Soekarno biopic a $3m labour of love

Mr Raam Punjabi, recalling the time when he was 12 and watched Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, give a speech. The movie mogul was behind the biopic Soekarno (above). -- PHOTO: MVP ENTERTAINMENT
Mr Raam Punjabi, recalling the time when he was 12 and watched Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, give a speech. The movie mogul was behind the biopic Soekarno (above). -- PHOTO: MVP ENTERTAINMENT
Mr Raam Punjabi (above), recalling the time when he was 12 and watched Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, give a speech. The movie mogul was behind the biopic Soekarno. -- PHOTO: MVP ENTERTAINMENT
Mr Raam Punjabi (above), recalling the time when he was 12 and watched Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, give a speech. The movie mogul was behind the biopic Soekarno. -- PHOTO: MVP ENTERTAINMENT

Indonesian tycoon Raam Punjabi has admired Sukarno since he was 12 and wanted to immortalise him on film

You might not have heard of film distributor MVP Entertainment, but if you are a film fan, chances are you will have watched one of its imports.

Recent works include the dramedy Chef (2014), starring Jon Favreau, and the comedy starring John Turturro and Woody Allen, Fading Gigolo (2013). The science-fiction action flick Riddick (2012) featuring Vin Diesel is another example.

Films handled by MVP mostly fall into the category of "big American indies" - larger-budget projects made outside the major Hollywood studios that feature A-list names.

One exception: The biopic Soekarno, about the early life of Indonesia's first president, is not only distributed by MVP Entertainment, but it was also made by a sister company, MVP Pictures.

The film is now screening in cinemas.

Indonesia-headquartered MVP's entry into Singapore five years ago cracked the decades-long dominance enjoyed by film distributors here.

The deep-pocketed house would be competing to buy rights for films to which established players had long enjoyed exclusive access, much to their dismay. But their loss would be the cinemagoers' gain as more distributors also mean more film choices.

The man behind the firm that gatecrashed the party is 70-year-old Raam Punjabi.

Words such as "media magnate" and "movie mogul" are used liberally when his name appears in newspapers and the usage is justified.

The Surabaya-born son of a textile merchant and one of Indonesia's wealthiest people has produced more than 200 movies, starting in 1970, while the television drama segment of the empire is a dominant player in Indonesian soaps.

Across South-east Asia, MVP distributes films and owns cinemas and is looking into film production in the region as well.

Soekarno has been Raam's labour of love, a project into which he has poured US$2.5 million (S$3 million), a sum far in excess of what a typical MVP film would cost.

Watching Sukarno give a speech when he was a child would trigger a lifetime of affection for the independence leader.

"I remember Indonesia's first elections in 1955. I was 12 and living in Surabaya. Sukarno was not only a great orator, but he also had great nationalistic feelings," he says.

He adds: "He did not have to read from a text. The words came to him on the spot.

"Oh my god, he could convert anyone into a follower of him. I was waiting for the right time to produce a movie about this great man."

That desire to immortalise the man on film was so great that a series of lawsuits by Sukarno's daughter Rachmawati Soekarnoputri, 62, failed to deter him.

She had at first been approached for her memories of her father, who died in 1970, but left the project following a row over casting, among other differences.

Raam says he wanted an honest depiction of "this complex man", as he calls the leader, so the film covers the war years, when Sukarno worked with the Japanese occupation forces to procure workers, food and prostitutes, as well as introduces the woman who would be his third wife (and mother of Ms Rachmawati), Fatmawati. Sukarno would go on to marry six other women before his death.

Making a money-spinning horror, action or comedy film is simple, "like hatching eggs", says Raam.

Shepherding Soekarno into the cinemas, however, has been tough because of the large cast, big sets, varied Indonesian locations and legal challenges.

He adds: "I am happy that I did it.

"I gave it 100 per cent of my attention. Satisfaction in life is not only about making money."

johnlui@sph.com.sg

Soekarno is showing in cinemas.

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