For those unaware of Indonesia’s celebrity stratosphere, Raline Shah, a hybrid of Indonesia and Malaysia, is one of Indonesia’s biggest stars. With box office hits such as 5cm and 99 Cahaya Di Langit Eropa, Raline shines brightly with 5.5 million Instagram followers and is about to kick ass in her newest movie Polis Evo 2, the sequel to one of Malaysia’s box office hits.
Becoming an actress was probably the only “accident” Raline Shah has been involved in, seemingly her only unplanned move. For when she walks through any room (we worked with her in both Jakarta and KL), she emanates sure-footedness and direction.
There is no doubt that she is a “Type A” in caps as she breezes through the questions I pose and carefully thinks of the answers to the meaning of her life. From her early years at the tiny Kolej Tuanku Ja’afar boarding school in Malaysia, where she describes her young self as “tomboy-ish, quite nerdy, geeky and clumsy,” the not-quite-so-ugly duckling who studied Political Science at the National University of Singapore (oh ye of average grades and the faint-hearted need not apply, as it’s consistently listed as one of the top universities in the world) blossomed into the Swan that she is today.
This, after deciding not to become either the Minister of Foreign Affairs or the Ambassador she thought she would be, after she was cast in a commercial. After realising that she didn’t want to join the family business, she says, “We have a family business which my family expected me to be a part of, but I didn’t end up following that route so I had to pave my own path.” Snap a Kodak moment – her FIRST rebellion.
After appearing in a commercial in Jakarta, she became well and truly smitten with the idea of acting. It was the SECOND (more decisive) rebellion. As she ruefully comments of the time, “My parents didn’t think it was a good decision. I mean, any sensible person would not do anything in entertainment, especially as a film actress, but I guess I was lucky. My first movie was like the biggest, trending, pop culture drama and from there on, my life changed, and then I convinced them otherwise because at first my dad said, ‘Oh you wanna be an actress…?’” She hesitated here.
Perhaps realising the complete lack of political correctness and gross generalisation given to the older generation, she asked for permission to complete the sentence, to which I of course agreed, half-admiring her fearlessness at sharing her story. “So my dad said, ‘You wanna be an actress in Indonesia? That’s prostitution!’ So I was confused – I mean the arts and prostitution, how does that connect? Because as a 20-year-old, I didn’t connect… (the two). But I guess I understand now that there’s a lot of grey areas, especially in Indonesia. But right now he’s very proud of me. All his friends watch my movies. He loves my movies and I’m very happy I took this on.”
However, as is common in any country, acting is a business of rejection for the most part, and character development for the actor probably begins here. Raline says of her early days in the business, “In the beginning, there was a lot of rejection. When I joined my first agency they told me my chin is too short, I’m too chubby and I didn’t have the model figure, I wasn’t tall enough…” Those early days seemed to have left quite an impression on her – this writer observes how the now incredible 5’ 8” lanky actress eats like a bird, and that chin points to a default state of resolute and determined.
When a woman is strong, knows what she wants, and she goes out and gets it, such behaviour has been construed by some as ‘Diva’ behaviour, and I ask her if this is something she has been branded. Completely unruffled she counters with, “Of course I do and I mean I can’t help what people think. I have to stay true to myself because when I do get somewhere, I want people to know what I’m about. I don’t want to be someone else until I reach that point, and then I become the ‘real diva’ or the ‘real self’ or whatever people say. I’d rather be myself from the start so when I make it, I’ve been me and I can stay me.”
Independent and feisty, Raline has set her sights on Hollywood, and for now, she keeps her ambitions modest, “I just want to be a working actor”. However, I do get a sense that there is a strategy afoot. Leveraging on her not inconsiderable assets, it seems she has battleshipped her moves pointing towards her true north, that tinseltown dream. This reveals itself when I ask her if she considers herself a rebel (given that she was gutsy enough to go against family pressure) and she answered, “I don’t know if I consider myself a rebel but I guess I take calculated decisions. And I knew I couldn’t live up to what my dad expected of me – which is to stay in Medan, which is a small town and run the family business – so I had to do something else. Then this opportunity presented itself and I had to grab it, while it lasted. And now it’s lasting quite a while.”
There is no doubt that some of this feistiness came from her grandmother, who seems to be a huge influence as she happily regaled our management team with quite literally grandmother stories. She remembers the lessons fondly, saying, “my grandmother was a feminist… She always instilled in me a sense of self-worth and that to be a woman is to be chased, to be pampered, to be taken care of. But also, to be independent and stand our own financially as well.” It’s also why Raline stands out from the legions of pretty young women – the attitude, the self-possession that comes from being independent and the fearlessness that confidence produces. As one Indonesian media personality commented, “She isn’t like those other girls that come out of the provinces, she knows how to speak with confidence, especially to reporters.”
Adding to her X factor is the intriguing decision that she made to break out of her cushy family business life, and take a risk, come hell or high water. However, underneath that very tough veneer and slightly “angry young woman” persona, I detected a huge sense of vulnerability, for as they say, underneath the toughest of shells, there is usually pudding.
Somewhere in our interview, the tough, macho Raline façade slipped a little when she admitted, “My worst experience was I guess, my last movie, where I was doing a comedy in which I was supposed to be 21, happy, and easy-going, fun-loving, which I managed to do. But privately I was going through a lot of pain and a lot problems. To be able to just keep up a good face and keep up the positive vibes to be on set and to stay up for the 18, 20 hours… if you’re not in the right mental state, it’s difficult… I was a complete wreck emotionally. I was surrounded by people 24 hours because I was on a set, unable to basically even cry, right? I only had enough time to sleep and get through with it, was going through a tough break-up, certain other issues and it was really a test of my mental strength and me being able to stay professional and suck it up until the movie was done.”
However, if fortune favours the bold, then this one is undoubtedly her favourite daughter. Whilst recently her life may sound like a lachrymose plot from one of her films, her ability to suck it up, as she says to give ‘good face’ whatever barriers she faces, is what will keep the opportunities coming.
And if her math is correct, this writer has no doubt Raline will achieve that trajectory of success, of being a ‘working actor’ at the very least – in itself already difficult in Hollywood. However, given the recent astounding success of Crazy Rich Asians and that the latest buzzword is inclusiveness, her timing may just be right.
Now in her thirties, she is yet to embrace and realise all that she has and is. For despite the outward confidence, it’s almost as if whilst she knows the direction of the ship she is helming, she isn’t sure of quite how formidable it is and whether it can stand a squall or two. But when she does, Watch out, World.
Shot on location at Keraton at The Plaza, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Jakarta.
This feature was first published in the November 2018 issue of UNRESERVED.