she wants to be an actor, she has never actually said it. But it didn’t come as a surprise to me because they’ve been following me to rehearsals since they were little girls so they were quite comfortable with the camera and with the process of acting. Amani keeps saying she decided she wanted to act when she saw me on stage so that’s nice, but wanting to be an actor and actually taking the first step into acting are two completely different things. I suppose she was lucky that she was in the right place at the right time when she met Yasmin, who happened to be with a family friend, and just making that connection. As for Aleya, Azizan Osman, who directed her in her first movie role, saw her from a commercial and that was her big break. I didn’t encourage them, I didn’t make a conscious effort to raise them to be actors, but I’m happy that they have chosen this.
So being an acting coach yourself, are you their worst critic?
Oh, I am! In fact, every time Yasmin makes a new movie, she’ll have private sneak previews and Amani will be sweating and she’ll have tummy cramps and headaches because she’s so nervous. She’ll say, never mind if anybody else comes, but I’m so scared that my mama is coming. [laughs] In a way I think that’s a compliment because she values what I think. I’m not brutal la, but I will tell her when she’s not doing things right. And because I work a lot with actors, I really demand a lot. If you have the talent, you mustn’t be lazy. If I don’t see that you’re trying… geram. If I think you cannot do it then it is okay because I know that’s the best you can do and I won’t push you, but if I know you can do better and you’re not, you die [laughs]! That’s why my daughters are frightened.
And what about the other way round? Are your daughters your worst critics too?
Oh yes, they are! We are our worst critics and our biggest fans. If you do well, you get praise. The sisters have been doing that to each other and I’m so glad because Aleya and Amani have been very supportive of their two younger sisters.
Are there any roles you would love to play in particular?
Oh my god, as an actor, you always want to try and play different roles. It’s fun because you get to be a different person, so if you’re shy in real life, then you want to play someone really brutal and rude when you’re acting, because it’s fun being that. I would love to play somebody feisty as long as she is a strong woman, or perhaps a woman who initially wasn’t strong and then became stronger through her own conviction or something. There must be a message. It shouldn’t just be that at the end of a movie, people look at it and say, okay, you know, it was nice but I didn’t learn much, I wasn’t touched. I think it’s so important for a movie to touch people and to make people think.
So what’s the message that you would like to get out?
There is more than meets the eye to Malaysian women. I think we’re not given enough credit. If you look in the media, women are still being portrayed as this pretty little thing. In television dramas they are the battered wives or the abused girlfriends – all the time. When we appear in newspapers, we are the victims – rape victims, robbery victims, whatever. We have so many clever, clever women, and that’s why the magazine Madam Chair features cover girls who are CEOs or aspiring to be CEOs. Our very first cover girl, who we were very glad to get because she apparently never gives interviews, is Raja Elena, the princess of Perak, who is behind the SMART tunnel. And subsequently, we’ve had people like Nancy Yeoh, Farah Khan etc. and we’re so happy to have them. Apart from magazines like that, not much is highlighted about our Malaysian women and their achievements. I think scriptwriters should inject more of that into their writing.
What do you think are the crucial elements to success?
Oh my god, you have to be hungry all the time. You have to just want, want, want. And you must work hard. Many young people I work with are not well-off; all they have is raw talent. Working with Akademi Fantasia has given me so much respect for young Malaysians because these are the people who want to succeed and all they have is raw talent. They want to learn and they just devour what little that we are able to give them over the two months at the Akademi. To me, this is what you need, to be hungry, to really drive yourself and to say that if this is my passion, I won’t let anybody stop me. No matter what people say, you have to hang on to that and if you know the reason you are doing it, then you’re fine. If it’s just for the fame and glamour, you won’t last long.