BITTER SWEET: Her life story as a woman, wife and film star is as dramatic as her movies
THE lift was devoid of an electric bulb. We depended on camera lights to get to the 17th floor of a PPRT flat for the hardcore poor where veteran actress Latifah Omar lived.
I joined the TV3 crew on the morning of July 20 last year for a special Singgah Sahur programme. She was friendly and exuberant, and even sang some of the signature songs in many of her better-known movies to the largely young production team.
The stuffy three-room flat was home to one of the most glamorous, beautiful and talented seniwati (starlets) in the history of Malay cinema.
She was, in fact, once the face of a famous soap brand, the first local artiste to be given the honour.
Residents in the area knew of her presence there but they seldom saw her. She was a proud lady, fully aware of her fame and kept her contact with the residents to the bare minimum.
I met her with researcher Zahari Affendi many times after that, listening to her incredible stories as a woman, wife and film star.
Although not in the best of health, she was always accommodating. We were mesmerised by her demure and calm composure.
Her life stories were as dramatic as her movies, in fact, even more so. She was always playing a good woman who was victimised in movies. In reality, life was never perfect for her.
She endured hardships in marriages, went through tough times financially and emotionally just like some of the characters she played.
I grew up adoring Latifah. I watched all her movies. She was the embodiment of grace, true beauty and great acting.
I was contemplating to write a book about her. She was forthright and named names -- the good, the bad and the ugly in entertainment business.
When I couldn't make it, Zahari was there to record those stories. The process was laboriously slow for she tired easily and there were times when she cancelled the meetings.
Back then, she was loved by royalty and prominent individuals, yet she married a musician, a gambler and a failed businessman.
Her first husband survived on her income as jobs were hard to come by.
Her second husband, a compulsive gambler, stalked her for years even after their divorce, adding to her miseries.
Her third husband was a good man but when his business faltered, she suffered more than just losing a good life and she got a divorce.
Even when help came in the form of getting a piece of land in Cameron Highlands, bureaucratic hurdles and low prices of crops propelled her to abandon farming and sell what was left of the property. She never recovered from that.
Latifah was born on March 26, 1939 in Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur. When her grandmother, who brought her up, died, she was sent to live with her father in Singapore, whom she had never met before.
It was a feature in one of the magazines published by the Utusan Melayu group in Singapore that brought her to the attention of film directors.
Director S. Ramanathan auditioned her for a role in Panggilan Pulau alongside budding star P. Ramlee. The year was 1954. Normadiah, another legendary actress, was the female lead. Ramlee was nice to Latifah, supporting her in more ways than one. She was forever indebted to him. She was hardly 16 at the time.
B.N. Rao directed her second movie, Merana.This time, she played the lead actress, again with Ramlee.
According to Latifah, the heartthrob of Malay movies had offered her to be his wife. Ramlee had just divorced his first wife, Junaidah.
But fate intervened. Noorizan Mohd Noor came into the picture, she left the palace and married Ramlee. They respected each other, though.
When Ramlee directed Putus Sudah Kasih Sayang at the Merdeka Studio in 1971, he offered a role to Latifah.
Latifah acted in four more films under the Malay Film Production (MFP) banner before she joined Cathay-Keris Films.
It was Nordin Ahmad, another screen legend, who redefined her movie career. She acted with Nordin for the first time in Hussein Hanif's Hang Jebat. The chemistry between them was legendary. In films like Lanchang Kuning, Laila Majnun, Cucu Datuk Merah, Patung Cendana and Gurindam Jiwa, they were seen as a perfect screen couple. The truth was, there were times when they were not on speaking terms.
Latifah's last film with Cathay-Keris was Naga Tasik Cini in 1966, ironically Nordin's directorial debut. In her acting career that spanned 13 years, Latifah had acted in 29 films -- 22 for Cathay-Keris, six for MFP and one for Merdeka Studio in Klang.
Last Sunday she died, a big loss to the Malay cinema. There will never be another Latifah. She was a true bintang filem (film star) who graced the local film world.
Johan Jaaffar | Twitter: @Johan_Jaaffar |firstname.lastname@example.org New Straits Times Columnist June 15, 2013