Directed by Sanjhey Kumar Perumal
Review by freakykitty
While the year 2015 saw many great film moments, from the likes of Mad Max’s feminist undertones to Star Wars breaking the official blockbuster record, it seemed a terrible year for the local film industry. That is, of course, until a little film came bursting onto the scene, surprising many with its content and message; that film is Jagat. Tamil slang for the Malay word ‘jahat’, Jagat was written, directed AND produced by Sanjhey Kumar Perumal, and focuses on the Indian community in the 90’s, a transition period for many of them from the rubber estates to the towns.
Jagat was a surreal breath of fresh air. Other than the more obvious fact that it is one of extremely few stories about the Indian community in Malaysian cinema, it is also a painfully honest depiction. The film delves into the lives of four men in a single family: Maniam, a family man and former estate worker, Bala, a drug addict, Dorai (also known as Mexico), the gangster of the family, and the protagonist of the film, Appoy, Maniam’s son.
The story was well written, showing the conflicts the community constantly faces through the microcosm of Appoy’s relationships with his father and uncles. Maniam believes that education is the only way anyone can succeed but he is also portrayed as being too strict, punishing Appoy until it pushes the boy away. Appoy then looks up to Mexico, the town’s well-known gangster. Seeing him as someone strong and powerful, he starts to imitate his uncle’s way, not fully understanding that his uncle never really chose to be a gangster, he just happened to be good at it (killer fight scene, by the way), and that the gangster life is a lot easier to enter than to leave.
But in Bala, Appoy finds something different. Bala is someone who already separates himself from the community, someone not too interested in money, and the only person who seems to tell Appoy the truth. A relapsed drug addict, Bala chooses to live by the ocean instead of in the squatter area. He feels like an unintentionally key side character, giving balance to the whole equation. You could practically sense the weight shift when (spoiler alert!) he finally dies of a drug overdose towards the end of the film.
In each man is a fear the audience can clearly see and feel, and in all of these relationships are the things that some day Appoy will fear himself. Like any other boy in Malaysia, Appoy is beset by bullies, homework and school, and like many, is completely unaware of the pressures of adulthood that are already being forced on him. This is what hits hard.
To me, the most interesting thing about watching Jagat was the moment I stepped out of the cinema with this odd sense of having been fooled a little. In the beginning of the film, Appoy is seen being handed a cigarette, and then the scene cuts. At the very end of the film, you see Appoy accept it. In between, there were many parts where it was light and funny, and I laughed at, and along with, the characters. Sometimes I even noticed the mistakes in editing or camerawork. The fight scene, which honestly took me by surprise, is still burned into the back of my head. So I had spent much of the movie giggling at the silliness – until I saw Appoy take the cigarette. I left the cinema feeling completely hopeless about the downward spiral that continues for young people in communities like Appoy’s. I’d like to think that that decision – to lull me into a false sense of security, and then drop me – was made on purpose.
Sure, some parts of the film felt unnecessary, like Mexico’s many beating-people-up scenes, and I was hoping to see more from the mother’s point of view. Not to say that watching her cook all those meals wasn’t interesting, but if a film is sold as saying something about a whole community, filmmakers should never forgot the other 50% of it. Also, I was a little underwhelmed with the quality of the film, but when I think about their RM300,000 budget versus the calibre of the storytelling, the production quality didn’t bother me too much.
Jagat kept surprising me, in a good way. When I thought it was going to be art house, it went full on Kollywood, and vice versa. It also surprised me how little I know about a minority community in my own country; that scared me a little. Jagat has stopped screening in cinemas, but I still see Appoy’s small hands reach out to accept the cigarette. Even though the film was set in the 90’s, that simple gesture clearly says something about the present.
freakykitty is one of The 2020s, a group of young writers at Critics Republic.