Singer/songwriter Rhoma Irama is known as the king of the style of Indonesian pop music known as Dangdut. Not only was he the first to popularize the term "Dangdut" (an onomatopoetic rendering of the Indian-style tabla rhythms common to the music), but he was also the first to introduce Western rock influences into its sound. Perhaps most important among his many contributions to the genre was his transformation of Dangdut from a vessel for soppy romantic duets into a medium of protest, a bold move that saw Irama, throughout his heyday during the 1970s and 80s, repeatedly receiving the unwanted attentions of the authoritarian Indonesian government. This, combined with his outspokenness on behalf of Dangdut’s primarily poor and working class audience, earned him the image of a people’s hero. As a result, it’s not too surprising that, in a country with a seemingly insatiable appetite for such figures, his popularity would translate into a film career as the hero of dozens of custom crafted star vehicles produced between the mid 70s and early 90s.
Dangdut’s sound draws upon a number of international influences, probably the most immediately recognizable for readers of this blog being that of Bollywood film music. In keeping with that, Irama’s 1990 film Jaka Swara also follow the template of Hindi films somewhat, in that the action frequently stops for Irama and his co-star, fellow Dangdut singer Camelia Malik, to give voice to their feelings via song (all of which songs are composed by Irama). At the same time –- and as the participation of prolific Indonesian exploitation director Lilik Sudjio might indicate –- Jaka Swara also forefronts the violent, heavily Hong Kong influenced martial arts mayhem typical of Indonesian action films of its day. In fact, with his titular character Jaka Swara, Irama seems to be styling himself as a counterpart to Indonesian action god Barry Prima’s oft revisited populist hero Jaka Sembung.
But whereas Prima’s Jaka Sembung stood up for the common folk against the depredations of the tyrannical Dutch, Irama’s Jaka Swara takes on an equally vicious European interloper in the form of the dastardly Portuguese. Portugal was the first European country to reach Indonesia, back in the 16th century, and its settlers went on in the ensuing years to establish forts and outposts throughout the country, as well as to colonize neighboring East Timor. How accurate Jaka Swara’s depiction of their treatment of the locals is I’m not sufficiently researched up to say, but the choice of them as villains, along with the 16th century setting, certainly provides the opportunity for some flamboyant costuming –- not to mention an employment of elaborate facial hair to disguise Southeast Asian actors as Europeans that will be familiar to anyone who saw Prima’s initial Jaka Sembung film The Warrior.
Jaka Swara takes further cues from Hindi masala cinema by offering up a plot of the classic “lost and found” variety. When young Fatma’s parents are murdered by the Portuguese, she is taken in my Haji Abdullah, himself a courageous fighter and father to the young Jaka. Jaka and Fatma quickly form a close bond, which Abdullah commemorates by giving each half of an interlocking necklace. (Plot point!) Abdullah then runs afoul of the evil Portuguese officer Da Costa, who kills him after a furious sword battle, though not before Abdullah manages to sever Da Costa’s hand. Da Costa and his men then murder Jaka’s mother and set fire to his home before forcibly taking Fatma along with them. Jaka, returning from the fields to find his parents dead and his house in ashes, assumes that Fatma has died in the fire. He also finds Da Costa’s severed hand, which he keeps.
Time marches on, and we see that Fatma -- now, as an adult, played by Camelia Malik -- has become a dancer for the pleasure of Da Costa and his sadistic son Simon (Simon Cader?). Jaka, meanwhile, has spent the intervening years diligently training in martial arts, and is now played by Rhoma Irama. Finally, the inevitable day comes when Jaka has reached his peak skill level, and his master sends him out into the world to right wrongs. First stop for Jaka is the hiding place in which he has stashed the severed hand of his parents’ killer, which he retrieves in hopes of tracking down the owner, whom we the audience know to be the now hook-handed Da Costa.
Mind you, Jaka doesn’t have to look all that hard. First, he reunites with Fatma after rescuing her from one of those runaway carriages that seem to plague so many Bollywood heroines (and which seems like a period play on the hoary “woman drivers” stereotype; perhaps simply grabbing the reins rather than clutching at one’s face in terror as the horses run rampant might solve the problem). No sooner have the two compared neck adornments and celebrated their reunion in song than they are come upon by Da Costa, whom Jaka taunts with his missing appendage before killing him after a brief battle. This does not put an end to the couple’s troubles, however, because Jaka is soon captured and imprisoned by the vengeful Simon. What follows is a pageant of martyrdom that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Prima’s Jaka Sembung films, with Jaka Swara being starved and tortured to the point of death by his captors before finally, in an act of righteous fury, exploding free of his chains by way of sheer will and brute physical force. (Fans of Bollywood, see: Singh, Dara.)
Similarities aside, one of the notable ways in which Jaka Swara differs from the Jaka Sembung films is in the down-to-earth nature of its action. Absent are the copious wire effects and animated auras of the latter, as is any suggestion of Jaka Swara having any kind of mystical powers (barring his repeated ability to benefit from some fairly unlikely coincidences). Instead what we get is a lot of fairly straightforward empty handed fighting, mixed in with the occasional swordplay, which results in the film being a pretty interesting hybrid of equal parts Hong Kong and South Asian cinematic elements. For those of us more accustomed to musical crossover fare like Cool as Ice or From Justin to Kelly, this might make Jaka Swara seem like an unlikely type of screen vehicle for a pop star. Luckily, however, Irama, as a physical type, is a rocker more in the vein of Danzig or Jon Mikl Thor than Thom Yorke, and, as such, is able to convincingly embody the imposing physicality necessary to the role, and even appears to often be doing his own fighting.
As for Irama’s acting, while he doesn’t embarrass himself in the least, he definitely benefits from the musical aspect of the film, as it is through his songs and singing that we are most able to connect with his character. Of course, it doesn’t help that said character is an archetype whose footsteps are so heavily trod in that portraying him is little more than a well diagrammed progression from point “A” to point “B”. At the same time, however, Barry Prima -- by way of his unique, wild-eyed intensity -- was able to put his individual stamp on the similarly archetypal Jaka Sembung, setting a bar that Irama here falls fairly short of.
In this regard, I think it’s instructive to note that, in other of his films, Rhoma Irama was cast simply as… Rhoma Irama. This fictionalized/idealized version of the singer took part in heroic adventures in a manner not dissimilar to the “real life” wrestling stars of Mexican lucha films. Given that, I imagine that the original audience for Jaka Swara was simply paying to see the beloved King of Dangdut put down his guitar and kick a little ass, with little interest in watching him transform himself through the craft of acting. I also imagine, given the wealth of outsized heroics, gory brawls and head bopping musical numbers on display within the film, that said audience left the theater well satisfied.