Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Eja on the Rise

IT is always a pleasant surprise when a Malaysian turns up on time for an appointment, what more a celebrity. Actress Eja does not only arrive on the dot but comes prepared with make-up artist, a change of outfits, shoes and accessories.

During the photo shoot, she is meticulous about her hair, make-up and how her clothes look. Best of all, she is game for different poses and is ready with a smile no matter how uncomfortable or tiring the shoot gets.

For this show of professionalism alone, it is easy to theorise why Eja is a popular choice with directors and production houses. It is no wonder she has found a steady stream of movie and TV offers ever since she became an actress in her 20s.

Eja is a popular choice with directors and production houses because of her professionalism. – Picture by Kamal Sellehuddin
At the moment she can be seen on TV3 in the 13-episode series Seputeh Qaseh Ramadhan. Come Hari Raya, cinemagoers can catch her in the film Bilut. In December, she is starring in an action/comedy feature titled Misi 1511, a collaboration between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Needless to say, the 34-year-old is very popular. Her regular appearances in TV series have earned her the title “Queen Of Telenovelas” among fans, and at this year's 19th Malaysia Film Festival she received the most SMS votes as the public's choice for actress of the year.

Bilut director Badaruddin Haji Azmi found working with Eja an easy task although this is the first time the two have worked together. “She knows exactly what to do when I give her direction, and she delivers.”

Far from agreeing to every role that comes her way, Eja picks and chooses her roles.

Only after thoroughly reading the script that arrives on her doorstep does she agree to it. “I want to make sure that when I accept a role, it is a character that I can play well,” Eja explains in Bahasa Melayu, enunciating each word with care.

“I do not want to arrive on the set and hold back a production because I am unable to perform what is asked of me. When I commit, I give my all.”

This firm attitude belies her soft and feminine ways, but there is no doubt this eldest child of a marine police officer has been brought up with a strong character by her grandparents and her parents. She names her mother, Aishah Ahmad, as the person most responsible for her personality.

“My mother is a person of few words but she taught me and my siblings right and wrong by setting a good example. At the same time, she is reserved and shy – two traits that I have picked up as well. I am very much my mother's daughter,” she says with a hint of a smile on her lips, before breaking into a hearty laugh and revealing that she used to be a bit bossy with her four younger sisters and one brother when they were all younger.

Years of watching and emulating her mother definitely paid off for Eja when she was given the role of a mother to three kids and wife to Rosyam Nor's character in the film Bilut. “Although my scenes are few in the film, it was a challenge playing the role of wife and mother as I had to emote her feelings not with words but with body language and facial expressions.”

In person, Eja – or Siti Shahrizah Saifuddin – is slimmer and prettier than on screen. She is also humble, friendly and easy to talk to despite understandably wanting to keep certain personal information private.

Although she does have a sad face – making her perfect to play tragic roles that she is well known for – she is not stingy with her smiles. So it is surprising when she admits that she gets quite nervous and is usually at a loss for words when facing a crowd, a fear that she has never quite overcome but manages to conquer when she is in character in front of the cameras.

Eja feels that her public relations skills are not up to par. She does not socialise with her fellow artistes that often, and instead prefers to spend time watching movies with her family, and eating out.

Then with a gleam in her eyes, she adds: “But my most favourite indulgences are getting facial treatments, massage and foot reflexology.”

Eja's journey to being the star she is today has been a smooth one. She left Kuala Kubu Baru, Selangor, to come to Petaling Jaya to take up a secretarial course after Secondary School and then joined Malaysia Airlines as a flight attendant. She later became a TV host (Video Skop, Roda Impian) and went on to earn acting roles on TV.

She landed her first-ever acting gig in 1998 – in a TV drama titled Rahsia Demi Rahsia – acting opposite a friend, actor Mahmud Ali Basha. Mahmud also happens to be the person who told Eja that she should be an actress because she has the right look, speaks well and has a good attitude. Who knew she would turn out to be such a capable actress?

Eja wearing a creation from her favourite boutique, Iszal Citra Butik.
“The first day on the set of Rahsia Demi Rahsia was disastrous for me. My take was no good at all. But I wasn't about to give up. With the help of the director and my co-stars, I pulled through.”

Rahsia Demi Rahsia was such a hit that the series was renewed for a second season.

When asked how she attributes her ability to pull off whatever she does, she replies: “Everything I do, I do with sincerity. I am thankful to God for everything.”

A lot of hard work on her part obviously didn't hurt either. However, she is at a point where she is looking for more challenging roles and breaking out of the stereotypical tragic roles that have inadvertently become her forte.

She cites roles as explored by Charlize Theron in Monster and Angelina Jolie's character in Girl, Interrupted as some of the types of roles she would like to take on. At the same time, she is the first to confess that the local entertainment scene hasn’t reached the stage where it is able to showcase disturbed female characters as protagonists in feature films.

As a person who is always striving forward, Eja has taken it upon herself to start her own production house called Eja Pictures with her sister, Siti Shuhaimi, to create a variety of projects and roles available in the local scene. “I hope to one day produce and act in a venture that I could call my own.”

Festive cheer

EJA looks forward to Hari Raya as it is a time when she is able to be with her family and many of her relatives from Selangor, Perak and Penang. She admits, tongue-in-cheek, that being the celebrity in the family does have its “downside”!

“I have a lot of relatives especially the young ones who look forward to me giving them duit raya,” she says with a laugh, but maintains that she enjoys being with family. “They are my fans and they are my critics.”

Apparently, in the early years, her siblings were the first to call her and discuss a role they had just seen on TV. “Now my mother will call me after watching a drama and tell me, ‘Kak Long (as Eja is fondly referred to at home) always makes me cry’.”

As of now, Eja hasn’t had time to go shopping for baju raya. She reveals: “Usually I just visit my favourite boutique, Iszal Citra Butik, to buy baju raya off the rack. This boutique carries my size and I like their designs as well.” – By Mumtaj Begum

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