The tragic tale of a young couple from the impoverished Javanese village of Paruk, and the creative processes that bought their story to life in novel and film, made for a fascinating first Rumahku* gathering for 2012.
The Producer of Sang Penari (The Dancer), Shanty Harmayn and the author of Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (The Dancer of Paruk Village), Ahmad Tohari shared the stage in a presentation which looked to the past and the present.
The novel and film are set during the anti-Communist purges of 1965-66, a time that is even now, rarely discussed. The young woman at the heart of the story, Srintil, rises to prominence when she becomes Paruk’s ronggeng, a dancer of great cultural importance. When Srintil prepares for her duties, she discovers that there is more to being a ronggeng than participating in local ceremonies and representing her village in dance competitions. She is also expected to share the bed with wealthy men and share the money she makes with village elders. Unable to accept Srintil’s new role, her beloved Rasus takes his own journey, leaving Paruk to join the army.
Shanty said she first became aware of Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk when a friend gave it to her, saying “you need to read this.” In 2008 she finally got the option to write a script from the novel and immediately went to work.
She was already making the film Garuda di Dadaku (Eagle On My Chest) at the time, “so I told the team, we’re doing this as well. It was that ambitious and fast.”
Shanty explained there were many difficult decisions to take in making the film, such as whether the film should be ínspired by the original work, or an adaptation of the novel. Because they were dealing with a “beautiful and well respected novel,” the refrain “’the book is always better’ kept ringing in our ears.”
Another decision they had to make was who they were making the film for; readers of the novel or young cinema goers, as young people were not familiar with the novel, or the history of 1965.
“We decided the love story is the bridge, the love between Srintil and Rasus, love of the village and love of what you do and what you believe in.”
After many discussions on structure, Shanty and the screen writer Salman Aristo met Pak Tohari and gave him a four page treatment. She says he made a “brave, rare decision” in saying to them, “the text interpretation is here. This is the key. I have already locked it and I’m throwing it into the river. You do what you need to do.”
Ultimately that treatment was replaced and the script went through 12 drafts before reaching filming.
Besides deciding where to position politics in the film, the team had to deviate from the original work in other ways. At the start of the book Srintil is 12. She is older, at 18 in the film. Her motivation to become a dancer was bound more intimately to an earlier family tragedy in the film, and a secondary character in the novel, the blind musician Sakum, is more central in the film.
In deciding how to portray the Communist party Shanty said they related it more generally to how political parties operate even now. And they had to find a balance in portraying the eroticism in the novel. “We wanted to make a movie that a lot of people would see, not one that would be banned (and just talked about)” she said.
Taking his turn on the ‘stage’, Pak Tohari cut a modest figure, with a true storyteller’s ability to engage his audience.
He says he felt there was a gun at the back of his head while writing the novel, and that he had to be brave, as he had felt guilty about not sharing what happened in 1965.
It came as some personal cost. In 1986 Pak Tohari was detained by the military, who wanted to name him as a communist.
Pak Tohari says he was questioned for five days. “We were two worlds that could not be connected. I am an artist, a novelist, and the military doesn’t know anything about literature.”
Pak Tohari says he finally saw the sun again when the soldiers asked if there was anyone who could guarantee he was not a communist. He provided them with the name and details of former President Abdurrahman Wahid, or Gus Dur.
“Indonesia consists of many Paruks,” he said. “If you really want to understand Indonesia read the book, as Jakarta is not Indonesia.”
*Rumahku is a regular event of the Indonesian Heritage Society. This article was first published in the Society’s March-May newsletter.