Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho defends his erotic interpretation of the epic
Nugroho is no stranger to controversies. The filmmaker who is feted as “Indonesia’s Ingmar Bergman” has often ruffled domestic sentiments with his films on Islamic conservatism, street children, and the Papua independence movement, among other social issues.
His latest production, Opera Jawa, a modern-day interpretation of the Ramayana episode relating to the abduction of Sita by Ravana, too has been criticised by Hindus in his Muslim-majority country because of its depiction of Sita as a sexually wilful woman who yields to Ravana’s charms. In an interview to DNA from Jakarta, Nugroho defends his work.
How do you respond to criticism of Opera Jawa on the grounds that it offends Hindus’ religious sensibilities?
I appreciate the sentiment behind the criticism of my film. But Opera Jawa is an adaptation from the performing arts traditions of Yogyakarta (the Javanese city), where I was born.
In particular, it takes after the puppet art tradition. The story of the Ramayana is open to new interpretations. In fact, all the great classical stories have plenty of room for interpretation and revival. It’s like a process of rebirth, of reincarnation…
Were you not concerned that for a Muslim filmmaker to interpret a Hindu epic would accentuate these sentiments?
The Ramayana can cross borders and cultures all over the world. It has become part of every society in the world. In that sense, it is a never-ending story.
In Yogyakarta, where I grew up, even if you are a Muslim, you are absorbed in Hindu art expressions. Ravana, Vishnu, and all the other Hindu characters are part of that art expression. In my town, we had rehearsals of the Ramayana virtually every week.
When I was five, I saw these performances every week. And I loved it very much. The Ramayana is a simple but complex story, with so many layers of entertainment and philosophy. And as I said, it is open to interpretation.
I have had similar experiences (of facing criticism) in the past. My first experience was with Muslim fundamentalism in Indonesia. Now, some Hindus have objected to Opera Jawa. But even they, when they saw my film, agreed that it was a good interpretation.
As a performing artist, do you believe that no subject is taboo and that it’s fair to open up any issue for scrutiny and interpretation — irrespective of whether it will offend someone’s sensitivities or not?
I do. Creative interpretation is critical even for the development of religions. Even a curry from India becomes a different curry in Indonesia or Malaysia, and a different one in Europe. It becomes a new, reformed curry.
Take an epic like the Mahabharata. How many hundreds of films have been inspired by it?
And each of them are different in their own way. Whenever an actor plays Krishna, he gives his own interpretation of his personality. It’s as if every time it is performed, it is a new production.
Do you hope to see an Indian release for Opera Jawa?