Playing Mr President, the playboy

Ario Bayu. -- PHOTO: MVP
Ario Bayu. -- PHOTO: MVPPHOTO: MVP

Indonesian actor Ario Bayu grew up largely unaware of the iconic status of Indonesian independence leader and first president Sukarno.

He spent 11 years of his youth in New Zealand, to which his parents had emigrated and where they run a cafe, before returning to Indonesia at age 19 to seek a career as an actor.

So when fate dictated that he should be given the role of the leader in the biopic Soekarno (in its Indonesian spelling) directed by Hanung Bramantyo, it sparked a flurry of research into the statesman's life as well as legal letters from the former president's daughter, who felt that the actor's years spent abroad disqualified him from playing a national hero.

The 29-year-old actor sighs when the topic of the legal challenge is brought up. It is clear in the telephone conversation with him from his home in Jakarta that he sees the courtroom issues as an annoyance.

"Whatever happened in that aspect of the production, I don't care. Hanung trusted me to play the role in a professional way," says the actor, who adds that he has made a point of staying as far away from corporate matters as he can, as well as having no political leanings.

Bayu was last seen in Singapore as Inspector Imran in the HBO Asia television series Serangoon Road (2013). In the English-language horror film Dead Mine (2012), he was soldier Captain Tino. Soekarno opens in cinemas tomorrow.

Ms Rachmawati Soekarnoputri, 62, younger sister of fifth president Megawati, has fired off several legal claims against the makers, MVP. She had at first been approached for her memories of her father, but left the project following a row over the casting of Bayu.

The producers' lawyers responded by saying that they regretted her departure, but had the right to make the film despite her objections and cast the person they felt was best suited for the part. Director Bramantyo felt that Bayu had the charisma to play Sukarno as a mesmerising speaker as well as a man who could charm nine women into marriage, three of them before he became head of state.

The film, with its large cast, historical sets and multi-location shoots, cost US$2.5 million (S$3.12 million) to make, several times more than an average mass-market film. It covers his life from 1920, when he was a sickly boy, to 1945, when he declared Indonesia's independence from the Netherlands.

It outlines his rise to power and the periods when he was jailed and exiled for pro-independence activities, with attention given to other Indonesian leaders of the time and their role in the movement.

But it also shows Sukarno as a local leader helping Japanese occupation forces secure labourers, food and prostitutes. A focus is also placed on how, as a teacher, he nurtured a romance with a student, Fatmawati (Tika Bravani), while married to second wife Inggit Garnasih (Maudy Kusnaedi).

Bayu says that Sukarno never tried to hide his weakness for the opposite sex, admitting as much in his autobiography. The man was a contradictory, larger- than-life figure, someone who enjoyed the pleasures of life but was also driven by nationalistic pride. The film tries to capture that duality.

Says the actor of Sukarno: "He was very frank, he says in the first chapter that he loves women. He was very colourful, in his own way. One side of him loved his country, and he wanted to liberate it, but on the other side, he was a gentlemanly playboy."

Soekarno opens in cinemas tomorrow.

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