Sun, 08 Apr 2001

The Television Star

By Dewi Anggraeni

I watched Bur lean forward on his desk studying the documents I'd given him.

He looked up, and told me he had serious reservations about my proposed cast, especially the person chosen to play Nora Helmer. All of a sudden I became defensive.

"I am the director, Bur!" I said emphatically, "I thought as director it is my task to appoint the cast!"

"True, but as producer I am responsible for the financial viability of this teleplay and I don't agree with your choice for the main character. This is a big issue. We are not talking about a minor role. We are talking about THE role. Think again, Meinar."

I left my chair, straightened my back and started to walk away from the desk, distancing myself from Bur. Though we were separated by a large teak desk, Bur still managed to crowd me in somehow.

We were on the 22nd floor of a grand office building on Jl. Rasuna Said, right in the midst of Jakarta's real-estate golden triangle. Looking out upon the sky-scrapers through the window, I was reminded of how Bur seemed to position himself in relation to the people around him. Height is definitely a giddying drug. I turned around and looked at Bur.

He didn't appear unreasonable. Hidden behind the fancy veneer of a Pierre Cardin tie and a D'Urban shirt, I knew there was a real person with a heart. I walked back to my seat.

"Who did you have in mind, then?" I asked, changing my strategy.

"Paramitha", he answered.

I nodded obediently. "I can see why you thought of her. She is young, lively and pretty, just how anyone would picture Nora."

Bur smiled. "Absolutely," he said.

"And she's lately been in the papers a lot, so she's fresh in the memory of our targeted audience."

"You're getting warm, Meinar."

"Do you want to know why I chose Ria?" I asked him.

"I guess the question crossed my mind. In my valuation, Ria may be easy on the eye, but I'm afraid she's a bit past her prime. At a glance, I estimate Nora to be between 27 and 30. Ria looks at least 37. So why did you cast her in the role? Don't tell me it's because she's your close friend?"

I ignored the slight, because I was concentrating upon how I would elaborate my reasons for choosing Ria.

"Before I translated A Doll's House from its English version, Bur, I read it thoroughly and sought out some of Ibsen's other plays. I believe Ibsen was then experimenting with the concept of women's liberation from the constraints of the rigid European bourgeoisie of the day."

I looked up briefly to see if he was still with me, to make sure that I hadn't offended his somewhat conventional bent. He used to lecture me during the first months of our working together, or more precisely, of my working for him: "The trouble with you Meinar," he used to say, "is that you're too avant- garde. The majority of the population, our audience, is very conventional. If you stray too far from that convention, you'll lose them. We can't afford that!" With such memories flashing before me I continued.

"I see Nora reflected in many of my married friends, even in myself, to be honest. But I find it hard to see Nora in Paramitha. So why Ria? I believe Ria would bring Nora to life brilliantly. Ria, like the character Nora, has a rich, domineering husband, and they are both ugly men, if you ask me." I stole another glance at him. At least Bur was not ugly. "Ria's husband treats her like a brainless twit and shows her around like a trophy.

"Curiously, Ria keeps playing the part to please him. Is it because she loves him? Or because she is too snug, surrounded by material wealth and physical comfort?" I saw Bur smile. "Or is it the effect of a bourgeois society's expectations of a good woman and a good wife, so that she feels obliged to fulfill this role? I don't know. But that's beside the point.

"My estimation of Ria is that, deep down, she longs to break out of that mold. She's an intelligent person, for goodness' sake. And as for her age, Bur, she's slim and certainly looks younger than her age. More importantly, she is a good actor. So Bur, for all of these reasons, I think Ria is a much better choice than Paramitha. You want to give your name and money to a teleplay of high quality, not just a trashy-popular, right?"

Bur didn't speak for what seemed an eternity. He picked up his pen, put it between his forefinger and middle finger, then examined it as if it were engraved with intricate images. Since he had quit smoking, he tended to fidget with his pen in this way. He sat back in his plush office chair and looked out the window. I held my breath for fear of interrupting his thoughts, which I hoped were transforming.

