The highly acclaimed Indonesian novel Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (The Dancer from Paruk Village) tells the life and love of a traditional dancer. Penned by Ahmad Tohari, it was made into a film titled Darah dan Mahkota Ronggeng (The Blood and Crown of A Dancer) in 1983.
Directed by Yazman Yazid and starring Ray Sahetapy and Enny Beatrice, the film received harsh criticism because the filmmaker moved too far and turned the film into X-rated material, while failing to capture the real message of the book.
It upset the writer, Tohari, and he vowed not to watch the flick.
More than two decades later, another film director has picked up the novel and made it into a film. This time, the flick has the author practically weeping with joy. A big smile finally flashes on his face, and he says he considers it a sublime adaptation of his writing, without losing the heart and soul of the core idea.
Ifa Isfansyah, who stepped into the limelight with his feature debut Garuda Di Dadaku (Garuda On My Chest) in 2009, sits in the director’s seat and works with noteworthy screenwriter Salman Aristo (Ayat-ayat Cinta or Verses of Love, Laskar Pelangi or The Rainbow Troops) and renowned producer and founder of the Jakarta International Film Festival (JIFFEST) Shanty Harmayn on the script.
It took them two years to finish the script, revive the story into something fresh and inject it with modern elements, and a total of three years to wrap up the project.
Sang Penari revolves around the life of Srintil and Rasus, best-friends turned couple living in a poor hamlet called Dukuh Paruk in Banyumas, Central Java, during the 1950s and 1960s.
Srintil always fantasizes about becoming a dancer as she thinks it would restore her family’s reputation which was once destroyed due to an incident when she was just a little girl.
Locals have a belief that the hamlet is in need of a dancer who will serve their ancestor Ki Secamenggala through ceremonies to maintain the harmony, safety and prosperity of the hamlet – far from calamities.
A dancer has to go through a string of ceremonies before performing, including accomplishing a rite called “buka kelambu” (literally means opening a mosquito net) in which the dancer should choose the man who makes the highest offer to sleep with her.
Srintil’s decision to become a dancer is strictly opposed by Rasus since he does not want his girl turned into an object of public consumption, putting their relationship on edge.
Broken hearted, Rasus decides to leave the hamlet, choosing to go his own path by joining into the army.
Kudos to Balinese descent Nyoman Oka Antara and newcomer Prisia Nasution, who portray well Rasus and Srintil respectively, strongly building an explosive chemistry between them, and are able to take moviegoers through the ups and downs of their intimacy.
Oka, who previously worked in Ayat-ayat Cinta, Perempuan Berkalung Sorban (Woman With a Headscarf) and Hari Untuk Amanda (Days for Amanda), affirms that he’s got talent as he delves deeply into the naïve, ingenuous yet innocent Rasus character.
Other supporting actors, including seniors such as Slamet Rahardjo, Dewi Irawan, Hendro Djarot and Tio Pakusadewo as well as younger actors Lukman Sardi and Teuku Rifnu Wikana, are as good as ever.
Happy Salma makes a brief yet notable performance as a dancer who takes the stage before Srintil.
Sang Penari is also supported by big names on the crew list. There are Yadi Sugandi (Merah Putih or Red and White trilogy) behind the lens, fashion stylist Chitra Subiyakto (Laskar Pelangi, Sang Pemimpi or The Dreamer) who takes care of the costumes, and celebrity couple Wong Aksan and Titi Sjuman (Minggu Pagi di Victoria Park or Sunday Morning at Victoria Park, Tanah Air Beta or My Homeland) doing the music.
Besides the love-transcends-space-and-time subject, the story also underlines the social and political issues against the backdrop of the Sept. 30 coup in 1965, a bloody period blamed on the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).
Ifa smoothly translates the sinister moment and the vicious attempts taken by the military in handling possible traitors, sending a swift quiver to your spine, emotionally scrambling your heart when all contentment and tranquility in the hamlet are gone in a blink of an eye.
Tohari gave Sang Penari positive remarks, saying that the movie really represented the idea of his novel, and praised the director’s bravery in visualizing the massacre, something that Tohari avoided when he first launched the book.
Verdict: An artistically stunning piece depicting cross-border love, the hardships of rural life and the grisly carnage of the bloody September, 1965, massacre.
Sang Penari with English subtitles is available at Plaza Senayan XXI theater in Senayan, South Jakarta.
(111 minutes, Salto Films)
Starring: Prisia Nasution, Nyoman Oka Antara, Slamet Rahardjo, Dewi Irawan, Lukman Sardi, Tio Pakusadewo, Landung Simatupang, Teuku Rifnu Wikana,
Director: Ifa Isfansyah
Writer: Salman Aristo, Ifa Isfansyah,
Producer: Shanty Harmayn