Happy Salma is full of life, motivated and inspirational, writes Andrew E. Hall.
The world’s a wonky old place but once in a while you get to meet someone whose energy and enthusiasm can make a believer out of you.
Belief that maybe things are going to work out okay after all.
Indonesian actress, model and filmmaker, Happy Salma, is such a person – she’s a very cool lady with a great story.
Happy was born in Sukabumi, Java, at some point in the past (obviously, and in respect of the fact that a woman’s age is none of our business). One of her fondest childhood memories occurred when she and her Girl Guide (Pramuka) friends were having a sleepover at their school. Happy’s dad arrived at the school on his Vespa in the evening with a home cooked meal (her favourite) – concerned that his daughter had been chatting too much and not eating enough.
He stipulated that the food was only for her…but I suspect she shared it anyway.
“I’ll never forget about that,” Happy says.
“My father was very strict and insisted on the values of honesty and fairness…of being a good person…and when he came to the school I was surprised and saw that he cared very much.”
He obviously led by example because when he discovered corrupt activities in the company he worked for, he reported it and faced the consequences that often befall honest people in a, sometimes, dishonest world.
It was through her father, also, that Happy was introduced to the world of theatre and music because of his involvement in performing arts at high school and university – an interest he carried into later life and passed on to his (six) children.
“So all us kids were always playing and singing and dancing…I was always encouraged to express myself,” she says.
Happy finished high school and went on to gain an economics degree from Trisakti University in Jakarta. That’s the short story of her adolescence…but read on friends because she was actually mind-blowingly busy – as if school and university weren’t busy and challenging enough . . .
“My parents encouraged all of us to do anything we wanted to do, so at 15 I got a modeling job for a magazine,” Happy says.
“I entered competitions for singing and performing…everything I could.”
At around 17 Happy began appearing on the radars of television producers of the soap opera genre.
“One of them asked if I would like to try acting,” she says.
“Step by step I learned how to do this kind of work…just try, why not!”
Thus, Happy’s already hectic life became more so.
“In my first role I played a secretary who was being intimidated by someone in the office, so I had to do a lot of crying,” she laughs.
“It was a very good job because it was my first role and I played an important character and I earned good money.
“I thought, oh wow, this is good, this is fun!”
So from her late teens into her early twenties Happy was a high school student, model, an increasingly popular soap opera star, a university student/graduate and…a kindergarten teacher for goodness’ sake!
“Did you ever sleep?” I ask.
“I was really full of energy and my life was so colourful…wonderful, I wanted to learn everything,” she replies.
But there was a downside to Happy’s increasing prominence in the public space – an affliction that plagues most societies. Jealousy. Mostly women, Happy says, but men also, would say unkind things simply because she was “beautiful, sexy, and successful”. In the case of some men this form of unkindness was a (rather pathetic) response to the fact that Happy was far too busy to entertain the notion of having a boyfriend.
“It hurt me sometimes because I was working really hard and had to have strong (self-) discipline to do all the things I was doing,” she says.
Happy was still a teenager when the Suharto era came to an end and, because of the values her father had instilled, she had little fondness of the regime’s way of governing. It was an exciting – and at the same time somewhat scary – period to be a young, idealistic Indonesian. To be part of the generation that risked life and limb to change the status quo.
“So how did you feel when the dictatorship finally came to an end?”
“Euphoria!” Happy says.
“Euphoria, but also fearful of what might happen in the future – I was afraid of what the future held for my parents, my family, my friends.”
The events surrounding the Reformasi also gave Happy food for thought about how those momentous events should be interpreted, and eventually remembered, by the Indonesian people – particularly the younger generations. And set her to thinking about what role she might play in preserving the memory of the times for future generations. Happy’s view of her career shifted in a subtle way.
“I always struggled for my art – to do the best job I can and to find new ways of expression – so I wanted to explore other avenues outside of modeling and making soap operas,” she says.
“I wanted to write, to make films, to work in front of and behind the camera, to work in the theatre.
“But it’s not as if I wake up thinking I’ll do this or that today, no, it’s all about process – following the process to move into new areas. In this sense I’m inspired by writers like Pramoedya Ananta Toer and his ideas.”
Pramoedya – now deceased – is one of Indonesia’s most prominent (anti-colonialist) authors who, at a party celebrating his 80th birthday, famously referred to Indonesia as “a continent of corruption”. He was held without charges for 14 years on the prison island of Buru under the Suharto regime – during which time he wrote a series of novels that became known as the Buru Quartet that were banned by the dictator.
Moving forward a few years, Happy finally found time to fall in love and got married to Tjokorda Gus “Max” Kerthyasa – a member of the Ubud royal family (whom you can read about in the July issue of The Bud magazine).
“Max (a professional photographer) also struggles for his art so we are able to bounce ideas off each other,” Happy says.
During one of their honeymoons Happy and Max were discussing the Reformasi and its relevance to the younger generation of Indonesians who, they thought, were more interested in frivolous entertainment pursuits than the kind of activism that freed the country from Suharto’s grip. They agreed that a signature event in the reformation struggle was the armed intervention by paramilitaries at a student demonstration at Trisakti University – Happy’s old alma mater – in May 1998, which saw four students killed. Happy and Max decided it would make a sound basis for a movie that might serve to preserve an important piece of modern Indonesian history.
All being well, the Trisakti movie will begin shooting in 2012 – with Happy following her processional instincts as the movie’s producer.
Earlier this year Happy found herself at the Cannes Film Festival in France because she won a movie award – for a film called Tujuh Hati, Tujuh Cinta, Tujuh Wanita – at the Indonesian Film Festival.
“Indonesia had a stand in Cannes promoting our industry and I was part of our delegation which was very exciting,” Happy says.
“I watched so many films from around the world, met so many people and learned so much that gave me more confidence about my own involvement in movies.”
These days Happy no longer works in soaps, preferring to focus her talents on the film genre. But you can be assured she won’t stop there – she’s seemingly unstoppable.
“Who are your heroes?”
“My parents of course; (Raden Ajeng) Kartini (a pioneer of the Indonesian women’s rights movement) – I love her; Pramoedya; and (former president) Sukarno – because he is really our founding father,” she says.
“I admire people who are activists, who are positive, and who use their time to try to make the world a better place for others.”
So if you’re looking for a role model for your kids you could do a lot worse than point them in the direction of Happy Salma.