Jakarta from inside the Taksi: up in the clouds, yet grounded
THE YEAR IS 1990. The New Order regime was at its height, and the drama of the glittering economic development had turned millions pairs of eyes fixated on the entity called ‘the city,’ especially Jakarta. While previously hundreds of literary works and films recorded voices of the village and made a passing reference to ‘the city’ as the origin of decadence and a target of criticism, now it was the time when the city took center stage. This was the time when the “Jakarta-centric” perspective became prevalent.
It was also in that year that a movie titled Taksi (Taxi) achieved something that to this day is considered rare: success in terms of its quality and earnings. Having reaped six Citra awards, including that of the Best Film category, Taksi can certainly be considered as the yardstick for the quality of films at the time. We can then rather cheekily ask ourselves: Where does Taksi stand? Which ‘voice’ does it record in its narrative, and how does the film document the historical traces of the city space in Jakarta?
THE STORY OF THE JAKARTA VILLAGE
The story might only take place in Jakarta, or it might not. Once, after two years of living with his aunt, Giyon (Rano Karno) eventually felt ill at ease. The unemployed university graduate resolved to take his leave, leaving his paklik and bulik, renouncing the comfortable-but-unavailing life to move into a ‘life more lively’. Two years is obviously not a short time for a rebel like Giyon, who deliberately chose to study in the Faculty of Philosophy because he liked it, although he ran the risk of being later unemployed (Picture 2). How could he tolerate the ineffectual two years? Perhaps the only reason is that because he (and naturally his paklik and bulik) are Javanese. But no matter how truly a Javanese Giyon is, he can no longer follow the wish of his feudal elders who wanted to decide for him his companion, career, rank, and position in the society. To him, it is all a mere mask, suffocating him. (Picture 3)
What kind of life that he chooses, then, which he considers “more lively”? He opts to stay on the road, become a taxi driver, to meet a variety of people. (Picture 4)
The road, like it or not, has become the only thing that signifies a communal life in Jakarta. All along the New Order period, the space in which the Jakarta urbanites live has been categorized and separated into boxes and groups where the residents might have a sense of comfort and safety, while at the same time ignoring the ‘solvent medium’ that should actually take the form of a public or communal space. As a result, we are left only with the road as the communal space. It is a space that is perhaps not a true communal space, but a contesting space. Fortunately, Karsono Hadi’s superb editing is able to present the road as a place that can also be rather poetic, curing our allergy a little bit.
It is not incidental if in his journey Giyon tends to be rather romantic and poetic in dealing with the road on which he spends his life. Bear with him; he is a graduate of philosophy, and the director, Arifin C. Noer, is a literary author and playwright.
In no time, Giyon’s desire to engage with life bears fruit. One of his customers, Desi (Meriam Bellina), carelessly leaves her baby in the taxi, leaving Giyon fumbling with the child. Thence begins Giyon’s close relationship with Desi and his struggle to understand her complex character, which never fails to confound him. Giyon is repeatedly forced to tolerate Desi’s reckless acts and takes the baby to his cramped rented room behind the tall buildings. It is also from such occasions, however, that Giyon has the chance to take a glimpse into the complexity of the sought-after ‘life more lively.’
Desi, on the other hand, is starting her career as a singer and encounters her own bumps along the road: the venal world of business, full of hypocrisy and lies. Then there is also the problem she has with her mother who wants to rule her life; the music producer who presses her to lie; and the ghost of the past who goes by the name of Raymond, the father of her child who flees from her.
TALKING OF JAKARTA?
Let us pose the direct question: Does Taksi talk about the actual problems of Jakarta?
The biggest problems in Taksi arises from Arifin C. Noer’s tendency to use dialogues that—quoting Eric Sasono—has a tinge of “pamphletism.” The characters sound so profound when they talk, so witty and clever, so much so that we, Indonesians as we are, find it difficult to believe that commoners can actually speak like that in their day-to-day life.
Giyon’s intellect as a taxi driver is understandable as he is a graduate of philosophy. But it is rather difficult to accept the hesitant robber who wavers when trying to rob Giyon. Where can we find a common robber (well, better not, if we can help it) who can quote Hamlet, “To be or not to be?” The scene is funny, and might actually be profound, but it is clearly creating a distance from the reality. (Picture 5)
Arifin C. Noer seems to be more interested in exploring the issue of the search for identity among the characters in the movie rather than concentrating on the city space. The problem is rather philosophical in nature, rarely discussed in everyday life, so much so that in telling his story, Arifin has to walk the wobbling passage between realism and theatrical. Had he wanted to stay committed to the realist approach, how could he insert the poetic and clever dialogues? If he wants to be theatrical and reflective, on the other hand, can we then say that Taksi is representative of the reality in Jakarta?
