Doyenne of the Arts - Fatimah Abu Bakar

While most 60-year olds are planning their retirement, writer/actress/acting coach/Akademi Fantasia trainer and matriarch of the entertainment industry, Fatimah Abu Bakar is still keeping busy. Luckily for the rest of us, this does not mean she will not go out of her way to accommodate those who ask for her to spare some of her time, whether it’s to support any of her many talented offspring, more popularly known as the Sharifahs; attending local productions in support of her many friends and protégés in the industry or to squeeze in an interview with a young journalist - even if it means conducting part of the interview over the phone and the rest episodically via email due to time restrictions. After all, the situation may not be unfamiliar to her as she was formerly attached to the New Straits Times (NST) as a journalist before finally deciding to set up Salt Media Consultancy with some friends and colleagues in 2004.

Last month, Fatimah returned to the stage in Joanna Bessey’s production of Love Journey: A Nation of Two.

“It's been a long time since I did theatre. The last time I was on stage was for a short performance at last year's Cammies,” shares Fatimah, conveying that she took on the project because she was intrigued by the play, which had its central themes focused on family relationships, friendships, love and the test of faith.

“I enjoy both acting and coaching. They each give me a different kind of high. More importantly, one must love what one is doing. Then it becomes less of a chore. I’m really proud of how much we have achieved. We have definitely come a long way, especially in terms of owning a space to practice and perform. Back when I first started, we had to borrow spaces for rehearsals and even for the performance itself,” she recalls, “Now, we have the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC), the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC), KuAsh Theatre in TTDI and even other privately owned spaces like Enfiniti Academy, where I performed most recently.”

Still like all wise owls, she believes there is still room for improvement and growth, “We need a better set of regulations to protect practitioners of the arts, be it actors, dancers or musicians. Right now, for example, actors are working in ridiculously difficult conditions with no standardized/proper contracts, which spell-out working hours and conditions, payment conditions etc. I can go on and on here,” she exclaimed.

“Something that we all spoke about in the past was whether it would be better if we all worked together (instead of existing as separate theatre companies). We did have several meetings with the late Krishen Jit, some others from Five Arts, Faridah and Joe, and even a few people from the Malay language theatre who came together to have that discussion,” she said.

“We all agreed that we should work together but unfortunately in the end, nothing much was done. I still believe it would definitely help if we all came under one umbrella and worked together but I am not sure if it is feasible because we all have different agendas, interests and visions of how to run the show.”

“If I had the say and the money I'd love to have an all-year-round festival with something for everyone whether in film (feature, shorts, and documentaries), theatre, music, dance festival. With book festivals, writers' retreat, so we are never starved,” she muses, adding that she would also love to bring in foreign performers to add to the cogency of these festivals.

Fatimah also believes that there needs to be more public awareness of what goes on in the different sectors of the entertainment industry in order for everyone to fully and truly appreciate the role they each play; referring to comments made by television viewers who have deemed local singing competition-cum-reality TV show, Akademi Fantasia, a dated medium that is no longer relevant.

“What people don’t realize is that there are still people who are interested to participate in the competition and even to watch the show. Last year, when the producers brought back the old format, the ratings went up. Personally, I have also met many hopeful and talented young Malaysians, especially during the auditions. Many of whom come very, very poor backgrounds and programs like Akademi Fantasia give them hope,” shares the well-loved Kak Fati, as she is fondly known on the show.  

“Journalists who are covering the arts must also have to be better informed. They should watch more plays and films, read more. Maybe, go audition for a play, reality TV show or film and see how difficult it is as this may give you a better perspective,” she explains, “But they should also refrain from covering productions they are linked to or associated with to avoid conflict of interest. I, too, only begin writing on the arts much later when I was less active in the scene.”

The future still holds plenty of possibilities for Malaysia’s beloved Kak Fati, “I always feel I haven’t done enough. But my family and friends are a good gauge. If they are happy so am I.” 

This article was published on August 28, 2015 in UNRESERVED.