This woman needs no introduction.
When we think of stellar filmmaking and insightful ads, we think of Yasmin Ahmad.
But before reading the book, Yasmin How You Know?, which is a collection of vignettes observed by those who knew her best, I would simply introduce her as a filmmaker, a visionary, a legend.
Now, I understand that numerous accolades do not make a person great or memorable.
It is their connection and intimate relationships with the people around them that will live on far longer than slapping a name on the nearest tangible and ephemeral thing.
With that said, Yasmin Ahmad was a mentor, a friend, a sister, a daughter and a mother.
Boisterously funny, fervently humble and endlessly kind, Yasmin Ahmad clearly touched the lives of many and it is illustrated in this beautiful book of stories – that I would like to picture her smiling if she read it because she often likened herself to being Yasmin, the storyteller.
And it feels deeply poetic that now, in her death, the people who love her are still around to tell these inspiring stories for her.
Personally, as a loyal fan of Yasmin’s, I found each story moving, as every word spelled out the writers’ deep affection towards the late filmmaker.
But I also believe that even if you are new or unfamiliar with Yasmin, you are able to enjoy this book as simply a love letter to a fantastic and fabulous person who had so much to give to the world.
To give you a general idea of why Yasmin How You Know? is required reading for anyone out there with a dream, here are 5 reasons why this book inspired me and could do the same for you.
Yasmin As A Nurturer
For those who have followed Yasmin’s career, you may know of her attachment towards Fatimah Abu Bakar and her daughters, the Sharifah sisters – who have played leading roles in most of her films.
The book contains vignettes from these amazing women and they detail how Yasmin may not have had any biological children, but she nurtured these girls as if they were her own, which is why she received the fitting term of endearment, Mak.
From Sharifah Amani (whom Yasmin called her Audrey Hepburn),
“I learnt so much from Yasmin, from learning how to stand, “YOU ARE A SWAN NOT A PRAWN”, to learning how to let go.
I learnt that it is really not that cool to be mean and cold. A smile and a kind word will get you further.
I learnt to speak up and not to be afraid. I learnt to appreciate the smaller things in life. I learnt to be thankful, for everything.
All these I learnt from Yasmin without her having to drill it into my brain. She just led by example.”
Similarly, after being tormented by a fellow male jury member for a local awards event whom Yasmin and Fatimah Abu Bakar were also part of the panel, Yasmin simply treated him with warmth and decency.
She had forgiven him and it affected the man so deeply that he never attacked her again.
Fatimah said, “I am grateful she gave all my daughters more than just film roles.”
Yasmin As A Storyteller
Yasmin Ahmad, as the public knows her, is an exceptional storyteller. From her films to her commercial work, her ideas dared to not only escape the box, but demolish it entirely.
When working on a print ad for fashion brand, BritishIndia, someone labelled Yasmin’s ideas as “crazy and demented.”
She simply replied, “How come they describe me so well?”
With that, this book contains several gems that might help people in the same field as her – or anyone at all who wishes to be more creative and engaging.
In Yasmin’s speech, What is a ‘brand’?, she asked a room full of advertising and marketing top dogs to participate in a simple exercise: Word association.
She listed out traits, for example, “Which city in the world stands for romantic, chic and fashionable?”, to which the audience replied with “Paris.”
She went on and the audience continued to get the questions right.
In the end, she concluded that slaving away on decks to distinguish brand personality doesn’t work because a brand isn’t scientific or calculable.
Brand personalities are made of human traits, and that is all we have to remember.
In another speech, What women want, she breaks down how to market towards women and it’s so simple – it’s almost baffling how some brands can get it so wrong.
“What we women want is for you to behave like a friend.
If you were selling something to a friend, you would make sure they got their money’s worth. Otherwise, you’d be cheating them. And friends don’t cheat friends. It’s an unspoken code of honour among friends, anywhere in the world.
You can’t scientifically research your way into someone’s heart. But once you find a place in our hearts, there’s no end to what we women will do for you.
Treat us as a friend, and in return, we will offer you our friendship; and in time, our loyalty.”
Yasmin As A Daughter & Sister
Many of us know Yasmin through her films and through this medium, we know that family is everything to her.
With Rabun, her debut film, an old couple (modelled after her own parents) was the focal point of the story.
Infectiously devoted and kind to each other as they shared hilarious back-and-forth whilst simultaneously navigating hardships, Yasmin’s parents appeared to be the same.
“Even as they drive around [Langkawi], they’re laughing at things on the road. Yesterday, they sat on a bench out in the open, Mak plucking Abah’s beard with a pair of tweezers. They didn’t care that passers-by were watching.
