Twenty years ago, at the height of the Thalia phenomenon, ABS-CBN’s Star Cinema would make TV history by creating a new kind of soap opera that will give Mexican telenovelas a run for its money.
Since the 1960s, the soap has been a habit for Filipino TV audiences. This went on until the 1990s when Channel 2 ruled the ratings with shows like “Mara Clara” (1992-1997), “Esperanza” (1997-1999), and “Mula sa Puso” (1997-1999). But before the new millennium started, ABS-CBN felt it had to do something to woo back the soap opera market bitten by the Latin American telenovela bug. So the network management enlisted the help of its motion picture company to produce something that would beat the influx of more imported soaps.
The idea was to put a cinematic touch on the usual TV soap opera, says the writer and overall creative Emmanuel Dela Cruz, who was then working mainly with Star Cinema. “Television soaps are supposed to be daily and addictive. And the contribution of Star Cinema is ‘how do we make it large?’” he shares with ANCX.
Creative director Olive Lamasan and executive producer Malou Santos introduced seasoned soap opera writer Dado Lumibao to the Star Cinema team, which was then composed of creative manager Tammy Bejerano (now Dinopol), writers Emman, Theodore Boborol, Michiko Yamamoto, and Henry Quitain.
The task wasn’t as simple as coming up with another drama series, they were tasked to create a brand. Unlike the soaps of old, this was supposed to be bigger, grander—and have a name of its own. They coined the term ‘teleserye.’ “It is basically the hybrid of film and soap,” says Emman.
But would sweeping crane shots and having a fancy name be enough to get the Mexicanovela converts back?
The creators thought the reason Thalia’s telenovelas resonated well with Filipino audiences was because it’s the archetypal Cinderella story deeply embedded in the culture. Think “Cofradia,” starred in by Gloria Romero in 1953, or Nick Joaquin’s novel “Elang Uling” in 1979. This was when Lamasan told her team the idea she had in mind: the main protagonist should be a house maid.
It did not sound new but it made so much sense vis a vis their goal. Thalia’s captured market, after all, are the house help. They’re the ones glued to TV screens during primetime. The character they can relate to the most is someone who’s just like them.
But she won’t be no ordinary maid, the team agreed. She’d be a maid in an awfully dire situation. “Hindi lang binusabos, kundi ibinasura at ginawang basahan,” Emman says, describing this character. “Namatay ang anak nya sa Payatas tragedy. Ni-rape sya ng kapatid ng mahal nya. Pinamukha sa kanya ng donya na alipin lang sya.
“Ang tawag namin dun, rurok ng putikan. Yung bida mo, para mahalin sya ng audience, kailangan ilublob mo sya sa putikan, bago sya magkakaroon ng rise to power.”
To those who are familiar, we are, of course, now talking about Amor de Jesus, the maid who eventually becomes the embodiment of the hard-as-steel woman, Amor Powers. According to Emman, the series was also somewhat inspired by the 1990 Laurice Guillen film “Kapag Langit ang Humatol” which was headlined by Vilma Santos. It was a melodrama about a terribly maltreated housemaid who rises to fame and power so she could get back at the people who wronged her.
From the story of this woman will arise the multifarious fictional complications in ABS-CBN’s first foray into the teleserye. But first, the title. Following the tradition of adopting famous song titles for its movies, the Rey Valera classic that evokes the narrative of star-crossed lovers was picked to become the title of the series. “It’s about a promise that can extend lifetimes,” says Emman. The song, of course, was “Pangako Sa’yo.”
“Pangako Sa'yo” the teleserye starts off with the ill-fated love story of Amor de Jesus (Eula Valdez), who works as a housemaid in the Buenavista mansion, and her señorito Eduardo Buenavista (Tonton Gutierrez). Eduardo is being forced to a marriage of convenience by his mom Doña Benita (Liza Lorena) with Claudia Zalameda, the daughter of an influential political family, in order to save the Buenavista hacienda. Upon the discovery of the Amor-Eduardo romance, Doña Benita would throw the former out of her mansion.
With no one to turn to, Amor returns to Payatas, where she would give birth to a daughter by Eduardo who by then had already married Claudia. Working as a prostitute, Amor meets a man who would bring her to the US. While there, her family in Payatas figures in a terrible accident. Unknown to Amor, her daughter survives it. Years later, history repeats itself and Yna (Kristine Hermosa) finds herself working in the Buenavista household and eventually wins the heart of another Buenavista son, Angelo (Jericho Rosales).
The goal of “Pangako Sa'yo” really went beyond killing it in the ratings game and toppling Thalia. The creatives wanted to make a show that’s not only very addictive, but would also address many of the social concerns of Filipinos at that time. This jived impressively with the team’s strengths.
“Si Tammy Bejerano was so socially aware,” Emman says about Pangako’s headwriter. She knew about agrarian reform problems, knew the great divide between the rich and the poor is real. She knew about labor issues, the political upheavals of the period. The team wanted it communicated to audiences that these were realities, and not manufactured issues by overly-imaginative writers.
What’s funny though is the writers got so weirdly on the ball they had written a jueteng scandal in the script, taped it, and around the time the teleserye premiered, international media was already reporting on the impeachment of then Philippine president Joseph Estrada who, according to the New York Times was “accused of siphoning off tobacco taxes and accepting millions of dollars in payments from illegal-gambling operators.” According to an Inquirer report, the impeachment complaint alleged that Estrada received the amount of P10 million monthly “from November 1998 to August 2000 from ‘jueteng’ lords as protection money.”
