Thursday, July 27, 2017


A young Zahim (r) plays the Angel of Death
Malaysia’s top-ranking actor-director shifts into high gear

By Antares

Appropriately enough I first met Zahim Albakri on stage - in a 1988 production of Maureen Ten’s For The Time Being. I played a dying doctor and Zahim was cast as an angel assigned to assist in the doctor’s transition. Zahim had recently returned from drama studies in the U.K. and this was his introduction to Malaysian theater. With the benefit of hindsight it appears that Zahim’s rôle as an angel of transition was indeed a prophetic one.

In the decades since his return to the homeland, Zahim Albakri has been a key factor in helping shift local theater from the amateur end of the spectrum to the professional. He didn’t accomplish this feat alone, of course. Look at his peer group - Jit Murad, Jo Kukathas, Huzir Sulaiman, Allan Perera, Indi Nadarajah, Afdlin Shauki, Harith Iskandar, Patrick Teoh, Nell Ng, Gavin Yap – all theater luminaries in their own right. They are undoubtedly the fresh wave of talent that has swept up the theater-loving legacy of the older aficionados and carried it to entirely new heights.
Co-founder of Instant Cafe Theatre
In 1989 Zahim got together with a few buddies and founded the notorious Instant Café Theatre, which carved a prominent niche for itself in political satire. He subsequently created Dramalab as a vehicle to explore and develop original works, and to promote the further growth of a Malaysian theater idiom.

Stage actors began receiving modest wages only around 1990, so almost everyone aspiring to a full-time career in local theater had to moonlight in TV dramas and the occasional feature film. Zahim Albakri has appeared in countless Malay TV dramas, many of which are best forgotten, but he did score a Best Actor award in 1999 for his performance in something called Odisi. The Boh Cameronian Arts Awards - inaugurated in 2002 and now affectionately known as the Cammies - was a timely boost to the performing arts in Malaysia in that excellent work was at last getting the public recognition it deserved.

Making waves in theater
Zahim bagged the Cammy for Best Director (Spilt Gravy on Rice) the very first year. In 2004 he was voted Best Solo Performer for The Smell of Language, and a year later he shared the Best Director Cammy with Singapore’s Alvin Tan for Separation 40 (a Dramalab/Necessary Stage co-production). His huge directorial success with Puteri Gunung Ledang – The Musical has established Zahim Albakri as a veritable icon in Malaysian theater. When I met him over lunch towards the end of August 2006, Zahim was in the midst of reprising his rôle as director of Jit Murad’s maiden play, Gold Rain and Hailstones, first staged in August 1998 to tremendous acclaim, and which begins an 11-day run on September 7th, this time on the big stage at the newly inaugurated KL Performing Arts Center.

Zahim’s mother Valerie is a vivacious Englishwoman with a distinct flair for the arts. Her ambition was to be a professional dancer, but her parents persuaded her to get a bank job instead. Valerie became a speech and drama teacher in Malaysia when she married Zahim’s dad - an eminent architect best known for the National Library and the landmark Putra World Trade Center. In February 2006, Zahim’s father had a heart attack while playing golf, and died. Zahim has two siblings: elder brother Zarul (a musician and film producer) and younger sister Zehan (who followed her father’s footsteps and took up architecture).

Zahim Albakri: conferred Datukships in 2009 & 2015
The warmth and affection with which Zahim speaks of his parents is tangible. He did toy for a while with the idea of becoming an architect like his dad, but instead opted to express his artistic impulses in the more kinetic field of theater where he subsequently earned his Master’s degree in Theater Directing. 

He rarely intellectualizes about directing, preferring to approach his work intuitively, allowing for serendipity and creative inputs from his cast and crew. Zahim’s lifelong interest in architectural forms and physical structures grounds him firmly in the visual aspects of dramaturgy, while his early exposure to the magic of theater gives him a solid grasp of the alchemy that happens when the right actors get together to dramatize a story.

At the ripe young age of 54, Zahim Albakri is a mature actor and director in the fullness of his prime, poised on the brink of ever greater accomplishments.

[First published in The Hilt, September 2006]