Indonesian Icons: Christine Hakim, the grande dame of Indonesian cinema

Despite her debut in modeling and acting, Christine originally dreamed of becoming an architect or psychologist.

Zara Powell

Zara Powell

The Jakarta Post


Golden anniversary: Christine is now celebrating her 50th anniversary in the film industry. (Courtesy of Christine Hakim) (Personal collection/Courtesy of Christine Hakim)

February 24, 2023

JAKARTA – The Indonesian Icons series offers an in-depth look at the elements and events that have shaped the country and defined national identity, from noteworthy people, culinary delights and historic locales to unforgettable moments.

Additional reporting by Yohana Belinda

Born Herlina Christine Natalia Hakim, better known by her stage name, Christine Hakim, is one of Indonesia’s most well-known actors. The star of over 36 films, she welcomed The Jakarta Post at her residence in the outlying neighborhood of Cibubur on Jan. 17.

For Christine, 2023 marks 50 years in the film industry. At 66 years old, Christine secured her first actress role at 16 in Cinta Pertama.

While reminiscing on her beginner days, Christine told the Post how she became an actress at a young age.

“When I was 14, I was an ice-skater. I was a bit of a tomboy and was not very feminine, but a photographer from a fashion magazine asked me to become a model for one of his photos, which is how I got into the industry. I started as a model and did runway shows, but deep down I never really felt like a model. I just did it because I enjoyed it, but I knew I wasn’t going to make modeling my career,” she said.

Legendary director Teguh Karya (whose real name is Steve Liem Tjoan Hok) scouted Christine, who had no acting experience at the time.

“The director for my first film was looking for a young actress, saw me in the magazine then contacted me. That is how it started. I just used my spontaneity.”

Despite her debut in modeling and acting, Christine originally dreamed of becoming an architect or psychologist. “My real dream was to become an architect or a psychologist.

All I knew growing up was that I wanted to become a good person, for everyone and also for the family. As I grew up, everybody started to have big dreams, but I asked myself, what is my dream? My grandfather inspired me. He worked for an architect’s office. [The other person who inspired me was] my mother, who knows about construction, who built this house, our house,” she said.

Girl-next-door: For some critics, Christine is known as having a cheerful and humble personality. (JP/Yohana Belinda) (JP/Yohana Belinda)

Although Christine’s first film was a huge success that scored her first film award for best actress in 1974, she did not feel like pursuing acting as a career was for her.

“But I still did not feel like an actress for a long time and just did it for fun, not for my future,” she added.

After two years, Christine still had doubts. “Two years after my first film, I still owed many questions to God to understand why I’m here.”

It was not until Christine’s extraordinary role as Anna in Kawin Lari (Elopement) that she fell in love with acting. At the ripe age of 18, Kawin Lari allowed Christine to build her confidence as an actress and a woman.

“I was 18 when I had to play the role of a woman in her 30’s, later married. Because it was a complex character, I had no confidence and had to transform mentally and physically. During this time, I realized film is knowledge and is not easy. This film made me love acting.”

After falling in love with acting, Christine decided to pursue film instead of a university education.

Christine’s role in Tjoet Nja’ Dhien, about the Indonesian national hero, tested her limits as an actress through her major transformation to accurately portray her character and showcase the realities of living in a poor village in Indonesia.

“I had to lose 10 kilograms and only slept three hours a night. As we did not have realistic prosthetics like we do today, I lost sleep. I had to transform myself for this role fully. I wanted the viewers to feel the reality, not just fake it with makeup. Through this role, I learned a lot as an actress but also as a human being.”

During the three-year film process, Christine began to live the life of Tjoet Nja’ Dhien.

“I told my director I had become a slave for my character. You have to do everything and anything for my character. I wanted the audience to feel my character, not just see her but her experience and story.”

When recounting the most challenging era of her life, Christine expressed that her hardships were during the 1997 global crisis as the film industry declined.

“The hardest time for me was when no one could watch films at the cinema, because no one could afford them during the global crisis. The film industry was declining rapidly, especially the Indonesian industry. It was mostly commercial films showing.”

Despite the global crisis being difficult for the Indonesian film industry, Christine concurred and found opportunities abroad, where she was invited to become a jury member at several film festivals. Due to this, Christine recalls her most difficult time when her article in a tabloid was banned due to criticism of the government.

“When the film industry was crashing, I didn’t cry. But when the tabloid got banned, I cried very much. It was my way of expressing my feelings and mission with others, but it was banned. I felt like I had lost my voice, my everything. I felt exiled from my own country, like I couldn’t come back and express my feelings.”

The first film she produced, Daun di Atas Bantal (Leaf on a Pillow), is a significant film for Christine. The film was inspired by a documentary she watched about street children. Christine began production the late 90s when Indonesia was economically developed and the lifestyle of the people was changing. Modernization came to villages. Hence, people’s attitudes and lifestyles were changing.

“Through this film I expressed my concern with social issues, specifically street children. At the time, children were begging on the street and at traffic lights. I had no idea that the problem was serious, so my mission was to make people more aware.”

Through her role in Daun di Atas Bantal, Christine did not want recognition for her role. Instead, she wanted to make a difference and bring awareness to the surrounding social issues, which she achieved successfully.

The stars are closer: Christine Hakim poses for a photo with Michelle Yeoh (left), David Lynch (second left), director Bille August (third left) and Sharon Stone (right) during the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. (Courtesy of Christine Hakim) (Personal collection/Courtesy of Christine Hakim)

“I’m so happy I was able to spread awareness as the social affairs minister saw the film and wanted to make a shelter for street children. They asked for a sequel and I said no. That is a lot of money and I would rather give it to the children. The main problem was educating the parents on how to raise their children and giving them a purposeful life.”

When the Post asked Christine what her favorite film role was, she could not decide. “I cannot choose. I believe every role gave a different meaning to my life,” she said.

“I always thank God for the journey of my life, especially 50 years in the film industry. Not only as an actress but as a human being. I feel blessed and guided by God.”

Instinctive talent

Many Indonesian cinema critics have been marked in some way by Christine. Shandy Gasella, now 38 years old, was only 7 when he saw Christine’s film Si Doel Anak Modern in a village theater in Sukabumi, West Java.

Shandy said Christine was a versatile actress who could play any part. Even when she has a small role in a film or TV series, she manages to steal the show.

“There’s something about her that makes me think she’s always being extra careful to play it cool and collected. Indeed, if the director and the other actors don’t back you up, then all your brilliant acting will be nothing,” Shandy said, recalling his favorite film Cinta Pertama (First Love), directed by Teguh Karya.

In the film, Shandy could not forget Christine’s smile in her role as Ade, who at the time was only 16 years old.

“Then she met Bastian’s [role played by Slamet Rahardjo] gaze, accompanied by the theme song Cinta Pertama by Anna Mathovani. It was hard to forget that,” he said.

Meanwhile, veteran cinema reviewer Wina Armada Sukardi said Christine had given flawless performances. He described Christine as having an intuitive talent in her fifty-year career, making it difficult for him to choose his favorite films.

“Whether she played in a local or international role, Christine always performed her best, which has been proven with her ten Piala Citra awards for best actress,” the 64-year-old said.

Moreover, as a film critic, Wina admires Christine’s roles and her humble personality, which is rarely found in a top-notch actress. Moreover, for Wina, Christine truly understands her roles through the interviews she has given and her arguments and rebuttals for every discussion.

“She shows love for what she does,” Wina said.

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