Some stories manage to be perfect from start to finish, and Netflix’s Cigarette Girl is one of them. It is the story of a son trying to find out about the woman who his father cannot stop talking about in his final moments, and that takes him down a past that shows him how capable his father was of love. Raja and Dasiyah were the quintessential star-crossed lovers, and no matter how strong, forgiving, or enduring their love was, they were simply not meant to be, and their story is presented beautifully. The show is spread over five hour-long episodes, and not a second of it feels tedious and stretched out. That is what happens when earnestness becomes part of the story. We recently read somewhere that ‘earnestness was the pessimist’s kryptonite’. We don’t consider ourselves pessimists, but it is true that, for a long time now, we haven’t been wowed by a love story. Not talking about the abysmal state of rom-coms on the silver screen, most love stories haven’t managed to grab our attention the way they should. We are not talking about wanting to feel butterflies but about caring what happens to the couple’s relationship.
With a love story, if it is the lighthearted kind, we usually know it is good if we end up wanting to emulate something about one part of the couple while wanting someone like their partner for ourselves. There is always that hook that makes us think that it is probably how people fall in love. On the other hand, if the love story has sad notes in it, we want to jump into the screen to fix things for the couple so that they get their happy ending. A good love story, or any good story for that matter, should make the viewer want to be a part of that universe by making them aspire to take the place of one of the characters or just be a secret third party who helps the fate of the characters they have fallen in love with. Cigarette Girl does all of them.
At first glance, we are led to believe that this is the story of a woman trying to make her place in the cigarette industry, and the love story is a part of it. This wouldn’t be new, but we are happy to give it a chance. However, it is after the first two episodes that we realize that this is primarily a love story, and the cigarette industry acted as the thing that brought them together and then drove them apart. There is a brief moment of adjusting our expectations with an eventual disappointment that women continue to be misrepresented with a thin veil of feminism. Sure, Dasiyah is shown to be a capable woman, but it is infuriating that she is shown as the exception, that too, for the purpose of the love story. Even with that, we hate that her personality was so one-dimensional. She barely talks, and when she does, it is about her feelings of being misunderstood and, later, about her love for Raja. Raja was given a personality and an aura outside of his relationship with Dasiyah, but she was simply functioning within the confines of her relationship with him. Even her talent was a means for Raja to fall in love. In a series titled Cigarette Girl, the primary character is afforded very little personality, and that just makes us sad. However, it doesn’t taint our enjoyment of the rest of the series.
Coming to the actors, we are happy to admit that they exhibited good chemistry. Ario Bayu (Raja) was fantastic in each of the looks he sported, and Dian Sastrowardoyo (Dasiyah) was sufficiently stoic, perhaps a little too much. We have not read the book that the series is based on, but we are guessing that Dasiyah’s character had to be the quiet girl who only shone when she was doing her best work. Maybe that is why she did not smile throughout the series, except when she was with Raja. But here is where they got the character wrong: as the audience, we were supposed to understand that part about her instead of just feeling bad about her joyless existence. We don’t know if it was the character’s fault or that of the actor who portrayed her, but it was impossible to empathize with Dasiyah. All our feelings for the love story were only inspired by Raja, played so charmingly by Ario Bayu. If not for him, we may have just quit the show midway.
Despite our annoyed feelings for Dasiyah, we still feel strongly about this being a fantastic love story. The writing is smooth, the characters are realistic and likeable (mostly), and the few instances of comedy are very well balanced. Our favorite is the awkward moment when Lebas and Arum realize how their parents are connected. But we also squealed at the lizard moment, and that bit may have been the most unrealistic thing in the entire series. If you know it, you know it.
For the most part, Cigarette Girl retains its sensitivity. In some ways, we appreciate how Dasiyah’s forced acceptance and reluctant fight with her fate contrasted against the cracks in Raja’s perfect persona. There are many relationships lost and unfulfilled within Raja and Dasiyah’s love story. One play of fate, and so many did not get to live the lives they deserved. Perhaps that is what makes Cigarette Girl such a touching story. It is not because of the leads themselves, but the sacrifices of the many that got caught up with them. In some ways, we get it because the most popular love stories are made when many people like the characters in love, but they only have eyes for each other. If only Dasiyah had been a tad bit brighter, it would have made more sense to us in this context. If we can get good love stories only from books, then so be it, because we did not even realize how much we wanted to see something like Cigarette Girl. This should be on more people’s watchlist.