Fikri Jermadi is always interested in walks down memory lane, and finds ‘Dilan 1990’ to be an unexpected traverse.
‘Dilan 1990’ is a film co-directed by Pidi Baiq, based on a screenplay written by Pidi Baiq, adapted from a book written by Pidi Baiq, and accompanied with a song written by Pidi Baiq. This goes to show a number of things, one of which is just how much you can accomplish if you really want to get things done. Another is also the director’s ego, a thing which is incredibly important. I feel that it is difficult to truly be a so-called auteur or filmmaker of some renown without some nourishing of that ego every once in a while. The other point I wish to discuss is how the film is an indication of a longer-lasting trend of mining nostalgia, which I shall discuss further in subsequent paragraphs.
It features Dilan (Iqbaal Ramadhan) in the title role, a boy with an edge. A fair amount of this is softened by Milea (Vanesha Prescilla), a young girl who just moved to Bandung from Jakarta. The year is 1990. As Milea settles in her new school, she catches the attention of our aforementioned eponymous… protagonist? Antagonist? Sidekick? Love interest? Patriarchal representative? All of the above? None of them? We’ll get to that later, but for now, rest assured that Dilan is the bad boy that all the girls apparently want, and all the mothers apparently like, particularly as he’s a good looking one, with a tendency of greeting his elders with an “Assalamualaikum” (unless they greet him or his loved ones with a slap, in which case a knuckle sandwich or two is his weapon of choice).
We are firmly situated, therefore, in the early 1990s milieu that is memory lane. The setting of Bandung also helps to evoke a more sedate surrounding that’s often juxtaposed against the bustle of big city Jakarta. The aforementioned song, ‘Dulu Kita Masih di SMA’ even has chords which recall for me more than just a little of Kahitna’s own ‘Cantik’, seen very much as one of the granddaddies of 90s Indonesian nostalgia. It is in all this that Dilan hustles to win over Milea’s affections, in spite of the fact that she is already involved in a relationship with Beni (Brandon Salim), who is in Jakarta. Nevertheless, such cheeky charm does not go to waste, and this is proof in the Amanda brownies that a girl’s “no” truly means “yes”, if you are a proponent of that particular approach.
I am not, and therein lies the biggest problem (and I do mean problem) I have with the film. While both main characters would eventually come to a form of mutual attraction, it is not without its issues. I am more than a little concerned about the lack of proactivity from Milea; she is very much a damsel in demand, with a discernible lack of distress. Milea is at the center of a three-way tug of war, between those who ‘own’ her (Beni) and those who wish to own her (Dilan being one of them). Perhaps I am being too critical for what is essentially a popcorn film, aimed at perhaps little more than pleasing the masses. After all, not many willingly take a look back with the expressed intention of digging up old dirt (even if that is important, at times). Rather, we prefer to wear rose-tinted glasses.
This is not the same ball park, but witness, if you will, the popularity of football writing websites, in which people are encouraged to write and create content on the world’s most popular game. This allows armchair football fans all over the world (including yours truly) to indulge in a fair amount of nostalgia mining, almost subconsciously positioning ourselves as better than some of the younglings who come in without truly knowing what went on before.
Some of that may be applicable to ‘Dilan 1990’. We see how technology play a prominent role in facilitating the communication between our central characters (and beyond). The landline telephone, for instance, is key towards the creation of moments of laughter and love, as well as tension. Dilan himself would often contact Milea from a payphone, nowadays a relic from a bygone era. I am old enough to also remember how such phone calls can be eagerly awaited, with conversation that would last well into the wee hours, resulting in a lot of oui moments.
All that, however, does not mask the issues and problems I have with how this film treats both the idea of love and women. Going beyond our central protagonists, Milea’s and Dilan’s mothers are also represented as having little more to do than make tea, cook, answer phone calls and… what else? I’m writing this sometime after the fact, so do forgive me, dear reader, should there be any important omissions that contradict me right now. I’d be happy to stand corrected, but all that flashes through my mind now is… John Steinbeck.
In his seminal novel, ‘Of Mice and Men’, Steinbeck would address the spouse of Curly, one of the characters, simply as Curly’s wife. A common analysis would be how she was not even deemed worthy of a name, considered a deliberate tactic by the author to reflect the gender politics of that time depicted. I thought of that book more than a number of times as I watched this film, as a similar convention is in place for the mothers here. I understand that the focus is on the film’s young stars, but it remains disappointing to see some very important characters remaining sidelined in this fashioned.
Equally interesting is what appears to be society’s infatuation with the idea of marriage. Dilan openly and happily declares, even to one-off masseurs, as to how he wishes to make Milea his wife. Once again, not a note of protest is voiced from Milea. Here’s one, then: I disagree strongly with how parents would meet their teenage child’s boyfriends and girlfriends, and almost immediately judge how good a partner they would be (in the future) based on what they are like (in the present). I also disagree strongly with how Milea herself acts as if she is indeed ‘owned’ by Dilan. One particular scene of misunderstanding involves her being distressed at being shown around Institut Teknologi Bandung by her older tutor, Kang Adi (Refal Hady), simply because Dilan did not appear to approve of that trip. They’re not even done with school, and yet they’re behaving as if they’re married. I believe something is not quite right with that picture.
Having said all that, this is not a film that’s without its pleasant moments. Putting aside the at-times-grating voiceover (why am I being told what I can see? I’m not stupid), Dilan can be romantic in many respects, and the two main characters can also appear to be adorable. Also, the film had more than five million admissions at the local box office at the time of writing, so what do I know? I believe that my concerns are valid, but they are also an application of a modern day vista upon a reconstructed past reeking of nostalgia. That’s a relationship which will never end well, especially if we are to mash and mesh together the politics of different eras. Or could it be that such politics still do exist even in this 21st century? If so, it is disappointing how territorial such relationships are presented both on and off the screen.
Featured image credit: Inc.