Interestingly, characters from different episodes meet in passing but never know they share the same problem. Abah, Salma, and Indri are loyal costumer of Koh Abun’s restaurant. Siti and Pak Lik meet Linda in a narrow alley in the neighborhood.

Ming gives her teddy bear (the doll that Koh Abun ties a wedding ring to in order to propose to her) to Indri’s little daughter.

Salma meets Indri, her “competitor” for the first time in public space at her own event, the initiation of Salma Residences, owned by her husband! A sudden electrical blackout makes Indri’s little daughter cry out for her Abah (dad).

Siti meets Pak Lik's first and second wives the first day she arrives in Jakarta from her village (Ambarawa, in central Java). They already know that Siti is going to be the third wife, but Siti does not have any idea since she's come there to enroll in beauty school. Siti only fully realizes the situation three months later.

Ming, as Koh Abun’s secret wife, meets Cik Linda (and her daughters) in an uncomfortable situation. They angrily invade her house and yell at her. She passes out.

But as first wife, Salma realizes she should open her heart to accept this fact and open her house to all her “competitors” as Abah goes home from the hospital.

At Abah’s funeral ceremony, Salma finds out that Abah had a fourth wife. But…

…as Nadim tells her: "If you are not surprised, neither am I."

When Abah dies and Nadim goes to Aceh, Salma feels fulfilled as a woman, independent of any male character.

As the second episode opens, the mise en scene depicts the poor area where Pak Lik lives.

Even Dwi and Siti think it weird that the wives are living under the same roof.

It is only Siti who feels uncomfortable while Pak Lik proposes to her openly in front of the other wives. Ironically the wives suggest she accept the proposal since they already know Siti is a good, diligent and helpful young woman within the family.

In the wedding ceremony, the wives accompany her. Dwi wipes Siti’s tears.

The wives even support Siti when she faces the wedding night.

Window onto polygamous life

For Indonesian spectators, the film becomes a representation about themselves. If they laugh, they actually laugh at themselves. They can see their own daily life, that of their family, their neighbors, and friends through this film. They are closely related to people who accept and reject polygamy; thus the film moves their emotions.

Siti takes Sri, the first wife, to get birth control. Their doctor is Salma, who has a small clinic for women. They find out that Sri is infected by a “dirty disease” from Pak Lik. Later she finds she and Dwi also have contracted the same venereal disease. Ming, at the end, moves out of the luxurious apartment Koh Abun gave her, and goes by taxi to a slum area. When Ming gets out of the taxi, the very same car is taken by Siti and Dwi, who are escaping to freedom and a life together.

Indonesian films have an unique perspective, history, and point of view. Hence, to explain the impact of this one film, to place it in context, it is worth looking back on some of the trajectory of Indonesian cinema.  One of the important writers in this regard is Salim Said, author of a milestone book, Shadows on the Silver Screen: A Social History of Indonesian Film.

Salim Said discusses the problems audiences have had with nationally produced feature films:

"Moviegoers have complained vociferously about the stories as well as the presentation of Indonesian movies. By combining the gist of the various complaints and criticism, a general description of contemporary Indonesian movies emerges … Considering that the films' basic formula is mostly obtained from foreign movies, 'an Indonesian face' is obviously missing. That is why it is often difficult to accept the appearance of the actors and actresses playing Indonesian personalities. They seem wooden and unconvincing." (Said: 1991, p 3)

Said emphasizes two motivations for filmmaking in Indonesia. The first is geared to commercial gain. And the second is seen in groups motivated by a desire for self-expression who try to portray problems faced by their respective groups. Usmar Ismail, "Father of Indonesian Film," said that his third film, Darah dan Doa (Long March), was the first Indonesian film because “for the first time, a film is done all by Indonesian people, in creative-technique perspective or financial way. And, for the first time, an Indonesian film talked about a national problem.” [13] [open endnotes in new window]

Dinata is one of these few people who try to give expression to the problems of a group. She tries to show a film by a woman to women, a film that is about women. Her goal has been an idealistic one, to depict social "realities." It is then interesting to consider how the film becomes a window into polygamous life and the encapsulation of the lives of three typical women characters. I will apply two concepts from Said.

Said noted that Indonesian film industry has a lack of cultural identity that portrays the problems and social life of the Indonesian people. Yet he has hope:

“Even though Usmar Ismail is dead, the dream of making films that deal with Indonesian problems and issues has not yet completely died in the hearts of other filmmakers. To realize that dream, however, will be an uphill fight because the producers of Indonesian films, whether 'indigenous' or 'non indigenous,' are businessmen who are accustomed to view film only in terms of the potential for commercial gain” (Said: 1991, p 121).

Thus one of the foundations of Dinata's success is that fortunately she has had great producers and shares an idealistic dream with them. She herself has also played a role as producer in some films made by her company, Kalyana Shira Films. So she knows exactly what might be a producer’s point of view.

