Time traveller

The author of the novel Bupphaesannivas, now a popular television drama, talks about her research and portrayal of ambiguous historical details

Photo: Pornprom Satrabhaya

Period dramas, the sources of romanticisation of the bygone, continue to transfix viewers everywhere. From the South Korean culinary tale Dae Jang Guem, to the dramatisation of UK royalty in The Crown, or the court of Louis XIV in Versailles, or even Thailand's own See Pandin (Four Reigns), these fusions of history and fantasy offer an outlook to the past -- glorified or critical -- while also sparking interest and debate over the portrayals of historical accounts.

The latest fad for the romantic past in our country is, of course, Bupphaesannivas (Love Destiny) -- now the highest-rated soap opera in the digital-TV era -- which tells the story of Ketsurang, a modern-day archaeologist who's zapped back to 1660s Ayutthaya following a fatal car accident. She awakes in the body of the beautiful but mean-spirited Karakade, who was cursed to death following her attempt to murder a love rival. Soon Karakade/Ketsurang crosses paths with several real historical figures, from Thai envoys, lords and barons, to King Narai's counsellor Constantine Phaulkon and his wife Maria Guyomar de Pinha, who introduced egg-yolk-based desserts to Siamese cuisine.

The show's popularity has sparked catchphrases, memes, food trends and a craze for historical tourist attractions and Thai traditional costumes. Seminars on history have sprung up in universities and schools, debating the accuracy, titbits and anecdotes of the film.

A scene from Bupphaesannivas, starring Ranee ‘Bella’ Campen and Tanawat ‘Pope’ Wattanaputi. Photo courtesy of Thaitv3

Bupphaesannivas, at heart a soap series, is widely praised for its attention to historical detail. And while fans swoon over the lead actors, the origin of the success came from novelist Janyavee Sompreeda (also known by her pen name, Rompaeng), who spent three years researching the history of 17th-century Siam, the setting of her repeatedly reprinted novel.

What are you reading?

Janyavee “Rompaeng” Sompreeda mainly writes romantic comedy novels, and yet her taste in books tends toward classical Thai novels by female writers of the 1960s and 70s, especially Khunying Wimon Chiamcharoen, who writes under the pen name Thommayanti, Laksanawadee and Roselaren.

What are some of your favourite books?

Thai novels Sera Daran by Kingchat and Dang Duang Haruethai by Laksanawadee.

Who are your favourite writers?

Kingchat [Parichat Saligupta], Thommayanti [ Khunying Wimon Chiamcharoen], Sopak Suwan [Rampaipan Suwannasarn] and Botan [Supa Sirisingha]. Their leading ladies are strong and I like that.

Do you prefer paper books or e-books?

Paper books, definitely. But I do read e-books sometimes.

What do you like to do besides reading and writing?

I like watching detective-style stories like NCIS and The Mentalist. It’s like I get to be on an adventure with them, too.

The novel first came out almost 10 years ago. For her research, Janyavee sought information from libraries and online, though she said that there weren't many materials available on the internet back then. Her sources mostly included scholastic history tomes, such as Du Royaume de Siam, the descriptions of travels by Simon de la Loubère, a French diplomat who led an embassy from Louis XIV to Siam in 1687, as well as several works of Thai literature to study the old ways of life and means of interaction.

The author also visited Ayutthaya and Lop Buri provinces multiple times as part of her research. She later accompanied the lakorn's production team to real locations depicted in the book, such as Wat Chaiwatthanaram, King Narai's Palace and Chaophraya Wichayen (Phaulkon)'s house.

Janyavee's attention to historical detail owes a lot to her time as an archaeology and art-history student at Silpakorn University. Her scholastic training put a lot of emphasis on primary historical documentation, which influenced Janyavee heavily as she worked on her novel.

"I want to digest the history that people often call boring, weave it into a work of fiction and make it fun. And when it's fun, that's when people will truly immerse themselves in the story," said Janyavee, 41.

Weaving historical tales and figures into fictional work does require one to question how accurate history -- as we know it -- really is, and how its author is going to present and interpret such information for the story. For Janyavee, ambiguity is key to the process.

"I tend to only touch the subject on the surface, and I try not to give definite answers on anything to do with history. We can't make a judgement or really decide which theory as found in history is accurate. Many historical sources can be in conflict, too, in which case we have the main character speculate on which one is true," explained the author.

"However, I do try to present every main theory as I can, as much as can be done in the framework of a romantic comedy," she said.

The much-scrutinised case in the series is the real-life story of Constantine Phaulkon, a Greek who served in the court of King Narai and whose true allegiance has been extensively debated among historians. In the series he is portrayed, as Janyavee said, "in the grey area", torn between his loyalty to the Ayutthaya king and his European connection as French envoys arrived in the city. Following a dramatic episode of palace intrigue, Phaulkon was brutally executed in 1688.

For Janyavee -- as well as for Salya Sukkaniwat, the teleplay writer who adapted the novel -- it's all in the detail. With characterisation, Janyavee said she did work with the gap in history and chose lesser-known names to be among her main characters. Less existing information means more room for imagination. But fictional or not, no one is black and white. Her characters are portrayed as grey, well-rounded human beings with their own thoughts and motives.

Fans of the novel and of lakorn will definitely wonder what truly happened in the past, the author agreed, and now they can interpret the information, study these different theories in history, and decide for themselves which to believe.

"There is one scene in which Ketsurang, despite living in that time, wonders if she really understands what's going on around her.

"So for us to look back to things that happened a long time ago based on the words of the people who wrote about it, how much truth is there? What's true and what's not? We can never know," Janyavee said, adding that while she put a lot of time into ensuring the accuracy of the story, she didn't worry herself too much about it.

"At the end of the day, it's still a novel, not a history textbook," said Janyavee.

Due to the fame of Bupphaesannivas, there is already talk of a sequel, even though the drama has yet to finish airing. However, it will take years before we get a glimpse of what the new story, to be named Phromlikhit (Fate), will be like. The writer's only clue is that the story will continue some years after the events in Bupphaesannivas, most likely taking place during the reign of Suriyenthrathibodi (1703-1709). Owing to the show's popularity, Janyavee anticipates that the research process will be easier this time around, as she can now seek help from historians instead of just researching and analysing the information all by herself.

Janyavee feels the period genre is comparable to a fantasy that whisks readers and viewers away on an adventure in a whole new world. And in the case of Bupphaesannivas, audiences may feel even more involved with the story, as it also represents a modern viewpoint on the distant past.

In Thailand, we see new period dramas and novels released every year. Our TV and streaming services also offer many historical period stories from China, South Korea, the UK and more. Where is Thailand when it comes to historical drama on the global scene? Janyavee said the country's potential is second to none.

Brushing off claims that the accuracy of Thai dramas aren't on a par with others, Janyavee pointed out that the historical figure of a female royal physician that inspired the South Korean hit Dae Jang Geum was only briefly mentioned in the annals. No background information on her was given. Many such stories, like Bupphaesannivas, are works of imagination based on studied context.

"In terms of creativity and presentation, I think we're cool," she added. "But I also think we still have a long way to go when it comes to technology and CGI in order to make the scenes more realistic."


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