Late last Sunday evening I was browsing Netflix for a good film to watch when, to my surprise, I found a screen adaptation of one of my favourite novels: Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Bumi Manusia [This Earth of Mankind], which I first read around 34 years ago.
The first book in a tetralogy, Bumi Manusia was written during Toer’s long imprisonment on the island of Buru, on charges of communism. Set at the turn of the century and narrated by Minke, a young writer of aristocratic stock, it examines the devastating effects of Dutch colonialism on the ancient culture of Java, as well as the necessary tides of modernity that were sweeping over Asia.
The powerful bildungsroman and love story of Minke with the mixed-race Annelies who longs to be a ‘true native’ frames a layered account of culture and imperialism, race and gender, rootedness and dispossession in one’s own land.
The film’s popular director, Hanung Bramantyo, is known for works that touch on Islam and multiculturalism in contemporary Indonesia and earlier directed an exquisitely calibrated biography of Indonesia’s feminist icon Raden Adjeng Kartini, set in the same period.
But fictionalising history is somewhat less complex than putting an established modern masterpiece on screen. Inevitably, the romantic elements of Minke’s story are foregrounded in the film, as is the character of Annelies’s mother, Sanikem, who was sold as a “nyai” [concubine] to a Dutchman. Through her own initiative and endeavours, Sanikem rises to become the owner and manager of a large estate and, in spite of a veneer of European manners, retains a strong connection with her roots.
There is a large cast of supporting characters: Robert, Minke’s “Indo”, or mixed-race, classmate who introduces him to Sanikem’s family; Sanikem’s son — another Robert — who despises his “native” roots and, unlike his sister, identifies as Dutch. There is also Minke’s feudal father, caught between ancient traditions and his opportunistic tendency to kowtow to colonial authority and his wife, who represents the grace and elegance of the Javanese gentry and also its fatalism and passivity.
Minke, like his contemporary Kartini, is determined to work for the betterment of his people, though at the outset his Western education causes him to see the latter as the only antidote to the apathy of his colonised people. However, the racism — verging on caricature in the film’s early parts — he encounters and the quandary of the Indos who cannot accept their local origins, place him in an in-between position.
As a full-blooded Javanese whose mindset has been deeply influenced by the West, Minke continually questions himself and is often uncertain of the ground upon which he stands. But the occasionally awkward, immature performance of the youthful lead actor, Iqbaal Ramadhan, doesn’t always serve to mirror the complexity of Minke’s thoughts; often, his resistance and his achievements as a budding writer seem almost accidental. At other times, Ramadhan’s naivete adds an oddly poignant note to the drama, at variance with the novel’s confident retrospective narrating voice.
Sanikem, compellingly portrayed by Ine Febriyanti, dominates the film. Cast in a role not of her own choosing, despised as an upstart by one community and envied by the other, Sanikem voices the hatred and anger of an entire nation against the twin tyrannies of empire and gender.
In most essentials, the film closely echoes the novel, which I reread afterwards. Toer ventriloquises Minke’s voice convincingly and evokes the period’s landscapes with such effortless skill that, at times, it’s difficult to believe he was born two decades after the events he depicts.
His book employs a complex narrative structure: at the outset, Minke hints that his account, written 13 years after the events he chronicles and based on retrospective notes, may not be entirely authentic — he merges his “short notes … together with dreams, imaginings. Naturally they became different. Different? Ah! But that doesn’t matter!”
The three central characters are given equal importance. At times, Minke’s first-person narrative gives way to stories told by Annelies and Sanikem about their lives. Annelies emerges as a young woman attempting to fight her destiny and right the wrongs done to her mother by becoming the Muslim wife of a noble Javanese. Eventually, though, her mother and husband’s efforts, supported by the Muslim ulema, to prove her marriage legal are foiled by Dutch authorities.
Possibly to add historical veracity to the film, director Barmantyo reveals Minke’s name — which Minke refuses to divulge in the novel — as “Tirto”. Novelist Toer did, however, acknowledge at some point that he had based the character on Tirto Adhi Soerjo, the ‘father of Indonesian journalism’.
In the book, Sanikem advises Minke that, instead of writing in Dutch which would only reach a minority, he should address and inspire a much larger audience by writing in the vernacular, foreshadowing the adoption in the 20th century of Bahasa Indonesia as the national language and articulating a deep concern about language and expression that still haunts many postcolonial societies.
Despite its bows to popular cinema in its melodramatic flourishes, the film remains faithful to its historical context. It does not exoticise Javanese culture and there is almost no dwelling on indigenous ritual. Dutch people genuinely, if sometimes misguidedly, concerned about the wellbeing of the colonised nation are contrasted with brutal and broadly drawn officials from all ranks of colonial life. Sanikem’s righteous anger is juxtaposed with Minke’s desire to absorb the best of Western thought.
Bumi Manusia the film largely succeeds in bringing to life a period of history many viewers will be unaware of. It may well guide readers to the works of a writer who, though often translated, is relatively unknown to most Anglophone readers. Hugely absorbing as a piece of cinematic entertainment, it is far superior to certain ahistorical epic depictions of imperialism and resistance, verging on fantasy, that have recently surfaced on Netflix.
The columnist is a London-based short story writer and novelist
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 30th, 2023