In her eyes
By Michael L. Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
September 12, 2014 at 12:06 am

I’m not the type who’s easily star-struck, having grown up with movie stars in the family. I’ll spare you the name-dropping but I even had an aunt who made it to Hollywood, her claim to fame mainly from “The King and I,” where she played one of the king’s wives. “There’s Auntie,” my father would say, pointing to the screen when we’d watch a replay of the movie and get to the end with the cast of a hundred or so characters.

I’ll admit, too, that there’s an element of academic snobbery that makes a university professor  claim  to being resistant to star-sickness. We’re supposed to be scholarly, objective, devoid of emotions, and if ever there’s an interest in stars, they have to be up there in the sky or, if they are earthbound, they’re studied as part of popular culture.

Yet when UP Diliman’s College of Mass Communication announced that it was giving Nora Aunor the Gawad Plaridel, there was palpable excitement on campus. The award, named after the pen name of Marcelo H. del Pilar, the editor of the 19th-century reform newspaper La Solidaridad, is meant to honor leaders in the “transmedia,” those who work across different media and leave a significant impact on people’s lives. Nora Aunor was being honored for that transmedia work, having been in the cinema, theater, radio and television.

When Roland Tolentino, dean of UP CMC, told me about Nora winning the award, and asked if I could deliver the opening remarks, I said, “Sure, I think I’m free that afternoon,” even if I had already marked off the date days earlier. Then I asked Roland if he’d ever met Nora in person and what she was like.

Roland’s face lit up at the chance to tell me about how he had met Nora Aunor, and how she had moved him because, in a word, she was so real. That’s not an adjective you hear too often to describe actors and actresses. The Filipino word is more powerful: totoo.  Reality as truth, what you see is what you get.

In a ‘terno’

The day of the awarding came around. As I rushed out of the office, members of my staff were all waiting around. You would have thought I was going off on a long overseas trip or something.

At the UP Film Center, a number of university officials had shown up, all dressed in Filipiniana. I worried: What if Nora Aunor showed up in jeans?

She arrived, in a terno. I was introduced and got a beso that was more of a hug. I tell you, almost a bear hug, from someone so tiny.

I had prepared a speech beforehand, not something I usually do, and found myself making some last-minute insertions minutes before the ceremony started.

After solemnly acknowledging the presence of UP president Alfredo Pascual and other officials, and greeting members of the faculty and mass media, I just could not resist adding greetings to “mga kapwa kong Noranian,” my fellow Nora Aunor fans.

I’ve never hidden that side of my life, having written an article, “Confessions of a Noranian,” for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine some years back. I had to do research for that article, tracing her rags-to-riches story, from selling water in a train station to winning in one singing contest after another to getting her first film contract.

As part of the ceremony, Nora Aunor was supposed to deliver a lecture, a word which she laughed off nervously. She was nervous in her opening remarks, asking how someone who had only reached the second grade could deliver a lecture at UP, to university professors.

Then she said this was the first time she had seen her fans dressed in barong.  She was not going to lecture, she emphasized; instead, she was going to share her life.

She had prepared notes, but spoke from the heart about her life. I thought of how, initially, images of her were in black and white, from another century, now taking color as she talked of details from her life. I knew she had sold water, but now here she was describing a pre-bottled-water era where she had to get the water from faucets, and how difficult it was to compete with other vendors who sold the product cold.

She talked abut her crush on Pip (Tirso Cruz) and on Boyet (Christopher de Leon), who became her husband. She talked about being a Vilmanian (a fan of Vilma Santos). And yes, she talked about having made mistakes in life, and learning from them.

Her well-examined life, and stories from other “fans” afterwards, made me realize that Nora’s appeal is in the way she represents so much of what is Filipino. She broke class barriers in the way the masses could identify with her. And for us of the middle class, some of whom were discouraged or forbidden from watching “Tagalog” (Filipino) films lest we become bakya (hoi polloi), Nora opened another world. “The poor” was no longer an amorphous mass to be pitied. Instead, we saw the many faces of Filipino women: carefree, naughty, strong, courageous.

Generation gap

A documentary produced by the UP CMC was shown at the awarding ceremony, with a comment that it’s Nora’s eyes that capture her acting, her ability to portray realities. I could not have agreed more, and would add that Nora’s eyes act out, not just a role, but her own life’s triumphs, trials, tribulations.

Alas, times have changed. The popular actors and actresses today are almost always fair-skinned, middle- and upper-class, playing out fantasy roles.

I worry, too, that Nora is fading from the consciousness of our young. A presentation during the awarding, from one of the student groups, disappointed many in the audience: a dance number, noontime-matinee style, that did not relate in any way to Nora Aunor, or to what she stood for.

I realized that there was a serious generation gap, and decided that I’m going to tell my very young children about

Nora Aunor, and her times, which are my times, too, and the times of a nation in ferment.

Knowing what her life and times are like, my children will better appreciate her films, which I intend to watch together with them, sometimes reminding them, “it’s in her eyes.”

For UP, the national university, Nora Aunor is a

Pambansang Alagad ng Sining, a national artist, a guardian of the arts.

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