Film religi is an Indonesian cultural phenomenon quite unlike any other in Southeast Asia. It is a film genre that is focused on religion (mainly Islam) and its attendant hot issues like polygamy, deviant prophets, interfaith relations, and global ‘terrorism’. Riding on the popularity of the hugely successful Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love, 2008), a string of copycats followed. Mainly love stories, these films work on variations of the single, but winning formula: boy meets girl, a conflict that potentially drives them apart, conflict resolved, and the boy and girl live happily ever after.
However, the love story in film religi do have differences from the typical Hollywood romantic narrative; the couple do not hold hands on screen, nor do they kiss, and the female romantic lead who ends up with the guy is the one who wears the jilbab.
After spending the last few months watching many films back to back for my Ph.D. research, certain female stock characters that seem to reappear in different films became difficult to ignore. As stock characters in film religi, it appeared that their role involves more than being instruments of hetero-normativity—their purpose is to define the genre itself. Today and tomorrow, I’ll examine the women of Indonesia’s film religi.
Who: Aisyah in Syahadat Cinta (The shahadah of love, 2008) and Sarah in Kiamat sudah dekat (Judgment Day is nigh, 2003)
Both films, Syahadat cinta and Kiamat sudah dekat share many similarities: both deal with a born-again Muslim man who falls for a religious young woman. The main female lead plays the role of reformer, someone who persuades the wayward male lead into following a more Islamic way of life and who in the end doubles up as the love interest. In other words, she is the “reward” for the pious man, whose heart he wins at the film’s climax.
The reformer is usually the daughter of an kyai (religious teacher) or the principal of an Islamic school (pesantren) and herself the ultimate model of Islamic femininity: soft-spoken, impossibly polite and proper. The romantic male leads tend to be wealthy, out of control, and obnoxious (such as in Syahadat cinta) or a rock-and-roll musician who is in serious need of de-Westernization (Kiamat sudah dekat).
Who: Pricilia in Syahadat cinta (2008) and Maria in Ayat-ayat cinta (2008)
Sometimes a love triangle is included in a romantic film religi. And, to spice things up, a Christian love interest sometimes shows a substantial interest in the Muslim male lead. Apart from being beautiful, she is an exemplar of her faith, as she is often seen throughout the film in prayer, reciting something from the Bible, or making favorable comparisons between Christianity and Islam. Despite having embraced Islam, however, the convert never becomes the love interest who lives happily ever after with the male lead; she either dies, as in Ayat-ayat cinta, or is politely rejected by the man she loves in Syahadat cinta.
Who: Aisha, the niqabi with beautiful eyes in Ayat-ayat cinta (2008) and Anna Althafunnisa, the studious Al-Azhar graduate in Ketika cinta bertasbih (When love is an act of devotion, 2009).
In most romantic dramas, we have the impossibly perfect female lead, which I will designate as “the ideal.” She is fresh in her twenties, conventionally beautiful, highly educated, adored by everyone, but rather boring. They are also the object of affection of equally religious and educated men. There is nothing to suggest that “the ideal” lacks in any way, although they briefly encounter conflict and anguish (polygamy in Ayat-ayat cinta, and AIDS in Ketika cinta bertasbih), which they will triumph over with the convenient help of their love interest.
Who: Anissa in Perempuan berkalung sorban (The woman in the headscarf, 2008) and Anna Althafunnisa in Ketika cinta bertasbih (2009)
Divorce is treated with sensitivity in film religi, but the implicit message that it is far from desirable, and only necessary under very extreme circumstances—like domestic abuse in Perempuan berkalung sorban, or a husband suffering from AIDS in Ketika cinta bertasbih. Although AIDS is treated as a marital disaster of gargantuan proportions, what is striking about the issue of divorce in film religi is it is initiated by the female lead, who successfully sets the terms in the relationship—particularly Anna in Ketika cinta bertasbih, who imposes a ban on her husband-to-be from taking another wife during their marriage.
Who: Dona Satelit in 3 Doa 3 Cinta (3 prayers 3 loves, 2008) and Eliana in Ketika cinta bertasbih (2009)
The “tease” in film religi does not serve much of a purpose, except as cinematic eye-candy or the object of temptation that the male lead uses to prove his religiosity and moral restraint. Prime examples of “the tease” appear in 3 doa 3 cinta and Ketika cinta bertasbih. They are never contenders in the competition for the male lead’s heart and are often sidelined when the “real” romance between the religious couple develops. Sometimes they “see the light” and don the jilbab, as in Ketika cinta bertasbih. Or, as in 3 Doa 3 cinta, “the tease” continues unreprimanded and bumps and grinds on stage to the hugely popular dangdut music.
The recurring patterns of female roles in these films are unlikely to be scripted by accident. These films deliver specific messages about what counts as an idealistic representation of Islamic youth—Muslim women in particular. The women serve as markers of cultural boundaries of what is good and bad about Indonesian faith politics today. For example, Christian women are portrayed as a sympathetic bridge in Christian-Islamic relations: they can marry Muslim men without too much of a fuss, as long as they are pious and show a positive attitude towards Islam. “The tease” is the perfect foil for “the ideal” to demonstrate the contrast between what is acceptable femininity (and thus what is marriageable) from what is undesirable femininity (that somehow needs to be reformed). The heroic but sensitive tribulations of “the divorcee” personify Indonesian society’s changing attitudes toward divorce in that it is necessary and un-stigmatising. Though being divorced is seen as an unfavorable state of affairs, this is quickly ameliorated by a second, much happier marriage in film religi.
Indonesian cinema is an exciting discursive space that reflects and engages with the public’s current political and religious hopes and fears. What makes it particularly compelling and often daring is the artistic and political freedom that film-makers are given to tell stories about Islam in Indonesia today. Despite their “functionistic” roles in these films, the female characters effectively embody the dynamism of Muslim women who rarely feature in global discourses on Islam. My hope as a Southeast Asian Muslim woman is that we have a bigger space and better represented in this discourse, and I think film religi is a great medium for attaining this goal.