Emman recalls the team’s shock with the turn of events in Philippine politics, and how it somehow echoed the story of the fictional governor Eduardo Buenavista.
Of course the Pangako episodes were canned and were shot at least three months prior to airing, but people thought the series was just so in tune with what’s happening in the political landscape back then.
Perfect fit for the roles
A lot of factors made “Pangako Sa'yo” a huge success. Foremost was the casting of Eula Valdes and Jean Garcia as Amor and Claudia.
Eula and Jean, both 31 then, were so believable in their roles as mothers even when they were only 10 or so years older than their children in the story: Kristine was then 17, and Jericho only 21. “Pero pag pinanood mo sila, naniniwala ka!”
Claudia is the “character we love to hate and hate to love,” says Emman, “kasi sya yung personification natin ng donya na powerful, matapobre, evil pero at the heart of it all, she’s just this lonely, unloved wife. Sumunod lang sya sa tatay nya [na pakasalan si Eduardo] at mahal na mahal nya ang anak nyang si Angelo na hindi pala nya totoong anak.”
He recalls one of his favorite scenes involving Madam Claudia. Her mansion’s electricity supply had been cut off. Too afraid her neighbors will think she’s now poor, she brought out all her jewelry and wore them as if to say, “Akala nyo ha, may ilaw dito.”
The character of Madam Claudia was created, says Emman, because of our obsession for the archetype of the super powerful evil woman. Which meant her nemesis should be just as tough—which is most likely Amor Powers’ middle name. “Hindi lang sya Amor,” says Emman, raising his pointing finger. “Hindi lang sya Powers. Amor Powers sya. Expansive ang kanyang wealth, beauty, lahat na. She is formidable.” Amor’s character, says Emman, was inspired by a real life Filipina housekeeper who married a rich, much older foreigner. Eula played Amor so well audiences couldn’t separate Amor from Eula. She would get a lot of perks and praises for portraying this tough-as-nails lady, but she also got the people’s ire for hurting Yna. “And that was why we made the characters larger than life, to remind the audiences na, Amor Powers yan, hindi ‘yan totoo, but you can learn from their characters,” says Emman.
From the very beginning, “Pangako Sa’yo” was not star-driven, Emman says. The cast members were chosen for their acting prowess and because they fit the roles. One of the show’s big revelations was the reluctant young actress Kristine Hermosa. She was the darling of the creative team because even if she was not yet bitten by the acting bug back then, she followed the script to the letter.
“Sobrang talas ng memory niya. Kaya nyang magsaulo ng mahabang monologue. Tapos para syang anghel on screen. Ang ganda ganda nya, para siyang may sariling filter. Pero pag nagbabato na siya ng lines, hindi ko nakikita si Kristine, she embodied Yna Macaspac,” recalls Emman. Yna was the teleserye’s Cinderella, but she’s no weakling. She was willing to go up against anybody to defend her family.
The magic of Pangako
The teleserye was intended to run only for two months but it became so successful it lasted for two years—a run long enough for the creative team to try out a lot of things and push the boundaries of what the audience can accept with respect to the genre.
“Ang isang magandang nangyari, I think in the first six months, was that we realized that we were retelling a very important international film franchise. Guess what that is,” he tells me. “Star Wars! ‘Yan ang inangklahan ng story ng ''Pangako.' Hindi na lang ito revenge, laban na ito ng young generation at old generation.”
The show having two sets of leads allowed it to maintain the interest of a wide spectrum of audiences throughout its two-year run. “We called that the double helix,” says Emman, referring to the rise and fall of the story arc involving the characters. “Naka-create kami ng system na kapag tumataas ang story ni Angelo at Yna, pwedeng nasa baba pa sina Amor at Claudia. Hindi sya yung tipong isa lang ang nangyayari, na kapag boring ang plot, bumibitaw ang audience.”
He mentions other semblances of “Pangako Sa’yo” to the American epic space opera: Yna’s biggest enemy turns out to be her own mother, Amor. Angelo’s mother (Claudia) is the villain so he can either fight her or join the dark side.
At one point, there was even a whodunnit—when Amor was shot in Payatas and only the hand of the perpetrator was shown. That kept audiences glued to the screens for days to follow the succeeding revelations.
With the extension of the show, the writers also had to explore a risky plot. Emman was referring to the biggest tragedy in the Yna-Angelo love story—finding out that they were siblings. “Ako talaga ang nag-suggest ng plot na yun,” he says. The idea was slightly based on the Elwood Perez drama, “Bilangin Ang Bituin sa Langit,” he reveals. “Mahal na mahal kasi nila ang isa’t isa tapos magkapatid pala sila. Wala nang sasakit pa dun. And we needed to do that plot kasi mag-eextend kami.”
The creative team really put a lot of thought in churning out the plots and conflicts, Emman remembers. Holy Week of 2001 will always be memorable to him because while everyone was enjoying their break, the team was stuck in the ABS-CBN offices writing scripts. There would be times when they would be “locked in” for a week or two in a hotel or in Subic, specifically for the purpose of brainstorming or writing. “Kami ang nagpauso ng lock-in. Isa din yan sa contributions namin to the television industry,” Emman says, laughing.
In its two year run, “Pangako Sa’yo” was able to achieve what it set out to do: come up with a fresh new product and gain back the trust of Filipino audiences to local creators. The teleserye changed the landscape and the standards of Philippine television, proving the small screen isn’t really small when your ideas are big.
Screengrabs from Pangako Sa'yo on ABS-CBN Entertainment's YouTube account