Tabula Rasa: cuisine as a connection
One reason to feel blessed to be born Indonesian is Padang cuisine, my friend once said. For me, a Jakartan whose ancestry never goes back beyond my grandma’s occasional Javanese chitchat, those gulai otak (cow brain curry — don’t comment until you try) reminded me of my childhood better than the rawon or tongseng which cultural identity is getting diluted into regional variations. Even now, with every bite into the soft yellow tofu-like substance, I would drift into these lazy Sunday afternoon where my parents came home with some takeaway Padang food that seemed like a tastebud goldmine. It’s a piece of nostalgia that I could relive almost everywhere with a yellow-red Minang house sticker — perhaps, this “nationally recognized” experience is what drove Adriyanto Dewo and his crew to create what is arguably the first Indonesian culinary film.
To put Tabula Rasa into a genre box called “culinary film” doesn’t mean to play down whatever else happened in the 107 minutes the screen was alive. Much of the story’s cultural diversity are grounded in the metropolitan known as Jabodetabek, the “nobody’s hometown”, with Hans (Jimmy Kobogau) as a homeless youngster from Papua whose once bright footballing future was ruined by his broken leg (and of course, the not-named club that threw him out is to blame). It’s a message severely implied through his limp: Jakarta is a perpetual machine, and those not prepared to adapt will just get shredded away. “What can’t you find in Papua?” his foster mother once said back home, but even with his plans in ruins, Hans is not prepared to return home with failure in his hands. Fortunately, he was saved from ending his life thanks to a classic case of Indonesian hospitality: Mak (Dewi Irawan) found him and brought him home to the Takana Juo, a Padang restaurant tended by her together with Natsir (Ozzol Ramdan) and the cook Parmanto (Yayu Unru). From this point on, the story is bilingual (and even trilingual) through Parmanto grumbling in Minangese and Hans’ Papuan flashback with his foster family. The four woke up at dawn to prepare food and closed the shop after the sun had set, an exhausting but necessary ritual to keep the cash flowing and the pride of Padang cuisine alive.
The enjoyably lengthy scenes of cooking in the very traditional kitchen of Takana Juo were more of a catalyst of things to come, since the hardheaded Parmanto felt his help is no longer needed and decided to move across the road to become the main cook at the fancy new Caniago restaurant (an adage to the ubiquitous Sederhana restaurant), which was a tough decision: in true “merantau” (wandering) spirit, the three of them have built Takana Juo from scratch after they left their hometown due to the 2009 West Sumatera earthquake that costed Mak her son. Following their daily ritual suggest that their moving was more of a necessity than a passion, considering they seem to led fairly normal lives back home. How many Minangese have left their homes for similar reasons, and how are they doing now?
The exploration into the Minang culture, unfortunately, was way more interesting than to nitpick into Hans’ similar background of migration. He traveled alone, way further from his hometown in Serui than Mak from West Sumatera, but sometimes his existence felt reduced into scenes of him playing football and occasional longing for his foster mother. More than anything, Hans played an embodiment of change necessary for Takana Juo to survive and succeed. He can cook savory Papuan dishes, too, but what is a Padang restaurant without dendeng batokok and gulai kepala ikan? Only until the latter third of the film that the food served as more than just a substance of pleasure: Padang food is a manifestation of hope, financial security, and more importantly, the connection to the beloved hometown that they had to leave behind. Even the most hardened heart can be broken in front of the memory contained within these homemade dishes. Combining strong storyline with colorfully grounded scenes, Tabula Rasa’s cinematic tour de force can be contributed to Tumpal Tampubolon’s impeccable screenplay and Amalia TS’ wonderful cinematography, both of which had previously worked on Rocket Rain (2013), as well as producer Lala Timothy that had utmost confidence to let director Adriyanto Dewo helm his feature film debut. Among the ever-growing list of Indonesian New Wave cinema, Tabula Rasa is a film very technically capable to compete on an international level, and hopefully will stand as a national classic in years to come.
Indonesian, Minangese, Papuan (hey, they’re totally different languages)
Runtime: 107 min.
Release date: September 25 2014
Director: Adriyanto Dewo
Writer: Tumpal Tampubolon
Cast: Jimmy Kobogau, Dewi Irawan, Ozzol Ramdan, Yayu Unru
Company: LifeLike Pictures