A historical biopic of the Indonesian independence hero H.O.S. Tjokroaminoto opened in theaters last Thursday. (Photo courtesy of the H.O.S. Tjokroaminoto Family Foundation)

Tjokroaminoto on the Big Screen

APRIL 13, 2015

"A great nation is one that truly appreciates its history,” said the late Sukarno, Indonesia’s founding president.

In Indonesia, that kind of appreciation extends to the men and women who helped create history, in particular through their role in the independence struggle. Foremost among them is Raden Hadji Oemar Said Tjokroaminoto, better known as H.O.S. Tjokroaminoto — a name that today graces streets, schools and universities all over the country. But while the name is instantly recognizable to most Indonesians, few know about the man and his pivotal role in Indonesia’s bid to cast off the shackles of Dutch rule.

Born into a comfortable life of Javanese royalty in Ponorogo, East Java, Tjokroaminoto looked set to follow the prescribed family path into the civil service — hardly a hotbed of the independence insurgency.

But he quickly grew disillusioned with the bureaucracy, eventually joining, and later leading, the country’s biggest Islamic trade union, a post that propelled him into the Volksraad, the Dutch-controlled parliament in Jakarta, in 1918.

Preaching from this more prominent platform, Tjokroaminoto energized and mobilized millions of young Indonesians to rise up against colonial rule, while downplaying Islamic union background to galvanize support from people of all creeds, ethnicities and educational standing.

All these historic moments, and the more personal moments from Tjokroaminoto’s life, come to the big screen in the movie “Guru Bangsa Tjokroaminoto,” (“Tjokroaminoto, Teacher of the Nation”), which opened in cinemas nationwide last Thursday.

“As direct descendants of Tjokroaminoto, we want to carry on his legacy of equality, fraternity and independence through this movie,” says Ai Tjokroaminoto, a great-grandson of the national hero and chairman of the H.O.S. Tjokroaminoto Family Foundation, or YKBHT, which co-produced the movie with Pic(k)lock Films and MSH Films.

“We hope his spirit will revive the sense of nationalism among Indonesians today,” Ai says.

The movie is helmed by award-winning film director Garin Nugroho, based on a screenplay by Erik Supit, Ari Syarif, and Sabrang Mowo Damar Panuluh. It stars Reza Rahadian in the title role.

“We made the movie so that people would understand the origins of the nation, of how religion gave life to ideology, of how ideology ignited the people, and of how ordinary people moved the nation,” Garin says.

The movie looks at Tjokroaminoto’s life from his childhood in the 1890s to his incarceration in Surabaya in 1921, set against a vivid period tapestry of everyday life in Java at the turn of the century.

Screenwriter Erik says he and his team spent more than two years researching all the minutiae of the period as well as interviewing direct descendants of the key historical figures portrayed in the movie.

“Tjokroaminoto’s era was quite interesting,” he says.

“It was known as jaman necis [dandy era], when people wanted everything to be neat and beautiful.”

The Dutch colonial government during that time was promoting its system of Politik Etis (Ethical Politics), through which it sought to improve the welfare of Indonesian people as recompense for the centuries of occupation and oppression.

Those measures included allowing access to basic education for the children of the rich and the nobility, including Tjokroaminoto — but only as long as they did not revolt against the authorities.

They also allowed art and music to thrive in Java, captured in the movie through performances of Komedie Stamboel, a type of opera with European, Middle East and Oriental influences that was the popular entertainment of the day.

However, for the common Indonesian, Politik Etis rang hollow; they still suffered from forced labor and poverty, and were often tortured when they fell foul of the colonial authorities.

Tjokroaminoto, ensconced in a cushy job in the civil service, stood up against these injustices. He left his job in Ngawi, Central Java, and moved to Surabaya, where he worked at a sugar mill and wrote for a local newspaper. His revelations about the many injustices suffered by the Indonesian people began making waves among the educated locals and members of the Dutch community.

His wife, Surasikin, ran a batik business and managed a part of their private residence, called Rumah Paneleh, as a boarding house for male students from all over Indonesia.

“Rumah Paneleh became the house of many [ideological] values,” Erik says. “It was there that many young scholars met and discussed their ideas.”

Tjokroaminoto then joined the flourishing Islamic Trade Union, known as the Sarekat Dagang Islam. When he was later appointed its chairman, he changed the name of the organization to simply Sarekat Islam (Islamic Union).

Under Tjokroaminoto’s charismatic leadership, the organization became much stronger and at its peak had more than two million members all across Java.

Through the union, Tjokroaminoto and fellow SI member Abdoel Moeis won seat in the Volksraad in 1918. There, Tjokroaminoto gave an impassioned address to the Dutch colonial government to call for greater independence for the Indonesian people.

His views drew the sympathy of Douwe Adolf Rinkes, an adviser to the Dutch governor general at the time and portrayed in the movie by Dutch actor Arjan Onderdenwijngaard.

“Many Indonesian movies that portray the colonial era are so black-and-white. But Garin has created this movie with so many dimensions,” Onderdenwijngaard says.

“The colonial system was rotten. But that didn’t necessarily mean that all the people in it were wicked. There were some who truly sympathized and supported the Indonesian movement” for independence.

If Rinkes’s support for Tjokroaminoto’s cause was grudging, that of the students who lived at Rumah Paneleh was zealous.

Among them: a young student at the local Dutch prep school by the name of Sukarno; Agus Salim, who would go on to become Sukarno’s foreign minister; and Semaoen, later an adviser to the young republic’s first president.

“For me, it’s an honor to be able to act in this movie,” says Ibnu Jamil, who plays the role of Agus Salim. “The cast for this movie is a dream team. They’re all top actors who perform brilliantly in this movie.”

They include the ubiquitous Christine Hakim, who plays the house assistant at Rumah Paneleh; screen veteran Didi Petet as a community leader in West Java; and singer Maia Estianty, who plays Tjokroaminoto’s wife.

Reza, an award-winning actor who portrayed B.J. Habibie, the country’s third president, in an earlier movie, says taking on the studious Tjokroaminoto required memorizing a lot of lines.

“My lines were very long and difficult to memorize,” he says. “And [the script] was often changed during shooting. But I took it as a challenge. I had a lot of discussions with Garin to be able to play the character well.”

In photographs from the period, Tjokroaminoto, who had a tall and lean posture, always appears neatly dressed in a Javanese beskap (jacket) and batik sarong. He is always either standing or sitting upright, with his eyes looking directly at the camera.

“In order to impersonate Tjokroaminoto, I mimicked his body language, which I saw in a lot of his old photographs,” Reza says.

Director Garin credited his all-star cast with putting in a performance to be proud of.

“All the hard work by the actors and actresses, as well as the crew, was amazing,” he says. “They were all very enthusiastic about doing their job. I think that’s because they also felt an affinity with the story, that it was part of their history.”

For veteran stage actor Oyot, who took a break from the traditional ludruk theater of Surabaya to act in the movie, the experience was an educational one that he says all Indonesians should share in.

“I’m so happy to be able to act in the same movie with actors and actresses whom I previously only saw on TV or in the cinema,” he says. “I hope this movie will not only serve as tontonan [visual entertainment], but also tuntunan [guidance] for the future of our young generation.”