Don’t be fooled, it is NOT a Malaysian made movie. Yes, the characters spoke language that sounded like Malay accent and the setting is exactly like the P. Ramlee era movies. Believe it or not, it is 100% Indonesian made movie. And the accent is not fake, it is the accent of the people in Sumatera.

I accidently stumble upon the movie when I was checking on the song “Laskar Pelangi” by Nidji, I love the song very much, very inspirational. The movie was adapted from the 2005 novel Laskar Pelangi by Andrea Hirata. Made in 2008, it was the most successful movie ever made in Indonesia, both local and international.

Here’s the movie synopsis in Wikipedia:

“The movie, set in the 1970s, opens on the first day of the year at a Muhammadiyah elementary school on Belitung. The school needs 10 students but is one short until near the end of the day, when a straggler fills out the ranks for their teachers, Muslimah and Harfan. Muslimah dubs the children “The Rainbow Troops” (sometimes translated as “The Rainbow Warriors”) and the movie traces their development and relationships with the teachers.”

What I love about the movie is the rawness and natural talent of these kids. Mind you, the kids were casted from villages in Belitung, just like Slumdog millionaire, they never acted before. I’d say the  movie is the best Malay-speaking movie I ever seen. It has a very meaningful yet simple message that even our Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet could not compete.

The thing about Sepet is, it did not dig deeper enough in exploring the issues and development of the character. It is just an inter-racial love story but in the context of our Malaysian society, it failed at addressing real issues and plight, the characters also did not go through in depth transformation. In fact, I’d say my parents and grandparents inter-racial love stories would make a better one if it is produced as a movie.

To be honest, I am not a huge fan of Indonesian movies, except for Ada Apa Dengan Cinta (which I watched when I was 17). I view most of the movies as shallow-popcorn-junk-love story, the same goes to Malaysian-made movies too. Nevertheless, Laskar Pelangi made me cry. I never seen such a simple yet beautiful story that used kampong kids as the main actors.

The movie main message is about the importance of education. In a small village in Belitung (an island on the east coast of Sumatra), the kids and their teachers gone through so many obstacles in order for them to be successful in their education. The unique thing about this movie is, it deeply explore the character development and the society/environment surrounding their lives. Issues such as inter-racial love between a Chinese girl and the ‘Malay’ (sorry, in Malaysia everything has to be put into race boxes) boy, diversity of race and religion of the village dwellers, Islam religion, the extreme level of poverty of the village, true friendship between the kids, female empowerment as depicted by the female teacher, Malay culture and music such as “Bunga Seroja” and the power of dreams and ambition.

Most of the plots are very memorable, but there are a few plots that touches my heart. The first is the inter-racial love story between the Chinese girl and the Malay boy. On the surface it is just an innocent childhood love story, but the deeper meaning is more important. Many would be surprised that there are a large number of Chinese ethnicity living in Sumatera, Kalimantan and other parts of Indonesia. Although in some areas, the Chinese might be threaten (such as the Jakarta Riot 1998), but in most parts of Indonesia, they live peacefully together. It does reminded me of the ‘ancient’ past we had during P. Ramlee’s time.

The fact that both the kids in love were oblivious of their ethnicity and religious background, showed how beautiful love is when people are blinded by colours and beliefs. One of the main reason both characters in love are unaware of their differences is the Indonesian national philosophy of Panca Sila, which promotes freedom of religion, democracy and equality. Besides, Panca sila also placed high importance on the Indonesian national identity, where the biggest impact I think is having a common spoken national language of Indonesia. When people are able to communicate freely in a language that all understands, it is easier to nurture the spirit of unity and solidarity.

Another of my favourite scene is when the kids sang the song “Bunga Seroja”. Funny was I heard this music before, somewhere, somehow. It is a 60s song by S. Affendi, the original Indonesian singer. It was just beautiful. To be honest, I got a bit delusional watching this movie, because I’ve to remind myself constantly this is NOT a Malaysian movie. The accent is just too real. The word ‘kite’, ‘saje’, ape’, mane’, ‘iye ke’, ‘bodoh’, ‘cite-cite’ etc… are just very Malay, which I used daily in my Malay conversation.