Interestingly, though, the answer is yes. The fact is, no matter how philosophical the struggle is, it will not arise without the background reality, which is found in the form of the environment, the living space, the social conditions, and the spirit of the era (zeitgeist), all serving to shape the individual. In Taksi, traces of such societal significations can still be seen easily, albeit not clearly exposed. We can see them all from the choices that Arifin C. Noer has made regarding the selections for the spatial and temporal background for his story.
THE TEMPORAL BACKGROUND
There are at least three markers that we can clearly see pertaining to the period of time in which the story of Taksi takes place. First, Jakarta in 1989 – 1999 was a city that had determined its path. During the eighties, the development in the nation was increasingly focused on Jakarta and fixated on the financial welfare. This could be seen in the mushrooming office buildings. To use the metaphors from the railway realm, the President had determined the shunt for the locomotive that we called Indonesia, and the track had been preordained.
Unfortunately, it is precisely such type of development that alienates the humans, turning them into economic animals (with a penchant for social status). Such servitude to economic development has made the era become increasingly soulless. As a result, people lost interest in the arts and humanities. Who among us would fail to remember how those of us who were enrolled in the “Physics” or “Biology” (or later, the Science) class were considered smarter and brighter than those who were ‘cast off’ in the “Social” (or Humanities) class. It was a real blunder. Not surprisingly, therefore, Giyon stayed unemployed at the time.
Like Eric Sasono has observed, Jakarta at the time was no longer bluntly confronted in the movies; rather, films tend to comment on the city, or make a parody out of it. The restriction on dissenting perspectives notwithstanding, it seems that there was also a rather pessimistic view that Jakarta had chosen its path anyway.
Perhaps that was also why Taksi preferred to look critically only at the people. Arifin C. Noer acted like a passenger on a train who was aware that the train had taken a wrong course. Along with a few other passengers, he was anxious and tried to voice his concerns. At that time, however, the conductor and his staff would strike him if he dared to ask them about the direction they were taking, not to mention protesting them. That was simply a non dit. It would disturb the stability, as it were. Arifin thus chose to tell stories to his fellow passengers, taking a critical view on them—and it so happened that they shared a similar belief with the conductor and train engineer.
At a glance, it would seem that the depiction of Jakarta is rather universal in nature: the film talks about a city that increasingly dehumanizes its residents. One does not need, therefore, the clichéd portrayal of Jakarta landmarks such as the National Monument (Monas) and others of that ilk. It is enough to capture the worsening traffic jams, the tall office buildings, and the urban villages behind the imposing buildings. (Picture 6)
Second, it was the era when Indonesia was gearing toward the take-off, all efforts were mustered in order to “catch up with the backwardness”—“mengejar ketertinggalan.” Today we can only see too late how mistaken that aspiration had been. Still, that was just the zeitgeist of the time. Even names were given following the exemplary style of the West. Then there is also an interesting observation made by Krisnadi Yuliawan, the editor in chief of Rumahfilm.org, saying how problems of education are often solved in Indonesian films by “going abroad,” becoming graduates of foreign universities, and the like (Catatan Si Boy is a case in point). In this film, Arifin C. Noer turns that view upside-down, and simultaneously uncovers the hidden motivation behind the flight aboard. It turns out that the decision to go abroad is not merely to acquire knowledge from foreign lands, but more often it is taken to avoid social punishments from within the country. This is what happens to the character of Raymond, who goes abroad precisely because of his cowardice and wishy-washiness. In essence, he is truly “taking off”—to flee, that is.
Third, the characters are aware about the mass media. One interesting thing is that in Taksi the story is often moved—sometimes forward, other times sideward—by news stories. Giyon’s friends teased him because of a news story that says he received money from Desi; accordingly, Giyon goes to tell Desi off because of that news story. His aunt tries to find him all her might because she reads the news that Giyon is involved in child trafficking. Raymond comes home to Indonesia as he reads the news that Desi is not taking care of her baby.
In the midst of the dearth of reading habit, all this might seem rather strange. Does the director again presume that the public are smarter than they really are? Perhaps it is precisely the contrary. Here is a serious blow to the press at the time. Let us for a moment ignore the fact that the reason why the media covers Desi so much is perhaps because she has become an artiste, a public entertainer. As for the great size of the reading public, this might be thanks to the program to fight against illiteracy and the “Newspaper in the Village” program that had been intensely promoted since the early eighties.
