Film director Hanung Bramantyo said his latest biopic “Kartini,” which offers a critique on polygamy and the patriarchal culture of 19th century Java, has been largely inspired by letters Kartini wrote herself and the work of legendary Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
Hanung, who co-wrote the script for Kartini with Bagus Bramanthi, said he read a lot of books on Kartini — a national heroine and a pioneer of women’s movement in Indonesia — before he put pen on paper.
The director’s reading list included “Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang”, a collection of Kartini’s letters to her pan pals in Europe, and “Panggil Aku Kartini Saja” by Pramoedya.
“I took parts and passages from Kartini’s letters but the movie’s central perspective is based on how Pramoedya saw Kartini in his book,” he said.
First published in 1962, Pramoedya’s book offers a psychological and political approach on reading Kartini’s letters and her life. Kartini was a child of the colonial times, born near the end of the Cultivation System (Cultuurstelsel, or Tanam Paksa) which impoverished many poor Javanese farmers.
But she was born into an aristocratic family. Her father Sosroningrat was soon to become the district head in Jepara. Her mother, Ngasirah, was the daughter of a factory worker and Sosroningrat’s second wife.
The confusion brought on by a combination of her aristocratic upbringing and her obvious sympathy for the Javanese poor was the main feature of her brief, tragic life.
Kartini the movie began with a scene where the heroine accepted a marriage proposal to be the fourth wife of the Rembang district chief. This was a hard decision for Kartini, who is depicted throughout the film as a tomboy who climbs walls in her kebaya and always complains about being left out of the normal life outside her home.
“The movie’s perspective is inspired by Pram, but I read about all the problems that Kartini had to face in a book by Elizabeth Keesing. That’s where I learned that she faced a lot of opposition from her family, especially her stepmother and her brother,” he said.
Keesing’s book, “Betapa Besar Pun Sebuah Sangkar: Hidup, Suratan dan Karya Kartini” was published in 1996.
Hanung said his research helped him to humanize Kartini and turn this historical figure into a flesh-and-blood character.
“I wanted to make a light and popular biopic, with a modern perspective. This movie is a gift to the younger generation. I didn’t want to teach people about history, I wanted them to enjoy a light and popular film about history,” he said.
Hanung has made a few biopics in his career, including “Rudy Habibie,” “Sang Pencerah” and “Soekarno: Indonesia Merdeka”.
He also directed romantic dramas which often touch on the sensitive subject of polygamy, such as “Ayat-Ayat Cinta” and “Surga yang Tak Dirindukan 2”.
Kartini will open in Indonesian cinemas on April 19.