The contrast struggle of the kids for their education and dreams in a poverty-stricken village really strikes deep in me. I cried many times seeing the kids made the best out of their limited lives. The final scene of the kid called Lintang, who is a math prodigy but was forced to stop school when his dad died while fishing in the sea. Watching the movie itself made me realized how lucky I am to receive good education, while these Laskar Pelangi kids have to struggle in their daily lives just to receive a humble education. Some of them do not even have shoes to wear. It does reminded me of my mom, who was raised in a very poor family, everyday she had to wear the same school uniform and shoes to school until it became very worn-out and torn. She would stitch them again and again until it became worst than a used table-cloth.

Kudos to the producers, director and the book author for creating such a simple movie yet with such meaningful impact to the reality of our everyday lives, especially the lives of the people in Indonesia.

I was in Indonesia for quite a while and I do realize poverty is a big issue there. This kind of movie is really important to the spirit of the Indonesian young people because only though education and self-determination where a society can develop and prosper. Taking the example of South Koreans and Japanese, where the self-determination of the people themselves made their nation economically and technologically on par with other developed western nations.

Another thing I’d like to share about this movie is the subtle Islamic values that it portrayed. In Malaysia, to be Islamic is very surface, you either have to cover up your head or to show that you pray and wear Islamic clothes. But in this movie, which I totally love, it portray Islam in a very spiritual way.

The female teacher wore a long skirt which show more than her ankle, she wore the tudung like it is just an on-off scarf thingy. In reality, her appearance was an exact resemblance of Malaysia back in the 50s-60s. People do not judge you by your appearance, and clothing do not represent your morality nor your faith with god. The female teacher taught everything to the kids, including Islamic studies. One of it is the 5 pillars of Islam. In the current context in Malaysia, it would be a shocker if a religious teacher to be without wearing head scarf and teaching Islam. Other Islamic values is they incorporated a lot of Arabic words in their daily conversation, such as ’Assalamualaikum’, ‘Alhamdullilah’, ‘Alaikumsaalam’, etc. All of them carry the meaning of peace. Islam is also obvious in their day-to-day lives, such as honesty, humbleness, dedication and hard work, spirituality, love and friendship, being grateful, etc.

The fact that the school is a Muhamadiyah school made the story even more interesting. In Malaysia, there’s two school of thoughts, yes, the UMNO and PAS school of thought. But the uniqueness about Indonesia is the diversity in Islam itself. Muhamadiyah is the second largest muslim organization in Indonesia, but Indonesians are free to choose their religion and the Islamic faith. In the movie, although majority of the students are of Muhamadiyah denomination, they were never taught to segregate themselves or look down on those of other faith/denomination. In fact, one of the student in the Muhammadiyah school (Akiong) is a non-muslim chinese. Being an advocate of secularism, I believe religion can truly prosper and maintain a moderate, peaceful influence to an individual’s life when it is practiced voluntarily as personal values, faith and guidance; rather than forced by state punishment or fear tactic by state-appointed religious zealots. Oh, do you know that there’s no Syariah Law in Indonesia (except in Aceh).

There’s another reason why I love this movie – the female teacher herself. She is a true feminist. She turned down the hand of marriage from a rich businessman because she was ambitious in her effort to raise these kids into smart learners. She is also independent and out-spoken, her silent confidence to me is really attractive and admirable.

In a nutshell, I recommend Malaysians to watch this movie and be inspired. I really hope one day a Malaysian author or film producer can write or produce such good quality art work that hopefully can inspire a whole nation of ours. My wet dream.

P/S: For those of you who grew up in the 80s and 90s, probably you would be familiar with the ‘minyak rambut Tancho’ (Tancho hair wax) used in the ‘Bunga Sejora’ scene. My family was big on that during the 90s 😉