“Kartini” Princess of Java: A Film Review

By Reya Suwarsono

Wahai ibu kita Kartini, Putri yang mulia, Sungguh besar cita-citanya, Bagi Indonesia.

Our mother Kartini, honorable daughter, with great noble aspirations, For Indonesia.

Film director, Hanung Bramantyo, unfolds the story of Raden Adjeng Kartini (played by Dian Sastrowardoyo), a daughter born into a Javanese family of nobles in 1879. Her father’s position as a Javanese aristocrat working for the Dutch government provided her with the opportunity to attend a Dutch school – a privilege that few Indonesians had. Her exposure to Western ideals and education played a crucial role in her growth as an activist in her later years.

The film, however, centralizes around an important chapter of her life known as ‘pingitan’ – a period of time for Javanese adolescent females to be put into seclusion until a worthy suitor arrives to take her away and give her a role in society as a Raden Ayu, a wife of a nobleman. Given her continued interest in education, Kartini spends her time during seclusion, reading books provided by her brother, Raden Mas Kartono (played by Reza Rahardian). This only further deepens her desire to provide leading roles and progression for women in society. With the addition of her two sisters, the three Klaverblad (Clover Leaves Sisters) worked together in fighting against Javanese traditions and socio-political standards of the 1800s through writing published articles in multitude Dutch periodicals in Java. Unfortunately, her battle for the fulfillment of her vision of attending higher education in The Netherlands fell short. Nonetheless, the agreement with Kartini’s father, who in exchange for her arranged marriage, helped fund the building of schools for women and the underprivileged, is the gateway to present day Indonesian society.

The 2017 biographical film adaptation of this crucial moment in history provides viewers with the opportunity to travel back in time and experience the planting of the seed of what would eventually turn into today’s autonomy and access to education for women. The sets and costumes were beautifully crafted to transport us back to colonial-times Java; from the Dutch architecture to the traditional Batik clothing.

The balance between Indonesian and Javanese dialogues allows the authenticity of the setting to be kept whilst still being digestible for the wider audience, not just the island of Java. It was these realistic details of the historical recreation, such as the type of batik that is worn by specific individuals according to their degree in society, that made the film feel authentic and engaging, possibly even for a non-Indonesian audience.

The 119 minutes running time successfully packed a variety of themes such as the meaning of polygamy for Javanese women, religion, and social hierarchy.  Notably, the exposition of the struggles that Kartini’s biological mother, Ngasirah, faced as a woman without a title left me in sympathy. Ngasirah was living in the same gated compound as her daughter, yet were separated from each other by the social rankings and expectations of Javanese culture. Kartini was required to call her own mother ‘Yu’ – a term for a female staff of a house – whereas Ngasirah is required to call her own daughter ‘Ndoro’, meaning employer. A disconnected and formal relationship imposed by societal rulings that came with being a noble in Java. This film was certainly aimed to give teen and adult viewers from all sorts of backgrounds the full insight to Kartini’s biography, putting history books to rest. 

As a female-Indonesian myself, Baramantyo’s film sparks a greater appreciation in me to the struggles faced and the sacrifices made by Kartini throughout her life. Long after the Dutch colonization period, many women have been able to build a nation alongside men. Albeit, gender equality is still not entirely equal as of today. The foundations placed by Kartini, however, remain as the catalyst of modern day Indonesia.

For someone who grew up outside of their homeland – Indonesia, I have always felt under-appreciative of the challenges the heroes of our nation had to face to create the society and economy that we have today. It is difficult to find resources and outlets that can educate us about our history in a powerful and impactful way. Therefore, I wholeheartedly felt that this biographical film has succeeded in its purpose. I hope that this film can spark love for Indonesia for others as it did with me (regardless of whether you’re Indonesian or not). Perhaps it can inspire you to stick to your beliefs, and fight for what you think is right. 

Cover image by Bagus Mahatma

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