“IBRAHIM Pendek was the first Malay actor to act in Hollywood. His presence beside the legendary Rock Hudson, Burt Ives and Gene Rowlands in the 1962 film The Spiral Road was indeed a proud moment for our local film industry,” quips the elderly caretaker when we reached the end of our walkabout.
Even during my hour-long stroll around the former Shaw Malay Film Production Studio, he chose to briefly mention about movie greats like P. Ramlee and dedicated a large portion of his insightful narration to interesting titbits about Ibrahim.
The friendly caretaker breaks into a wide grin and starts pointing to a stack of reading materials when I asked why Ibrahim was so prominent considering there were so many film stars back in the 1960s. Surely there were others who shared his acting prowess in front of the camera.
“Make yourself comfortable and browse through these vintage film magazines. I’m confident that they have all the answers that you seek,” he replies before heading off to water his precious potted plants.
Tracing the caretaker’s footsteps with my gaze, I start to compare the surrounding modern condominiums and high rise buildings with the decades-old buildings within the compound. This sprawling property, with several sparse low rise structures, looks very much like it’s trapped in a time warp, giving the illusion that it’s still the 1950s in this little corner of Jalan Ampas.
Returning my attention to the inch-thick pile of periodicals, I can see that a vast majority of them are Berita Filem and Majalah Filem magazines, two of the most popular Malay entertainment publications in Malaya some five decades ago. Back then, these periodicals were a prerequisite for those who wanted to keep abreast of the world concerning movie stars.
A quick browse and it dawns on me that each one of them have one thing in common. They all feature articles related to Ibrahim. Rearranging the magazines according to their publication dates, I settle myself down for a walk down history lane.
Short Stature Nickname
Born in 1932 with the birth name Ibrahim Hassan, Ibrahim grew up with his family in Kampong Simpang Empat, near Taiping. He was the second child in the family and the only one who was short. Over time, people began noticing his height or the lack of it and started calling him Ibrahim Pendek.
Ibrahim took the nickname in his stride and held his head up high. In an interview with Berita Filem writers at his Boon Teck Road home in Singapore in 1956, Ibrahim was quoted as saying: “Although I was born short and different from everyone else, I never allow these attributes to become a hindrance. With fame and fortune within my grasp, there’s nothing more I can ask for.”
Recalling his school days in Taiping, Ibrahim told the reporters that he felt proud to represent his school in various sporting activities while the other taller boys could only afford to watch at the side-lines. Ibrahim’s height reached 130cm when he was in Standard 5 and it never showed any significant increase after that.
Farming As A Career
After completing school in 1949, Ibrahim decided not to follow his friends to the city to seek their fortunes. Instead, he headed for the hills. With the help of his teachers, Ibrahim signed up for an agricultural course in Cameron Highlands. It was speculated that Ibrahim made that decision as he wanted to feel what it was like to look down on the world from his vantage point.
At the place, which was set up in mid-1925 as Malaya’s first agricultural experimentation station, Ibrahim lived the life of a contented farmer and began picking up the finer points of growing vegetables. His dream upon graduation was to return to his village and set up a shop to help his fellow villagers market their produce.
It never crossed his mind at that time that he would one day leave his farming skills behind and lead the glamorous life of a successful film star. In Cameron Highlands, Ibrahim was more concerned about the weather and often complained about waking up to chills in his bones and chatters in his teeth as he made his way to work at the break of dawn.
Just like his school days, Ibrahim made many friends during his stint in Cameron Highlands. A natural joker at heart, he entertained his peers with countless rib-tickling jokes and comical antics. It was said that he almost single-handedly made life more bearable for everyone in that far flung corner of Pahang.
A year later, Ibrahim and his friends took a break and headed south to Singapore for a well-earned vacation. While picnicking at a popular beach, Ibrahim caught the eye of Run Run Shaw who happened to be at the same location with his family. Shaw was the owner of the renowned Malay Film Production Studio.
Shaw was immediately taken by Ibrahim’s physique and invited the young man to an audition at his Jalan Ampas studio. Needless to say, Ibrahim captured the hearts of the selection panel and breezed through the try-out like a true professional.
While his friends back in the cabbage fields of Cameron Highlands mourned his decision to leave, Ibrahim walked tall among the actors and actresses at his new home. He felt an overwhelming sense of pride for being the only one among the studio’s stable of stars to be personally handpicked by Shaw.
Despite that distinction, Ibrahim kept his feet firmly planted on the ground. Life as a movie star suited him to a tee but he knew his limits. From day one, he knew that it would be difficult to land a leading role. As such, Ibrahim made up his mind to become the best supporting actor the studio had ever seen and in the process repay Shaw’s belief in him.
Ibrahim’s big break came in 1954 when he was selected to act beside film greats like P. Ramlee, S. Kadarisman, Latifah Omar and Normadiah in Panggilan Pulau. He broke the hearts of audiences throughout Malaya when the character he played was killed during a tussle for treasure buried in a cave.