Still, there was an extreme lack of critical attitude; one of the reasons was because it was a big no-no. This was even clearly spelled out in the Decree of the Minister of Information, saying that a cynical attitude toward the development of the country is not allowed. Such a restriction automatically forces the public, who were not used to think critically, to believe that what they read is sabda pandhita ratu (the king’s order). It might be too far to relate this with what we see in Taksi. What is clear, however, is that in the movie the people truly believe what they read on paper, although, as Desi herself repeatedly shouted, that is all merely a “statement from the producer.”
Ah, Jakarta in the midst of the glittering economic welfare. What else do we first see if not the mushrooming tall buildings and the ubiquitous traffic jams? Ironically, the tall buildings in Taksi are also where all the lies and deceits take place, from and among the people who have lost their ethics, who simply go where the stream of the economic development takes them.
Second, also depicted are the luxurious villas in the mountain. One can sense in the narrative that the villas are used as a hiding place, like an escapist throne, where Raymond hides even after he has the courage to return to Indonesia. Do those “fragrant people” reflect on their actions here? Even if that is the case, they still do it in a safe place, comfortable, up in the clouds, away from the lively lives of the commoners.
Third, there are the urban villages right at the heart of the city. It is portrayed here that in his journey to experience the life more lively, Giyon lives in an urban village that has found its shape wildly and organically among the tall buildings. There we can see the everyday lives of the urban commoners who are forced to tumble about in their struggle to overcome the hard life in the capital city, yet still display the characters that one often associates with pastoral living and are therefore longed for: honest, helpful with one another, but also snoopy and biased.
Fourth, the most special spatial background here is none other than the space within the taxi itself. The taxi constitutes a tiny piece of space shaped to ensure the safety and comfort in the movement of the urbanites. Apparently those two things are so difficult to find in the chaotic city, to the extent that an extra effort to ensure their availability is deemed necessary. The police go out of their way to conduct a special operation specifically to secure the cabs, while the damri, kopaja, and metromini buses are left being the domain in which the robbers operate.
A safe space, however, is not without its cost. Of course we have to pay more and voluntarily incarcerate ourselves, isolating ourselves from the road spaces that we invariably feel as threatening and uncomfortable. A further consequence is that the safe space keeps us sterile from the influence of the reality out there. From my personal experience of using the taxi, I sense that this semi-private space has been more or less used for a relatively safe respite by the two parties: both the driver and the passenger(s). This enables the semi-private spaces of the two parties to overlap, and allows interactions to take place on a rare personal level, although this often depends on the persons involved.
In the movie Taksi, therefore, the cab constitutes one of the last remnants of a safe and isolated space in the urban jungle; a space that still holds the potentials for dynamic movements and personal encounters, no matter how rare. The taxi space in Taksi brings together the two alienated individuals; one undergoing a voluntary personal exile (Giyon), while the other is estranged with all her burdens (Desi). It is from the interactions between such alienated people that thousands of stories emerge. The choice of the subject of the taxi can be considered as a deliberate choice, made with the awareness about the potentials of these tiny spaces. This is an apt choice. From the meeting between the two estranged creatures, this story was born.
AND THE FINAL WORDS…
So, does Taksi actually talk about Jakarta? The film, although sometimes goes up and away into the clouds with philosophical musings and minuscule details about the search for identity, actually remains grounded in the everyday life of the environment that binds the individuals. By dispensing with the typical Jakarta icons, Arifin C. Noer tried to make the individual experience in an alienating city something universal. His thorough spatial and temporal explorations of Jakarta have precisely enabled him to reveal the true character of the city (at least of its time) without having to present the picture of the National Monument or the Hotel Indonesia roundabout.
What’s more, Arifin C. Noer’s mastery in dealing with the story, the actors, and the dialogues makes Taksi enjoyable. All of a sudden, we can accept the deep and thoughtful dialogues of the characters, because they are nice to hear anyway. One can even forgive the Hamlet-quoting robbers, because we still laugh at him. This, perhaps, is a good example of a risky effort with positive results. By believing that his audience is smart, Arifin ran the risk of making his film a commercial failure, but it turned out that his audience accepted his effort warmly.
At the end of the day, one can view Taksi as an important note for Jakarta, because although it has no wish to utter the name of “Jakarta” loudly, it silently records the soul of Jakarta in details and conveys the stories of the residents that struggle in its jungle. This is the story that strives to maintain its critical outlook before a range of fictional narratives in Indonesian are swallowed by the Jakarta-centric surge.
As if aware of the fact that his note constitutes an unfinished effort, at the inconclusive end of the story (which is truly rare for Indonesian films!), the director depicts Giyon and Raymond wondering where they should go. Hopefully, it is not a tardy question for the current era.
