As He Likes It
Bruce Emond, WEEKENDER | Wed, 04/25/2012 2:34 PM |
Director Hanung Bramantyo continues his search for the magic formula that will make a box-office hit out of a meaningful, idealistic film.
For Hanung Bramantyo, filmmaking is something of a war zone. On one side of the battlefield is his idealistic ambition to make movies with meaning and a message. On the other are the producers, pushing the commercial imperative to deliver a box-office hit.
“The struggle about what is commercial and non-commercial and idealism is always within me,” says Hanung, who, at 36, is one of Indonesia’s leading directors with almost 20 titles to his credit. “I’ve never had a producer who has a passion for film rather than the passion for making money. So I have had to fight for myself in doing that.”
Seated in his living room in the modern South Jakarta home he shares with his wife, actress Zaskia Adya Mecca, relaxing after playing video games with his young son, he insists he is not a hypocrite: Money matters to him, but so do his ideals.
That idealism comes from his childhood love of the theater arts. After briefly studying economics and a stint at the national teacher training institute in his native Yogyakarta, he decided he would be an actor. He was dismissive of film in the mid-1990s, when local vehicles were limited to soft-core porn and ghost movies (or a combination of both).
At the urging of a friend, he visited the Teater Populer theater group in Jakarta run by Teguh Karya, the director whom he had most admired growing up along with Syumandjaya.
“I saw Pak Teguh making a TV film, and I realized there was a process to making a film,” he says of that day in 1996. “There is the rehearsal, the process of building the character, finding the right props. It changed my mind and I knew I wanted to be a director. I told Pak Teguh that I wanted to learn from him. And he said, ‘fortunately you want to be a director, not an actor, because being an actor is more difficult ...”
Teguh, who died in 2001, had a brief acting career in the 1950s under his real name Steve Liem.
“There is no compromising with the lens,” Hanung says. “With my kind of face, my nose will appear even larger on the screen. I also realized that through making film we can learn so much, from human behavior to social and political issues.”
Following Teguh’s advice, Hanung studied film at the Jakarta Arts Institute. He went on to make a couple of shorts and TV films, before his big-screen break with 2004’s Brownies, a whimsical romantic comedy reminiscent of Chocolat.
He won a Citra award for best director, but his friends in the artistic community accused him of selling out, because the movie had a host of consumer goods sponsors and a theme song by pop-rock band Gigi available for download. He admits that it was a sell-out, in a way.
“But it was also about the process of making a film, just as we have a process of doing theater. Yes, it was about McDonald’s and brownies, not gudeg [Yogyakarta’s famous jackfruit dish] and traditional elements. But urban Jakarta is also a culture, even if many couldn’t accept that.”
He uses the word “war” again, referring to the conflict within himself to reconcile the apparently incompatible concerns of message and money. One approach may be to present the message in the right way.
“I think making a commercial movie, for me, is about how to package it so it is successful with audiences. ... It’s about the packaging, and commercial films are seen as being about love, Jakarta and pop culture.”
Idealism won out with his second movie, 2005’s Catatan Anak Sekolah (Schoolkid Diaries), which drew on his teen years in Yogyakarta. It was a box-office flop, despite the eye-candy appeal of Christian Sugiono making his movie debut.
“Nobody watched it,” Hanung says. “It was a nightmare for the producer.”
Love Conquers All
Results for his next few movies varied; he mentions 2005’s Jomblo (Single) as making some headway in balancing commercialism with meaningfulness.
But nothing prepared him for the runaway success of 2008’s Ayat-Ayat Cinta (Verses of Love), adapted from the novel by Habiburrahman El Shirazy. Indeed, he had worried that the screen adaptation would alienate audiences loyal to the book.
“There were a lot of compromises in how we adapted it from a bestselling novel, with changing the locations and the nationalities of the actors,” he says. “I felt that the audiences would not go for the changes, they would think, ‘This isn’t Egypt, the actors aren’t Turks’.”
Hanung even feared it would be his last movie.
“I didn’t even go in to watch the premiere, I stayed outside hiding. But people came out of the screening saying how good it was.”