When he shifted his gaze back to me, the look on his face told me I had won. Yet, it turned out that I still had to spend another half hour convincing him, maybe so he would not lose face with an early defeat.

What I hadn't expected was having to persuade Ria that she was the right actor for the role.

"I'm flattered that you thought of me, Meinar. But in all honesty, why me? D'you think I'm playing Nora to Mas Ramli's Torvald Helmer? Is that it?"

I was speechless for a moment or two. Various excuses flitted across my mind, but I decided to be frank with her. After all, we had been close friends for years. "As a matter of fact, you hit the nail right on the head. Yes, that was exactly why I thought you'd be a suitable Nora."

"I noticed you said 'be Nora', not 'play Nora'," she said, when she had recovered from the frankness of my response.

"I didn't decide this to belittle your acting capacity. In fact, I think you're a great actor, Ria. It's just that whenever I see you with Mas Ramli, I always feel as if I am seeing the Ria of 15 years ago, frozen in time. I know that you've grown past that stage. Why you have to play an eternal feather-head to Mas Ramli's tune, I don't know. And I don't want to know. The point is, you are a perfect Nora."

Ria swallowed before looking straight at me.

"Do I have to say yes or no, now?"

"No. But I'd like to know by tomorrow evening," I said, getting up.

She walked with me to my car. As I rearranged the cushion on my seat, I heard Ria sigh then say, "What the hell! I'll take it!"

We hugged and laughed aloud like two schoolgirls. I was relieved and Ria, it appeared, was laughing from a feeling of personal triumph, as if she had just overcome an inward struggle.

On the first day of rehearsal, Ria was as good as I had suspected. Even supporting actors, who had at first been skeptical about her taking the main role, were impressed. Ria had really thrown herself into her character. She didn't show the slightest discomfort at being flirtatious or coming across as a brainless bimbo. Out of the corner of my eye, from time to time, I saw surprised faces from onlookers.

Then, further into the story, Ria's jumpiness and anxiety, while in keeping with her character, were somehow becoming too real. I began to feel uncomfortable. I didn't have the opportunity to talk with her about this because shooting began immediately. Our after-hours were occupied, both of us having to attend to family matters.

The first few sessions went by smoothly, almost without a hitch. The whole team were working very well together, like a dream. Whenever Bur dropped in to check on us there was no need to psyche ourselves to work extra hard, we were at our peak and performing well.

Toward the end of second act the story had it that Nora would have to admit to her husband, Torvald, that in order to save him from financial woe, she had borrowed money from a dubious character, Krogstad. Since her late father, the guarantor of the loan, had been very ill, she had forged his signature to do this for her husband. Nora was sick with worry, and wanted to confide her actions to her friend, Christina Linden. But because they were interrupted this did not happen.

Acting out this scene, Ria was clearly agitated and she was jumbling up her lines. She said things that were not in the script, which threw her co-actors off-balance. Usually directors would tolerate improvised lines, provided they fitted nicely into the story. But Ria's improvisations were completely out of step with the flow of the narrative. We had to repeat the scene several times, and by the fifth retake, Ria, and also Hesri, who played Christina Linden, were very tired and uptight. We decided to cancel the shooting altogether.

Ria burst into tears, and before I had time to talk with her, she had gone. Still bewildered, I dismissed the camera crew and began packing up myself. My assistant whispered to me that Hesri had been waiting to have a word with me. When my assistant had gone, Hesri and I went to a nearby coffee shop and chatted. She told me that she didn't think Ria was well.

"Something about the play must've got to her, Meinar. Poor thing, she's lost the plot. Did you notice when she was supposed to take my hand, inviting me to sit on the sofa with her, she grabbed my arm?"

I sipped my coffee, attempting to recall this scene. "Hmmm. We did so many retakes. But I seem to recall something like that."