Soon after, Ibrahim’s popularity began to grow in tandem with the increased number of roles he was given. Among the notable movies he acted in during those formative years were Kipas Hikmat (1955), Anakku Sazali (1956), Taufan (1958), Pendekar Bujang Lapok (1959) and Lela Manja (1960).
Lady Luck once again smiled on Ibrahim in 1961. His acting prowess during the filming of Ali Baba Bujang Lapok caught the eye of Hollywood’s Universal International executives who happened to be visiting the studio.
A few weeks later, a offer letter arrived from Universal International, handing Ibrahim a role in an upcoming Hollywood production. He was to play the role of a Dutch physician’s assistant in a movie that involved black magic and witch-doctors.
Ibrahim remained in America’s movie capital for a month and at Hudson’s Beverly Hills bungalow. That, coupled with their close working relationship, allowed to the duo to enjoy a reportedly close bond.
As usual, Ibrahim tuned on his charm and impressed Hollywood’s best. Soon after filming for The Spiral Road ended, Ibrahim began receiving offers to remain in the United States and act in other Universal films. However, for some unknown reason, the authorities at that time refused to renew his work visa and Ibrahim was forced to return to Malaya.
Another mystery that shrouded Ibrahim’s only American sojourn was the amount of remuneration he was supposed to receive for his effort in The Spiral Road. The conundrum stemmed from the fact that Ibrahim was bound by his contract with Shaw even when he acted abroad. The terms stipulated that Ibrahim was only entitled to payment equivalent to those he received for his work in Jalan Ampas.
Outlook On Life
Ibrahim remained undaunted in face of that seemingly unfair clause. Sticking to his lifelong philosophy of trying to make the best out of everything, he kept his spirits up. He once told reporters: “In life there are sure to be incidences that disappoint and sadden us but it will be disastrous if we allow them to overwhelm us.”
“My entire life would turn upside down if I were to keep feeling unhappy about my short stature. Instead of envying others, I choose to look on the bright side of life and use my strengths to bring happiness, not only to myself, but to others as well,” said Ibrahim during the 1962 interview.
The first movie that Ibrahim acted in after his return from Hollywood was Siti Muslihat. A year later, in 1963, his antics in Nasib Si Labu Labi sent members of the audience into endless fits of laughter.
A challenging new role surfaced in 1964 when Ibrahim acted in the blockbuster movie Melanchong Ka Tokyo alongside famous stars like P. Ramlee, Ahmad Daud and Saloma. The romantic film saw Ibrahim taking on the unique roles of both husband and wife when his spouse in real life, Che Hasnah Mohd Amin turned down the female role.
When asked about his controversial decision, Ibrahim simply shrugged off the matter and professed that he’d always harboured the desire to take on a female role ever since he joined Shaw. Ibrahim even borrowed Hasnah’s clothes to help him ease into his feminine character.
Just as I’m about to reach the part about Ibrahim’s personal life, the caretaker reappears. Grabbing a nearby seat, he volunteers to help by fitting in the last few pieces of the jigsaw in Ibrahim’s life.
Pointing to the contents of a 1968 Majalah Filem magazine, he tells me that Ibrahim married twice in his lifetime and was blessed with seven children. He married his second wife, Asiah Osman after his nuptial with Hasnah ended in divorce. Years later, his relationship with Asiah soured and they parted ways.
End Of An Era
The mid-1960s turned out to be a trying time for local film productions due to the influx of foreign films and changing taste of cinema goers. Faced with shrinking profits and declining ticket sales, Shaw had no alternative but to close down his prized Malay Film Production Studio in 1967.
Ibrahim turned to retail and opened a shop selling clothes in Geylang Serai. Unfortunately, the venture didn’t take off and within three years he decided that enough was enough. He sold off the business and moved north across the causeway to try his luck as a freelance actor in Kuala Lumpur.
Fortunately, his star was still shining bright and Ibrahim managed to land a number a roles in Malaysia’s capital city. Among his films there were Keluarga Si Comat (1975), Penyamun Tarbus (1980), Setinggan (1981) and Serampang Tiga (1981). In 1992, Ibrahim made his final appearance on the silver screen in the movie XX Ray.
After that, he spent most of his time selling food near his home in Cheras. Despite his retirement announcement, Ibrahim continued receiving offers to act. But he declined them all as he was afraid of not being able to give his full commitment due to failing health.
“He managed to complete a telemovie called Selamat Hari Jadi Abah in 2003. That will forever be remembered as Ibrahim’s final performance,” quips the caretaker as he returns the last magazine back to the pile on the table.
On Nov 25 that same year and just when Muslims the world over were celebrating Aidil Fitri, the man who stood out as a giant among his peers throughout his acting career passed away after suffering from kidney failure and several other complications. Ibrahim was buried in Taman Midah’s Muslim Cemetery in Cheras.
As I make my way towars the main entrance, I pause a moment to wonder about the number of times Ibrahim must have passed through this very gate many, many years ago. Although he’s long gone, Ibrahim Pendek will never be forgotten by his legions of faithful fans including me!