Ayat-Ayat Cinta drew tens of thousands of viewers in its first days of release, and had recorded an audience of about 1.5 million by the end of its run. Hanung concludes its success could be because it spoke to urban Indonesian Muslims during an era of change.
“The only films about Islam at the time were about people seeking help from a religious cleric, or about a divine miracle. There was nothing talking about a religious love story. But this one did.”
The film also addresses an issue that remains especially important to Muslim women – polygamy.
“Nobody wants to be made the second wife, but it was part of the storyline that drew Muslim women to the movie and made it a topic of discussion.”
It was the first of several movies he has directed with religious themes. Perempuan Berkalung Sorban (The Woman in the Turban, 2009), Sang Pencerah (The Enlightener, 2010) and last year’s Tanda Tanya (Question Mark) were all critically acclaimed, although the latter earned condemnation from the hardline Islamic Defenders Front for highlighting interfaith conflicts.
Keeping the Faith
In adopting such themes, Hanung is using film as a means of encouraging his fellow Muslims to take a critical look at their faith. Also important to Hanung, who believes that everyone is seeking the same destination in life, is pluralism, which he notes is at the heart of Indonesian society, as captured in the national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity).
Although movies about pluralism in Indonesian society are nothing new, having even appeared during the authoritarian New Order regime, he points out that such films are more likely now to provoke protests in some quarters – extending to controversy about Christian actors playing Islamic characters, or Muslim actors in Christian roles. This trend, he says, points to more entrenched religious divisions in society.
Hanung, whose father and grandfather held prominent positions in Muhammadiyah, the nation’s second largest Muslim organization, admits to seeing these divisions in his own family.
“I am half-Chinese through my mother, who converted to Islam. When I was younger, my mother’s family would come to Yogyakarta to pay their respects at Idul Fitri, and we would go to Salatiga at Christmas. That is pluralism at work.”
Yet his family has changed. “We don’t do the trips anymore, and we sometimes don’t even SMS our greetings.”
He was berated by relatives for buying a Christmas tree, and rues what he sees as confusing religion with cultural symbols.
“If I wear a white robe, I am considered a good Muslim, but if I wear jeans, then I am a bad one,” says Hanung, who studied in the Muhammadiyah school system. “Of course, you are entitled to your opinion, including if you don’t think it’s right for me to say Merry Christmas to Christians. You may think that your viewpoint is holier than mine and you are doing the right thing. But do not try to force your viewpoint on me. I am showing my respect to [Christians] in celebrating their faith, and that is between me and God. No, I do not go to church because that is not my place of worship.”
When Hanung Bramantyo is asked to name the movie he is proudest of, his answer is perhaps not what many would expect. He chooses Get Married, the 2007 comedy of errors about the social divide between village and urban denizens, as well as the age-old and relentless parental pressure on young people to get married.
It is, in his eyes, a very Indonesian and contemporary theme.
“I loved it from the beginning with the script, and that it is about the social urban culture. I made it with great passion.”
Equally satisfying is that it was a commercial success despite failing to meet the usual stipulations of producers for hit-making materials.
“It was about kids from the middle to lower classes, while middle to up is considered the right market for audiences. And there is the thinking that a movie will only be successful with a gorgeous star like Dian Sastro or Luna Maya, when we had Nirina Zubir, whose looks are not in their league, as the star.”
The ultimate lesson is that there is no formula for sure-fire box-office success. Tendangan Dari Langit (A Kick from Heaven, 2011) featured a combination of the sizzlingly popular sport of soccer, star player Irfan Bachdim and a love theme – but still did not come close to the success of Ayat-Ayat Cinta.
“If I meet a producer who says he will give me a bunch of money to make a movie as long as I can ensure that it will make profits like Ayat-Ayat Cinta or Get Married, I have to respond that I can’t guarantee that,” he says.
“I still want to test things again, with a supposedly commercial storyline taken from a bestseller, with a commercial cast and a commercially successful producer. Let us see if it can work in getting an audience.”