"And did you notice she was trembling? You know what, her palm was wet! It threw me off and I got confused. Meinar, you don't think that she actually has done something behind her husband's back, do you?"

"Maybe I should have a quiet talk with her," I said flatly.

"Yes, I think you should."

The following day's shooting would not start until 8 p.m., so I rang her that morning.

"No, don't come here, Meinar. I'll come to your place. Will you be home about three this afternoon?"

But she didn't come. I was too caught up with family activities to follow up the failed appointment. She arrived at the studio just as we were trying the new lighting that the technician had proposed for the scene.

"Meinar, I'm so sorry about this afternoon," she apologized. When she touched my arm I noticed her palm was moist. She looked pale. Was it the lighting?

"Are you OK, Ria? These are very difficult scenes. Are you up to it?"

"Of course. I'll just go the makeup room, Meinar. See you in a few minutes then."

Did I really see her staggering? Still wondering, I shook my head and turned around to resume talk with the lighting technician.

I was fidgeting, and quietly praying that nothing would go wrong this time. This was the part of the story where Nora's husband, Torvald, found out what she had done. And instead of coming to her rescue and defending her honor, he condemns her actions. Nora, who had devoted her life to him, then realizes that Torvald was not really the man she had pictured him to be, despite having been married to him for many years. She now realized that she was hardly aware of the direction her life was taking, for she had exhausted herself trying to please Torvald, to be the kind of wife he wanted her to be.

In one scene, Nora is rushing out of a hall and Torvald stops her, an open letter in his hand.

Torvald: Nora!

Nora: (screams) Oooh!

Torvald: Nora! Do you know what is in this letter?

Nora: Yes. I know. Let me go! Let me pass!

Torvald: (holds her back) Where do you want to go?

Nora: (tries to break free) You shall not save me, Torvald!

Torvald: (lets her go) Is what he writes true? No, no, it is impossible! It can't be true!

Nora: It is true. I have loved you beyond all else in the world.

Torvald: Now, no silly evasions!

Nora: Torvald!

Torvald: Wretched woman! What have you done!

From that point on in the story, things go very wrong. Nora is indeed shocked by the revelation that her husband had just placed the entire blame upon her. But instead of trying to make her husband understand, she despairs at the realization that he only cares about himself and his reputation. Nora, or Ria rather, walked up to Erwin, who played Torvald, and slapped him hard on the face.

"How dare you! How dare you blame me for it! I tried, and God knows I tried, to shield you! But did you stop? Oh no! You were too greedy! You just went on and on! You just kept borrowing even when you knew you no longer had any collateral for the loans! Now you have the nerve to blame me?" By this time Ria was shrieking and clawing at Erwin, who was having difficulty subduing her.

As soon as I recovered from my shock, I yelled "Cut!" and rushed up to Ria and Erwin. Doing this, I broke the spell, and others followed me.

Ria was a sobbing mess, while Erwin, still stunned, checked his face with his hand, then looked incredulously at the smudge of blood he found on his fingers. Someone had rung our doctor friend, who came almost immediately.

Ria was too incoherent to give any explanation, leaving everyone anxiously anticipating a sudden swing in her moods.

"I told you, she's unstable!" I heard someone whisper.

The following morning, I was too tired to get up when Firo left. But soon after, Kiki burst into our bedroom, waving the morning newspaper. "Look at the headline, Mom!" he exclaimed, helping me to sit up.

I took the paper from him, the headline pronounced in bold print, Businessman husband of teleplay star arrested for embezzlement. Underneath was a photo of Ria and her husband at a lavish party. And in smaller print, "I stand by my husband, says Ria Artarini".

"Bless me! Now I understand," I mumbled.

"Understand what, Mom?"

"Never mind, sweetheart," I said, leaving the bed.

On the way to the bathroom, the telephone rang. "Answer it, Kiki dear, please. If it's Bur, tell him I've gone out, and take a message!" I yelled.