Yogyakarta. The film adaptation of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's classic novel "Bumi Manusia," or "This Earth of Mankind," has been in the works for so long that it began to feel like a myth. The period setting, the complex tragic-romantic plot and the historical weight of the material have attracted many filmmakers in Indonesia, and even Hollywood, to bring the story to the big screen but none has succeeded, until now.
The list of big-name directors who have tried – and failed – to adapt Pramoedya's epic tale of the birth of Indonesian nationalism includes local avant-garde darling Garin Nugroho, commercial duo Mira Lesmana and Riri Riza, action specialist Anggy Umbara as well as American director Oliver Stone.
But nearly 40 years after the book was published, the film adaptation still has not made it to the cinemas.
Parts of Pram's "Buru Quartet" novels – This Earth of Mankind is the first title in the series – have appeared in plays. The most recent one was "Bunga Penutup Abad" ("The Flower That Ends a Century"), featuring Reza Rahadian as the hero Minke and Happy Salma as his adopted mother, the strong-willed Nyai Ontosoroh, a role that she reprised from another play, "Nyai Ontosoroh" by Faiza Marzoeki, in 2007 and 2011.
The long wait finally ended when Astuti Ananta Toer, Pram's third daughter who is currently in charge of licensing her father's work, stepped into the newly finished set of Bumi Manusia the movie in a press conference at Falcon Pictures's Studio Alam Gamplong in Yogyakarta, on Thursday night (24/05).
Astuti said she was especially happy that her father's wish for an Indonesian filmmaker – not a foreigner – to turn the novel into a film has been been granted.
Award-winning director Hanung Bramantyo ("Ayat-Ayat Cinta" ("Verses of Love"), "Kartini") will direct Bumi Manusia from a script written by Salman Aristo ("Laskar Pelangi" ("Rainbow Troops"), "Sang Penari" ("The Dancer")).
"I am grateful that Bumi Manusia is finally being adapted into a film. This is another recognition for Pram, who literally shed blood, sweat and tears into his novels. I hope his hard work will show through in the movie," Astuti said.
Bumi Manusia is a coming-of-age story set in Java during Indonesia's "political awakening" period in the early 20th century.
Astuti sold the film rights of the book to Falcon Pictures, the film production company behind many Indonesian box-office hits, including "Warkop DKI Reborn: Jangkrik Boss! Part One," "Comic 8" and "Dilan 1990."
Teen heartthrob Iqbaal Ramadhan, whose leading role in Dilan 1990 has earned him an even bigger fanbase than in his Coboy Junior years, is set to play the hero Minke, a character Pram based on Tirto Adhi Soerjo, the "father of Indonesian journalism." Mawar Eva De Jongh, from "The Promise" and "London Love Story 2," will play Minke's love interest, the mestizo beauty Annelies. The crucial role of Nyai Ontosoroh will be played by Sha Ine Febriyanti, who once auditioned for but failed to get the role in the 2007 play Nyai Ontosoroh (Happy Salma pipped her to it). Donny Damara and Ayu Laksmi will play Minke's parents, who are high-ranked Javanese nobilities in the book.
Producer Frederica said Falcon initially approached Pram's family to adapt another one of his novels, "Gadis Pantai" ("The Girl From the Coast"), for the big screen.
"But Astuti said Gadis Pantai may not work as a movie. She initially offered us 'Perburuan' instead. We said yes, and then suddenly she offered us Bumi Manusia as well. Of course, we said yes again right away," Frederica said.
Both titles have been in the company's pipeline since it bought the film rights in 2014, but the scope and depth of the novels have proved to be extra challenging for production, even for Falcon, a giant in the Indonesian film industry.
"We had to hold back because the cost for a while was too big, even for us. But we now feel confident with this project because we've been performing very well at the box office. Still, [Bumi Manusia] is by far the most expensive film Falcon has ever made," Frederica said.
In recent years, Falcon is known for a string of big-budget films with high production values and its aggressive promotion, which have attracted millions of viewers.
In 2015, it spent Rp 20 billion ($1.4 million) to make "Comic 8: Casino Kings." It also spent another Rp 10 billion to make "Warkop DKI Reborn," with an additional Rp 15 billion to promote the movie.
Director Hanung said he will recycle some of the sets from his just-wrapped period drama, a biopic of the 17th century Mataram king Sultan Agung set for release in November, for Bumi Manusia. The shoot is scheduled for mid-July to August. Filming will take place in Yogyakarta, Semarang and the Netherlands.
Hanung is not a stranger to period dramas. His portfolio already includes the Ahmad Dahlan biopic "Sang Pencerah," "Soekarno" and "Kartini," all set in Indonesia in the early 20th century.
The 42-year old director said he's a real Pram fanboy who grew up reading his novels in the student town of Yogyakarta.
"At that time [in the 1990s], reading Pram was a big part of being in the student movement," he said.
Hanung still recalls meeting Pram during his second year as a film student at Jakarta Art Institute (IKJ), when he did the unthinkable, asking for the author's permission to film Bumi Manusia. According to the director, Pram laughed at his brazen request and then said something that has remained fresh in his memory.
"Bung [boy], Oliver Stone wanted this novel too and I'm still thinking about it. I'm really sorry, but I can't support students like you. I'm someone who makes a living by writing. I hope you understand."
Hanung said the theme of modernism in the novel relates very well with the life of millennials today.
"Minke wants to be a European, a global citizen. He refuses to wear blangkon [Javanese-style headwear] and jarik [batik skirt for men], he prefers pantaloons. He is fascinated by technology, the Dutch language, European fashion. Millennials today are also obsessed with many of the same things. Iqbaal and Mawar are millennials with their own experiences of culture shocks, that's partly why I decided to cast them," he said.
Hanung said his creative team had lengthy debates over how they want to approach the film. Writer Salman Aristo, who worked on the script for over a year, decided to treat the project as a celebration of Pram because his works have never appeared on the big screen.
"I tried very hard to stay true to the book, but of course it's going to be different because what works in a book may not work in a film. We've made adjustments, but, like in the book, the film will focus on Minke as the narrator of the story," Salman said.
The press conference in Yogyakarta introduced Iqbaal, Mawar and Ine – paraded on a horse-drawn cart – as the main cast of Bumi Manusia and announced that the movie is scheduled for release sometime in 2019.
Angga Okta Rachman, Pram's 25-year old grandson who also attended the press conference, said the family is happy that Pram's legacy is now being celebrated in various formats, including an exhibition of the author's private letters and photographs, "Namaku Pram," at Dia.Lo.Gue Artspace in Kemang, South Jakarta, that will run until June 3.
Angga, who helps his aunt Astuti manage the Pramoedya estate, said the family has several other plans to bring more of Pram's works to the public in the next few years. There is a plan to turn Pram's house in Jakarta into a museum and also a rerun of Bunga Penutup Abad, the 2016 play based on Bumi Manusia and the second novel in the Buru Quartet, "Anak Semua Bangsa" ("Child of All Nations"), produced by Happy Salma's Titimangsa Foundation.
12 years after his death, it seems that Pram is now being celebrated more than ever.
"We're still getting offers from foreign filmmakers to adapt not just Bumi Manusia, but the whole of Buru Quartet. We got another offer like that just a few weeks ago. But we really want to see how Falcon fares with Bumi Manusia first," Angga said.