To truly transform into her on-screen character of leading lady Dasiyah, Dian Sastrowardoyo avoided meeting her friends, took a break from modern-day sports like tennis and immersed herself in gamelan, traditional Javanese music or classical tunes instead. And she’s not the only A-list name who gave her all in the production and filming process of Gadis Kretek or Cigarette Girl, Netflix’s latest Indonesian period drama which first premiered at the Busan International Film Festival earlier this year. Set against historical events that transpired in the 1960s and a booming kretek (clove cigarettes) industry, the series is the behemoth combinative work of acclaimed directors Kamila Andini and Ifa Isfansyah—telling the story of Dasiyah, who is passionate about concocting the perfect fragrance and taste to a kretek, despite a patriarchal Asian society that deems her unfit for such a task as a woman.
Adapted from the eponymous original novel by Ratih Kumala, the five-episodic narrative also takes its audiences on a time trip: beginning with a conglomerate’s son’s attempt to fulfil the wishes of his dying father—to find Jeng Yah, a tender moniker for Dasiyah. Through his visit to the Kretek Museum, he meets one of the museum’s donors, Arum (Putri Marino) and they go on to uncover the mysterious, suspenseful events of what happened to their respective families in the ’60s by reading a series of intimate letters left behind.
As familial secrets begin to unravel in the modern timeline, it is the bleary-eyed romance of over 30 years past—between Dasiyah and Soeraja (Ario Bayu)—which holds half of the heart of Cigarette Girl. The other half is the liberating deliverance of Dasiyah’s womanhood; of her sacrifice, her struggle and unyielding strength to be more than who she is allowed to be in a time of civil unrest and political strife. A sentiment which was doubtlessly the hope of Andini, when she began work on the epic series: “The one thing I wanted to see was the spirit of Jeng Yah as a woman who’s so ahead of her time and encounters so much in her life.”
In an interview with Vogue Singapore, both directors Andini and Isfansyah join showrunner Tanya Yuson and Netflix Indonesia’s content lead Rusli Eddy to share about how Cigarette Girl came to be.
How did the idea to adapt Ratih Kumala’s novel come about?
Isfansyah: I had read the draft of the book even before it was published, and I told Ratih that I really wanted to adapt it into a film eventually, so she couldn’t give the rights to anyone else. But it was not easy for this to be adapted as a feature film, because the book itself was already so complex. Back then, there were concerns about the budget required and the state of the film industry in Indonesia was also not as developed yet. After sharing it with my producer Shanty Harmayn, she suggested that we should adapt the novel into a series instead so that we could develop and flesh out each character more. With such a strong female character, I also thought that Kamila would be the perfect person to work with on this series.
Through this narrative, you’re also telling the story of Indonesia during that time period. Knowing that Cigarette Girl would reach international audiences on Netflix, did that affect the storytelling in any way?
Yuson: With this being the first period drama from Indonesia on Netflix, there was already the potential to reach people who might not be familiar with the book, with our culture, or with our country. As we were crafting and writing the script, we still kept it very authentic and very close to the spirit of the book. Whilst we did not try to bridge the gap consciously, we were still very aware that if somebody from another country or another culture happened to discover us, there would still be a sense of universality that they would feel from watching the series.
Andini: As a creator, every time I have a script, I never think of it as something that would only be suited to a specific audience. In every creative process, I always want to talk about my story, my people and my culture. The aim would be to always be as authentic as a whole.
The theme of female strength is quite prevalent all throughout, especially with its focus on Dasiyah. What were your hopes for her and how did that translate into how her character was portrayed on screen?
Yuson: The process of adapting any book for the screen is always a tricky experience; you can’t put the book up verbatim because the medium is very different. But of course, the strongest character coming out from the original novel was Dasiyah—even though she was the one who we were trying to search for in the book. During her life, she was the one that actively pushed the boundaries and broke through a male-centred landscape to do what she wanted to do. It’s a very modern theme and struggle and so we took that as the centre when we were writing the script. When Kamila and Ifa came on, they went on to expand the visual language of the world to include a lot of the emotional nuances between the on-screen characters.
Andini: For me, it’s the first time I was working on something that I didn’t write myself. So when I got the script, I tried to find a personal relationship to the book. So my first question was “Who is she? Who is Dasiyah?”. Ultimately, Dasiyah is the woman and subject who lived through Indonesia’s past, and with many stories in Indonesia that touch on the political state of the country at that time, the life of the woman always ends up being quite tragic. Yet I wanted it to go beyond merely accepting the tragedy. I wanted to see her alive as much as possible, and even though Dasiyah isn’t here anymore when we finally meet her, I wanted her to be like a ghost, whose spirit was one we would all remember.
How did you navigate the world-building of the various timelines in Cigarette Girl?
Isfansyah: It was a huge element of our production process. We wanted the contrast but did not want it to look too different; they still had to look like one whole package. The important bridge here were the letters—it was how the story was told and how the emotions were communicated. Kamila and I also discussed the overall colours used; visually, that was how we differentiated the timelines.
Andini: It was like making two different films, and we had to see if we put enough screen time for both. Additionally, in the process, it was also how we came to realise just how tragic the past incidents were. But after discussing it with Putri Marino and Arya Saloka who played Arum and Lebas in the present-day, they handled their scenes with a certain lightness that countered the heaviness of the past. Which helped to balance it overall. It wasn’t just them too, a lot of the cast also made sure to connect their characters across the timelines.
What were the challenges of adapting the novel especially since Ratih Kumala herself played a big part in the process?
Yuson: Even though Ratih was a part of the writing process, she was quite fearless. It’s a difficult thing to change things about your own creation but she was on the same page as us when it came to the approach and knew that we really had to crystallise what the focal point was. She was like: “What’s the spirit of the book? Of the characters?” She was the first one to focus our attention to certain themes, like drawing the parallels between Dasiyah and Raja and the modern-day relationship between Arum and Lebas. It was the cleanest structurally, so that all the other textures of the narrative, such as the political undertones of the book, could be digested more easily.
Watch Cigarette Girl on Netflix now.