The Jakarta Post
David Soerdjana's smile and shrug always ends his videos. The signature move is a big part in his TikTok account's success. (Courtesy of instagram.com/davidsoerdjana//Courtesy of instagram.com/davidsoerdjana/)
Picture the scene: a well-dressed young man is purchasing gorengan (fried snacks) from a roadside stall. As he reaches for his wallet, a girl snatches his bag of gorengan and runs away. The young man gives chase, following the girl into a dilapidated shack. Peeking inside, he sees the girl giving his bag of gorengan to her ailing grandmother. He introduces himself to the family, smiles knowingly at the girl, and walks away while shrugging to the audience.
There are just a few problems. The dialogue and acting are wooden at best. The plot is jumpy, reminiscent of a soap opera. Then there are the finer details. No self-respecting Indonesian would serve the famously oily gorengan to a sickly, coughing grandmother. And most importantly, we see the girl entering a rickety wooden shack. Yet when the man steps inside, he inexplicably finds them in a simple but comfortable brick and mortar room.
“Look, we didn’t mean it to end up that way,” said the video’s star, David Soerdjana, 32, barely suppressing a smile. “But in Indonesia, sometimes mistakes go viral. Nothing is wasted.”
The numbers have proven him right. Peppered with amateurish acting, more plot twists than an M. Night Shyamalan flick and furious genre-blending, his one-minute movies have earned him over 2 million followers on his TikTok account, @dav_surj. From dramatic action scenes and inspirational tearjerkers to romantic comedy skits, his videos seem to have something for everyone.
And then there’s David himself. His quirky stage presence and bewildering charisma has turned him into somewhat of a cult hero. Part reluctant action star, part lovable rogue, his characters defy incredible odds to pull off an elaborate plan or just to make a moot point, usually with the aid of convenient plot twists.
In one video, he pretends to be a gruff debt collector to help his friend propose to his girlfriend (don’t ask how). In another, he cancels a huge business deal after his potential investor insulted his employee. In another, he tempts a girl waiting on her boyfriend’s broken down motorcycle to illustrate a point about loyalty during adversity. At the end, his character would dispense folksy wisdom on kindness, integrity and not judging people by their cover.
And then, his party trick. After making his point, he would dramatically walk away from the scene. Breaking the fourth wall, David’s character shrugs to the audience while an uplifting pop song plays in the background. Cue credits, dropped jaws and the birth of a thousand memes.
Defying all odds
Back in 2019, stardom did not cross David Soerdjana’s mind. He was a tour guide struggling to make ends meet in Bali when a chance encounter with a restauranteur almost changed his life. “He was opening a new dessert restaurant and wanted me on board,” David recalled. “I have some culinary arts background, so I jumped at the chance.”
But then the pandemic happened, his dream restaurant never opened, and he returned to Jakarta. He was putting himself through computer school (“I thought the IT industry would survive the pandemic,” he said) when a call came to him in November 2020. “A friend of mine asked me back to Bali to make a TikTok channel for short films,” he recalled. “I thought, what the hell, I love movies anyway. Let’s do this.”
David Soerdjana and his team. The group creates TikTok videos featuring skits with moral teachings. But it's the earnest-if-awkward acting and David's signature shrug that has made them Internet sensations (Courtesy of David Soerdjana/Courtesy of David Soerdjana)
Arriving in Bali, he linked up with a videographer and set to work. “I called up some friends and asked them if they wanted to collaborate with me,” David said. Many calls and several impromptu casting sessions later, he had his core cast members: Gung Ayu, 18, a high school graduate; Chacha, affectionately known as Mak Rungsing, 43, a housewife; and Robby Febrian, 32, a makeup artist.
None of them had any acting experience and, to make matters worse, they were bleeding money from the very start. “You can’t monetize content on TikTok like you do on YouTube,” David sighed. “So we know that for the first few months, at least, we won’t make any money.”
It seemed like the project was doomed to fail. Yet, in the spirit of his indefatigable characters, David and his motley crew persisted. What united the team was a common purpose. “We wanted to make something different,” he insisted. “We wanted to tell stories from people’s everyday lives that sometimes escape their own attention.”