And when they walk in public, he’s always holding her hands.
I want to grow old like this.”
Her relationship with her sister, Orked, was also as endearing.
While she chided her sister for making sambal that wasn’t spicy enough for her, “Eh Nyah, engkau masak pengat telur eh?” and sang ridiculous songs to her sister’s face ad nauseam, their bond was undeniable.
She told her, “If I were to die before Mak and Abah, please promise me that you will take care of them as though I was alive.”
Yasmin As A Friend
Hugely contributed by her friends and colleagues, Yasmin How You Know? illustrates her affinity for mischief at the work place but also her huge heart.
As if it were a sixth sense, Yasmin always knew when a friend was in need and she would always appear to give encouragement and perspective.
From friend and author Belinda Wee in conversation with Yasmin,
“You seem to always appear when the horizon looks bleak. Humans are so unlike the Lord. How do you manage to stay so untainted by it all?”
“Prayers 5 times a day. I’m hardly ‘untainted’!”
“You always seem so jolly, full of life, despite being so well-known. Any lesser mortal would have lorded it over all and sundry.”
“Choi! God forbid I should ever lord it over anyone. So, makan together when I’m in Singapore, yes?”
Her devotion to God trickled onto others around her as she encouraged her friends to perform Umrah and Hajj, despite what others and themselves may think.
She shared this beautiful poem:
“If you were a shepherd with 10 lambs,
one of which had strayed,
would you not leave the nine that did not stray,
in search of the one that did?
And when you found the one that strayed,
would you not,
for that moment,
love it more than the nine that didn’t?
I think it’s obvious that I love Yasmin Ahmad but I could not love her more when I found out that she was also a master at puns.
From Elmo Lee, Yasmin’s Art Director in Ogilvy & Mather,
“Yasmin asked an old uncle at the vet’s for a flea collar.
As the uncle handed the flea collar to her, he said, ‘Ah only ten ringgit.’
Yasmin’s response: ‘But isn’t it flea?'”
Her humour stretched far wider than the typical puns however – even though she had a damn knack for it which she flexed on numerous copy ads like, “Dim Sum, kao tim, in half the tim” for a double-ring hob that cooks twice as fast – it also involved some pretty lewd jokes that would make even the shyest crack a smile.
Yasmin had a great figure and she liked to show it off in tight kebayas and designer dresses.
When a hot colleague asked her about her workout regimen, “I go to the gym 4 times a week. Which gym do you work-out in?”, she was quick to respond with,
“Honey, I don’t work-out. I just f*ck.”
While she was definitely the life of the party, one cannot forget her relentless humility.
With one quick search to Mr. Google, you’ll find out that Yasmin was educated in England but what you might not know is the fact that she denounced her scholarship and worked as a waitress to support herself once she found out that the scholarship was only given to Malays.
As told by her colleagues, “She went to Malaysia Hall during a student gathering, got on stage, took the microphone, publicly gave up her scholarship, stated her reasons and encouraged others to do the same.”
In natural extension from her humility, her generosity was something many suspected but not many knew for certain.
From Dr Jemilah Mahmood, founder of MERCY Malaysia,
“Besides organising fund raisers and charity screenings of her movies, Yasmin would pass me money for MERCY Malaysia – in the names of some anonymous donor.
No matter how she disguised it – as some story of a Chinaman, Indian brother or Pak Cik who had just won the lottery – I would just play along, knowing it came from her.”
Now that I’ve shared the stories of the people who personally knew her, let me share a story by a person who didn’t – myself.
As a child, I had a mind that could outrun my body tenfolds.
I was constantly sprinting to finish story books and movies so I could write stories to recite to my parents. Being an only child was surely a blessing because imagine if they had more of me…
But as I grew older, those grand fairytales that took flight due to my childhood innocence were gradually diminished and anchored down by the realities and weight of life.
I quickly learned that my opinions were sometimes too loud and that I needed to lower my voice.
My ideas were sometimes too far up in the clouds and I needed to come back down to Earth.
But after watching Sepet, my introduction to the world of Yasmin Ahmad, I realised – to hell with that! I am me and that’s all I ever need to be.
I remember the film for being so daring yet feeling so close to home. These were real stories experienced by so many people in this country, yet I could not confidently say that it has been highlighted in works other than Yasmin’s.
And that mindset carried on as I watched all of her other films and subsequently, her commercials.
Her storytelling was so simple but it impacted so many lives and in that, it shows that often times, you don’t need big words or flashy camerawork to capture the human experience.
You just need to be human.
Takes care, dearest Yasmin Ahmad. You are – and forever will be – loved.