In doing research about polygamy for two years in order to make her script closer to reality, she first wrote newspaper articles and books on this issue, summarizing all of the pro and contra positions. But Dinata wrote the script from a more personal position, since the experience of doing the interviews made a deep impression on her:

“I also felt the war inside the women’s hearts who had and still do experience the polygamous life of their husbands. Hence, I decided to make three female characters as central characters in this scenario”[14]

Dinata really tries to show a multifaceted depiction of the polygamous reality in Indonesia, which has not only one face — its religious/Islamic purpose — but also another — its impact on real people's lives. Therefore, she developed three characters with three stories. The script is united by the women's inner drive; for even if these three women have different social, economical, and ethnical backgrounds, they have one goal, which is to search for happiness within big city life in Jakarta. And, in the process of searching, they have to live out a daily life within polygamy — which turns out to be three different ways of encountering polygamy, varying according to each character.

As I mentioned earlier, Dinata doesn’t take sides about the subject of polygamy. She just gives the unseen realities. What we see seem like real people, not stereotypes, and their actions rarely conform to our expectations. There are no bad guys in the film. [15] The script just throws out issues about patriarchal society, ones that only a few people take time to articulate and understand.

Salma's story

The old, sick, paralyzed father tries to communicate with his son. For weeks, he can’t speak nor move his body's left side body and just lies in bed. And for the first time, since he got a stroke. Haji Imron, the father, talks to his son Nadim, who takes care of him.

  • “Dim, later when you marry, promise, only one wife”
  • “I can’t believe your first words are about that,” replies Nadim.
  • “Nadim, it’s a terrible mess. Just one…Please?”
  • “Alright. Don’t worry. I don’t even have a candidate yet,” Nadim answers his father.
In the first episode, Nadim, no matter how cynically and critically he thinks about his father, cares for Abah in a devoted and caring way until Abah’s death. And the father's last words warm the son's heart. When Abah gets a stroke, Salma finds out that Abah's taken another wife. Nadim satirically comments, "Finally, Abah’s wish to gather all of his wives together is fulfilled."

Those are the last words of Haji Imron who later dies because of a consequent heart attack. This scene continues with the voice off of Salma, Haji Imron’s first wife.

“There is no trace of anger left in Nadim’s face. His dad left him the most important advice before he died, words that Nadim had longed to hear from his father.”

This scene is near the closing scene of episode one, Salma’s story, which depicts the case of most Indonesian people who live in polygamy, that is, it's based on the practice's religious foundation.  In the script, Abah (the father, Haji Imron), marries for the second time, which he says is for the religious purpose of avoiding adultery. And as a rich national leader and religious man, he can afford to have more than one wife. Salma, finally, accepts such a polygamous life for some reasons of her own. First for her is her religion and the Islamic reason. She even defends her decision and way of life publicly on a television talk show (a very important event for her husband Abah’s political career. “My life runs well. I just go back to my religion and life as a devoted Muslimah,” she says. The second reason she does this, and in a public way, is to maintain her reputation as a professional as well as her husband and family’s name in society.

In the beginning, however, she avoids any interaction with the second wife (later on she learns that Abah has a third wife) until Abah gets sick and all of the wives gather in her house. “I am still learning to open this house’s door sincerely [to the other wives], and also to open my soul and heart.”

The other important character is Nadim, the son, who has become cynical about his dad. Nadim provides the other reason for Salma to accept polygamy, so she can devote her spirit to her life as a mother and to poor people as a doctor and owner of a little clinic. Abah's death becomes the way out for her. She has remained a wife for the rest of her husband’s life, and finally her patience pays off.

It is worth looking more closely at the practice of marriage as depicted in Salma’s story. Salma does not know about her husband’s other wives until she finds out with her own eyes at a public event. How can this happen? Indonesian law has no provision for non-religious civil marriage. Thus, a religious marriage ceremony is a legal requirement in Indonesia. To conclude a religious marriage ceremony, both prospective spouses must be of the same religion. If the fiancée is Muslim, the ceremony is held at the local Kantor Urusan Agama (KUA, the Office of Religious Affairs) that issues a Marriage Book, which becomes the legal evidence of a valid marriage. And a Muslim marriage ceremony does not need to be registered with the local Civil Registry Office.[16] Thus, a couple is legally married when they get married just in an Islamic way.

However, there is also another kind of marriage, called secret marriage practices (an Islamic term is nikah siri, not registered in KUA). It is legal before Muslim or Shariah law, or the couple could get married in another KUA. As long as the requirements are fulfilled, approval from his previous wife/wives is excluded from this regulation according to Islamic law. Abah’s second (and also third and fourth) marriage is closer to the latter practice. Since he is a religious leader, he can keep the marriage secret for a long time. Only later does his second wife appear with both him and Salma in the same public space. Since he is wealthy, he can easily go to a KUA office very far from his first wife’s residence and fulfill all the requirements, and also he has the money to rent his new wife a new house.