Each night, David and his team would exchange video ideas on their WhatsApp group. In the morning, they would meet at a pre-arranged spot and “brief each other” on the video. “We decide who plays which character, what the plot’s like, and what the “moral” of the story is,” David explained. There is no set script. Instead they improvise and make do on the spot.
The shoots take up the entire day because the cast members have to find time in between their day jobs (“I still take on some freelance programming gigs,” David grinned). By five in the afternoon, they wrap up filming and begin editing. An hour later, the video is uploaded to their TikTok channel. Then the cycle repeats, every Monday to Saturday.
They draw inspiration from their own lives. Mak Rungsing’s experiences as a housewife lead to storylines about domestic life and economic woes. Meanwhile, Ayu’s youthful voice is the inspiration behind many romantic storylines and portraits of adolescent life.
But the main man is David himself. In a particularly popular video, David plays a nervous youngster applying for a job. He can’t put on his tie properly, so asks the other candidates for help. After they all ignore his pleas, David looks on sternly, sits down on the boss’ chair, and asks all the candidates to leave as he “has seen enough”. The twist is that David really is just another candidate, and his ingenuity means he is now the only applicant for the job.
“That actually happened in real life,” David laughed. “But when I tried it out, I got caught.”
A common theme in his videos is the importance of everyday kindness. “You don’t have to be a superhero or vigilante to do these things,” David insisted. “These are small acts of kindness you can practice every day.”
He makes a point of stressing that many of his characters are common, everyday people, pushed into small moral quandaries. His heroes and heroines win simply by keeping an open mind, helping strangers out of everyday jams and taking time to look out for one another.
For David, this message is especially resonant during the pandemic. “I think people see no end to this current situation, and that makes us frustrated,” David observed. “But these days, it’s even more important to remind people about kindness. It’s still important to do small acts of kindness to help one another.”
David Soerdjana's TikTok videos are known for their unexpected (and delightfully cheesy) plot-twists (Courtesy of David Soerdjana/Courtesy of David Soerdjana)
Even his famous shrugging gesture, now a goldmine for meme connoisseurs, was born out of this same philosophy. “It’s a common gesture, like saying “whatever” to downplay something you just did,” David explained. “I wanted to challenge my audience. If a regular guy like me can do these small acts of kindness, why can’t you?”
An internet icon
David laughs and looks on in wonder. Throughout the interview, his relentless optimism and boyish charm shine through. Even though barely four months has passed since his first TikTok video, he appears comfortable and answers each question eloquently. I ask him if he has considered playing in movies, and he grins.
“I wouldn’t say no to that, but right now we’re still figuring out how to make money off of this TikTok thing,” he said. “Maybe one day, though.”
He routinely trawls through the hundreds of comments posted on his wildly popular videos, taking care to respond diplomatically to negative input. We began revisiting the notorious gorengan pickpocket video, one of the first videos that brought him cross-platform fame. When internet users started mercilessly pointing out the many inconsistencies in that video, did he feel hurt?
“At first, yeah,” David admitted. “The truth is, there really was a small house next to that wooden shack. We filmed the grandmother scene in that house, but you only see the shack in the final video.”
When they noticed their error, did they consider taking the video down?
“It was impossible,” he said. “The video had blown up already.”
However, as the negative criticism subsided, David and his friends realized that some people genuinely enjoyed the video’s unintentional errors.
“In Indonesia, failures aren’t always a bad thing,” David said. “It put us on the map. The video went viral, our channel got a lot of attention, and our message got across.”
Nowadays, he said, he is comfortable with his status as the internet’s cult hero du jour. “We want to come back to that wooden shack one day, just to pay homage to the whole thing,” he revealed. “It’s going to be fun.”
With our interview over, David leans back on his chair and tells me about the day he is going to have. It’s a Sunday, he said, so you can probably find him lounging at the beach. His phone is constantly ringing with messages from friends who want their daily experiences turned into viral videos. He says goodbye politely, and wishes me a wonderful weekend.
“Wait,” I said, stopping him. “Do you mind… doing the thing?”
David smiles. He shrugs, gets up and walks away.
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