The Netflix Indonesian show, ‘Cigarette Girl,’ with a 1960s period setting, presents a story that benefits in equal parts from its central romantic plot and the exploration of the country’s tobacco culture of the time. The show follows a dual timeline spanning two generations, with the titular Dasiyah or Jeng Yah and Soeraja at the center. In 2001, patriarch Soeraja remains on his deathbed when his family learns about Dasiyah, a great love from his past. As such, the story unfolds between the two timelines and delves into the lives of these two characters as Dasiyah faces the societal pressures of being a woman in the nation’s growing Kretek (Indonesian clove-flavored cigarettes) business.
This historical show doesn’t shy away from depicting the genuine discrepancies of the era and focuses on the political and societal aspects of Dasiyah’s story. Simultaneously, it also portrays Indonesian culture and society with an intriguing authenticity that will surely leave viewers wondering if the show harvests inspiration from a true story or not.
Ratih Kumala’s Eponymous Novel
Although ‘Cigarette Girl’ (Originally titled ‘Gadis Kretek’) is not based on a true story, it takes heavy inspiration from reality, given it’s an on-screen adaptation of Ratih Kumala’s 2012 historical fiction novel. As such, even though there’s a lack of real-life inspiration behind the characters and events that unfold in the show, many of the political and social themes explored within the narrative are meant to reflect Indonesia’s history.
The show’s creators, Ifa Isfansyah and Kamila Andini, have a pre-existing relationship with the novel that ended up becoming the source material for this show. Isfansyah initially got the opportunity to read Kumala’s book back when it was still a draft in 2011/2012. At the time, the filmmaker became so impressed with the story that he asked the author to reserve the book for him to make into a film.
When discussing his jumpstarting plans for the story, Isfansyah said, “Initially, I saw this as something for myself to direct. And as a feature film. I’d just finished ‘The Dancer.’ And I started to develop the script.”
Likewise, Andini also remains a fan of the novel, appreciating the strong female lead that it offers even within its historical setting. “I didn’t even know about that profession [devising Kretek falvors] before. I want to portray this character [Dasiyah] not only as a woman from the past but as a woman who is relevant today,” said the filmmaker in a conversation with Variety.
Still, the project initially proved to be a bit difficult to take off, given the immense financial backing it required. “It was not easy because, in the original novel, the story stretches over three eras: Colonialism, Communism in the 1960s and on to 2001,” said Isfansyah. Nevertheless, once the story caught the attention of streaming platforms, it got the chance to emerge from the confines of the director’s mind. In 2018, the project, now a show instead of a film, went into development with Netflix.
The Show’s Historical and Social Prevalence
Kumala’s book, set within timeframes pertinent to the country’s past, goes deep into the political conflict across the nation. As such, the show’s narrative also deals with the historical significance and consequences of the historical events depicted within the book, namely colonialism and communism. These aspects of the show unravel in subtle and more obvious ways, immersing the viewers within its period-piece setting. In doing so, the fictional story mirrors a crucial aspect of reality in providing an authentic account of the past.
Furthermore, the unnamed feminist theme within the novel similarly shines through in the show, as it focuses on the role played by women in the Kretek industry during the 1960s. “The first thing I wanted to highlight is this character of a woman [Dasiyah] with a very rare talent,” said Andini. “I didn’t know that this profession existed. But in many industries, there are talents, and to see a woman having these kinds of abilities, to be able to taste and to smell and [to be] so sensitive about it— it’s amazing, and I wanted the audience to go into her world.”
The character’s world in question brings its own historical significance into the narrative. The tobacco industry has been a cornerstone of Indonesian culture, historically as well as in contemporary times. In current times, about one-third of the country partake in smoking and tobacco consumption in one form or another. Moreover, kreteks remain 88% of the population’s top choice.
As such, in exploring the kretek industry during the 1960s, ‘Cigarette Girl’ brings a prominent piece of Indonesian history to the screen. In order to do so, the film occupies a fictional lens to delve into the historical and political nuances of the time with a certain amount of creative freedom. Consequently, the show becomes a mixture of reality dominated by a fabricated narrative.