In many ways, Salma is a devoted muslimah; on the other hand, she rebels as a wife and lover. She should accept polygamy as a concept. But her heart rejects it. In public space, she defends her husband and polygamy but actually she enacts a quiet rebellion.

Salma always shows her true feelings when she is at home with her husband. She speaks her mind. “Is there anything wrong with me?” Salma cries out at the first time she finds out the truth. But she can’t do anything to change it. Even with her son, she always gives him excuses to validate the fact that she has another “competitor.” “It’s our fate,” she says.

In public space, even when she has lunch with friends, she offers a fake smile. When she appears on a famous talk show on public television, taking up the theme of polygamy, she defends her family. Her and her husband's dignity and the family’s reputation are the most important thing and must be protected from gossip. Since Nadim is the reason she stays strong to live this kind of life, at the end she feels relieved as she lets her son go to Aceh as a volunteer to help tsunami victims:

“I let Nadim fly free as a volunteer. And be liberated from all of absurdity of his past.”

Siti's story

With the second story, we can look inside a representation of polygamous life among poor people; in addition, in this episode, sex is the main purpose for polygamy. Siti comes from a poor family in a rural slum area to live with Pak Lik (the uncle, a distant relative) and his two wives under the same roof. Pak Lik then adds another fourth wife just for the sake of sex. Later on, we find out that he must also have gone to prostitutes for he has contaminated his wives with a venereal disease. Amazingly, the wives live together happily in one house and act as each other’s sisters. This phenomenon compares to Sitoresmi’s statement (on polygamy practitioners) in the DVD documentary: women manage their hearts and minds and keep from jealousy through empathy towards the other wives.

In fact, the children already know that they live in a polygamous family. They chat with the mothers, since they all sleep and live in the same room. Sri’s children call Dwi “Ibu Dwi” (mommy Dwi), and later call Siti as Ibu Siti (mommy Siti). The children draw pictures of the mothers.

When Siti comes to the house, both wives of Pak Lik have already known and understood that she will become the third wife although she does not see that. And they seem happy because Siti is considerate and a good, kind, and helpful girl. Three months later, she realizes that Pak Lik wants to marry her. Since she is totally dependent on her uncle, she accepts his proposal. She just doesn’t feel comfortable refusing such a proposal because the man and his wives are very kind to her. But she doesn’t enjoy her life, not even the sexual part. Siti escapes this problem by loving (and being loved by) Dwi, the second wife. Suddenly she realizes that she is happy and doesn’t want to be under anyone’s shadow or anyone's burden. Thus, with her lesbian lover, she plans to run away. Early in the morning, with Dwi’s daughters, they flee to find a rented house far away from there, but they remain the wives of the same husband.

This story represents the open polygamous life, like Puspo Wardoyo celebrates, but for different purposes. Pak Lik marries Siti (and also, I believe, all of his wives) with an open but modest religious marriage ceremony — there, the second wife even accompanies Siti and helps her to wipe away her tears. There is no problem for the man to do that since the other two wives agree with the marriage. But, interestingly, in contrast with Salma’s husband who is an Islamic cleric who aspires to noble activities, Siti’s husband is a man who thinks that sex is the essence of life and seems to abandon Islamic teachings except for getting his religious, veiled, Aceh girl as fourth wife. In addition Pak Lik has been fooling around outside of marriage and brought back a venereal disease into the household, a kind of disregard that precipitates Siti’s departure.

Does Siti have the spirit to rebel against her situation? As the youngest wife, Siti seems helpful and kind to the entire family — the husband, two wives, and the children. First she just wants to go to the big city to study at a beauty school. But her uncle marries her and that was his original intention. She lives in a peaceful life with this husband and the other two (later, three) wives.

Actually, in psychological terms, she doesn’t like the husband-wife relationship. On her wedding night, when she is supposed to make love for the first time with this official husband, in voice over Siti says: "Tonight is the scariest night in my life." She is just being nice and obedient and does this duty as a wife and family member. She remains the kind, cheerful, and helpful Siti. With a smile on her face, she does the household chores, takes care of all the children pleasantly, and gladly gives her “bedtime” schedule to the oldest wife, who loves to have sex with their husband. In daily life, Siti pretends that nothing's happened and everything is running well.

But really she searches for love, not just sex and desire, but a gentle and warm love. And she finds such love with Dwi, the second wife. This strange feeling becomes stronger when Dwi asks Siti to join her in bed with the husband. After that, in her relation with Dwi, Siti feels pure happiness, which becomes the motive for them to leave the family and search for freedom. In voice over she says:

“I never felt so much joy in my life. No matter how many chores and laundry I have to do, I cherish my days because of sister Dwi. Every chance we got, we’d sneak into the bathroom, our place of salvation, where we release all emotions that have been repressed.”

Go to page 3

To topPrint versionJC 51 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.