Jakarta, June 2009
Translated by Rani Elsanti
IFAN ADRIANSYAH ISMAIL. He claims of being a diaspora member. Although he was born only thirty years ago, on October 16, 1979, and has lived in merely four cities (Malang, Surabaya, Bandung, Jakarta), he dares asserting that he is a rover. This is more because from the four cities, not one was able to make him feel at home. This might be because he is a free man; or perhaps he is simply homeless. Understandably, he keeps numerous jobs and keeps on moving around, from one place to another. He has written screenplays for a TV comedy show for four years. Today, he teaches screenplay writing and comic script writing at the Akademi Samali and is the youngest editor at Rumahfilm.org. Now he adds another title to his line-up of jobs: a columnist at the Karbonjournal.org, coming to meet you every month.
Picture 1. Giyon (Rano Karno) in Taksi (Arifin C. Noer, 1990).
Picture 2. When Giyon is packing as he prepares to leave her aunt’s place.
Aunt: “A graduate of philosophy will find it hard to find a receptacle where he can live comfortably.”
Giyon: “I’m not water, aunty, I’ll find a way. I don’t need receptacles.”
Picture 3. An insert of a picture between the scenes when Giyon is leaving his
aunt’s place. This is an attribute that, some believe, putting a definite stamp on
the owner’s forehead with the writing “feudal.”
Picture 4. Giyon talks to a friend he lives with after he leaves his aunt’s place.
“If I want, I can be anything. […] But I’m sick with all the ranks, positions, and all
those things.” Then, “Farewell, words. I’m entering an itinerant life on the cab,
becoming a witness.”
Picture 5. The scene of a hesitant robber who decides not to rob. Giyon even refuses
payment when the robber tries to pay him for his ride. It is at the end of the scene,
only in this film, can we find an Indonesian robber who can quote Hamlet,
“To be or not to be.”
Picture 6. Where’s the Monas? There is no Monas seen from the window of
Giyon’s cab all along the film.
Picture 7. The first official introduction between Desi and Giyon,
in Giyon’s rented room.
Desi: “Call me Desi, Bang.”
Giyon: “Bang. Exactly. When one has only sweat and muscles, one is called ‘Bang.’
Brother. Cab brother. Noodle brother. Oil brother. No bother.” (Desi laughs.)
Picture 8. Giyon comments on Desi’s treatment to Ita, her child. “You let yourself
enter the venal business trappings? You leave yourself go up into the clouds with
the dreams rife with all the fake and disgusting things, and you say it’s for Ita’s sake?”
Picture 9. Desi: “It’s so hard. Everything is for Ita…
but it’s Ita who becomes the victim, too.”
Raymond: “Because I read in the magazine that you deny Ita as our child.”
Desi: “Ita is my child, not our child.”
Raymond: “And the two of you are alone in that room.”
Desi: “Don’t act as if you know everything about others. The humble man has saved
me and Ita. He’s a driver who really knows where to take his passengers!”
At the end of the inconclusive story, nearing the end of the movie,
Raymond and Giyon departs from Raymond’s villa in the mountain,
trying to find Desi who has left them.
Giyon: “I’m not coming with you, really. So, if you don’t mind,
please drop me off first somewhere.”
Raymond: “To the office?”
Raymond: “Home, then?”
Giyon: “I’ve no home.”
Raymond: “To the cab station?”
Giyon: “I don’t think so.”
Raymond: “Where, then?”
* All pictures and quotes are taken directly from the movie Taksi
(Arifin C. Noer, 1990) in VCD format (Karyamas Vision, 2006),
by Ardi Yunanto and Ifan Ardiansyah Ismail.
 ‘Paklik’ is short for ‘Pak Cilik’, which is how a Javanese calls the younger brother of his or her parent. ‘Buklik’, meanwhile, is short for ‘Ibu Cilik’, the younger sister of one’s parent.
 The depiction of the Javanese royal umbrella and lance seems to be representative of “feudalism.” Some might feel offended by such associations; but perhaps such taking of offense precisely affirms how feudalism is still strong within our community.
 “Mengejar ketertinggalan”, which literally means “catch up with the backwardness,” is a term that has often been uttered since the New Order regime, and went hand-in-hand with the term of the “tinggal landas” or the “take off.” The linguistic inaccuracy with the term—“catch up with the backwardness” instead of “deal with the backwardness”—remains as only few people realize it.
 Decree of the Minister of Information No. 203, in the year 1979.
 “Orang-orang wangi” or literally “fragrant people”—to borrow a term from the writer bubiN Lantang.
 The police have conducted an operation to fight taxi-related crimes by disguising as taxi drivers. “Detektif Taksi?” (Taxi detectives?), Tempo magazine, 05/05 edition, April 5, 1975.
 Because in reality the two parties often keep their distance by not talking to each other, for example.