Stories of His Life – Chrisye

Adi Iskandar saw the trailer, was intrigued, and watched the film.

‘Chrisye’ is one of those films that came and went, almost in the relative blink of an eye. I am not sure whether that is a reflection of the box office quality and attraction it may not have held in relation to its competitors (I would think that the story of a well-regarded singer would be something a number of people would be interested in), but it was a film I managed to catch all the same before it was gone.

It tells an intriguing story of Chrisye, an Indonesian singer who passed away at a fairly young age because of cancer. In fact, there was some thought as to whether that aspect of his life would be the focus of the film, a question posed to me by my father-in-law. Instead, it charted his rise from the bottom to the top, detailing how Chrisye struggled against the grain to gain a measure of mainstream success. In the credits list, I noticed some names who appear similar to his. I suspect his family members, those who authorised this effort, are probably not as keen to open up on those old wounds.

The titular role was played by Vino Bastian, who performed it with some aplomb. Chrisye’s intentions of becoming a singer is pinned down by his father’s expectations. Nonetheless, as he ground against the wheel, he would eventually change people’s minds about his ability and the chance of gaining success and financial well-being from it. Along the way he would meet Damayanti (Velove Vexia), who would serve as a kind of muse for him in his personal life and career. The two would eventually fall in love and marry, raising children along the way. What I find interesting about the film is how it also highlights the impact of being a family member of a famous singer. A very short clip shows how one of his daughters suffered abuse at school because she apparently couldn’t sing as well as her father.

We also see Damayanti struggling to help make ends meet, as being solely the housewife of a performer in a developing country doesn’t exactly pay the bills. It is these worries that we see Chrisye being pre-occupied with. In spite of his relative success, he worries like there is no tomorrow. Even as his songs gets played on the radio, he lives not in the moment that is the present (for it is a gift, natch); instead, he fast-forwards to an uncertain future.

The spotlight, then, is constantly shed on his professional struggles musician and performer. In spite of his obvious talent as a performer, I also see a character who suffers greatly from a chronic case of “Oh my God, what if they don’t like me?” While such stories of low self-esteem is not entirely uncommon, I’ve not seen someone who would refuse to even listen to his own songs on the radio. A key scene in the film, with Damayanti being excited about his song broadcast on the radio, was tempered by his downbeat pragmatism. Being a feature film, I am not sure how much creative license was taken in the retelling of his life story, but taking this purely at face value, it is an indication of contradiction of the highest order. Quite frankly, out of all the people who would suffer from stage fright and low confidence, a musician is not the person you would think to be at the top of the list.

Interestingly, then, it created a sense of intrigue. This is aided by my lack of knowledge of who he was. Instead, I was largely driven by a burning desire to just watch whatever that was in the cinema at the time, and the trailers had created enough of an interest. More to the point, I myself had pointed out in conversations with friends as to this film being one of the strengths of Indonesian cinema, if one is to compare and contrast it to its Malaysian cousin. While we still grapple with how to deal and confront our own past (at least on an official basis; unofficially I think we’re largely fine), Indonesia has steamed ahead on that front, tackling many different issues head on.

In an artistic sense, there’s been plenty of offerings on some key personalities in its history, such as Kartini, General Soedirman, Soekarno and others; in the meantime, similar projects about our own historical figures have been much farther and fewer in between. Lest this morphs into something akin of a bashing of Malaysian cinema, I mean to say that ‘Chrisye’ essentially continues this lineage of looking at one of their own.

Which ‘their’ am I talking about, though? Chrisye was actually born a Chinese Christian (his original name is actually Christian Rahadi), a member of a community that existed in some fragility at the time of the film’s setting. Born in the late 1940s, he would have come of age not only in a time of state-sponsored cultural genocide (amidst other forms of genocide they would perform), but also at a time when he would have probably been old enough to appreciate that lineage. This wasn’t emphasised on in the film, but in order to marry his girlfriend, he needed to convert to Islam, thus resocialising himself into the hegemony of the country. This insertion of the self into the status quo, I think, probably deserved more of a discussion, as, beyond some brief moments of hesitation I chalk up to his low sense of self-esteem, I would have imagined such a decision to be a difficult and life-changing one for his family.

Once again, my lack of familiarity with the actual story hampers this analysis, and perhaps it is, once again, a case of my Malaysian-conditioned, academic-aspiring mindset that is barking up a tree no one is even looking at. Perhaps, therefore, the number of Chinese Indonesians who appear in key managerial roles at the record companies Chrisye appears to be attached to is nothing more than mere nomenclature in the background. Then again, this website is called ‘Thoughts on Films’, and these are parts of my thoughts on this film; even if no one is looking at that trunk and branches made of wood, I’d argue they are still there.

Rounding up this thinking process, ‘Chrisye’ is an interesting film on a character who appeared to be intriguing in his own right. Perhaps the emphasis placed is not quite on the most dramatic elements of his life, and maybe those more familiar with the subject matter (and would therefore know how his story progressed and ended) would not have found things to be as interesting. Some scenes, such as the collaboration between him and Taufik Ismail (Fuad Idris), was also incredibly interesting. I was not aware how they had worked together, and Taufik Ismail is certainly a name I am more familiar with. To see it on screen was enlightening.

The music? I listened to them after I got home. Chrisye may not have enjoyed that, but I certainly did. In the midst of all this ‘Stranger Things’-led 1980s revival (at least amongst my students), I recommend giving ‘Kisah Cintaku’ a spin. In fact, let’s have that as our video for this write-up. I’m giving you guys the karaoke version to boot. No school like the old school.

Lovely stuff.

Featured image credit: stapico.ru

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