JAGAT, the Tamil slang for the Bahasa Malaysia word, jahat) is an honest portrayal of a segment of Malaysian society.
The Malaysian-Tamil language movie is about 12-year-old schoolboy Appoi (played by screen debutante Harvind Raj) who is clever and artistic but terribly playful. The tale starts in 1991, in a post-estate Malaysia, and the boy is growing up in a shanty town, in a wooden shack.
His father, Maniam (Kuhan Mahadevan) ekes out a living as a labourer at a sawmill while his mum is a housewife.
Appoi’s parents seem to want him to excel in school as the opening sequence reveal, when the boy writes in a school essay about a pencil which can fly but gets a red mark for it, and his father tells him to write it like an A-student would.
Maniam’s brothers are no-gooders, with one, Bala ((Senthil Kumaran Muniandy), an addict and the other, Dorai a.k.a. Mexico (Jibrail Rajhula), unemployed. He doesn’t want his son to follow their examples. For him, education is the way forward but the hard life seems to have aggravated tempers all round, so beatings are used to control the boy’s playfulness and to deliver the message.
The small school, and the education system, is no help for Appoi in his UPSR year. He gets into fights with school bullies, the latter’s brothers, and even gets even with his Math teacher. For that, Maniam ties Appoi to a tree to teach him a lesson he doesn’t get at all.
Life in this shanty town is terribly boring, more so in the pre-Internet era. The young bucks have nothing to be gainfully employed about, and work in motor workshops and such like. There is even a town criere yelling the news of the community.
Along comes the gangsters with the easy money offer.
As one gangster boss, car dealer Da Gou (Marup Mustapah), has it, the flashy car convinces everyone that the fake watch is a genuine item, and punches home his point with “power must be taken”, and not given or earned.
Mexico joins Da Gou to help his brother Maniam. His friend, Chicago (Tinesh Sarathi Krishnan), joins him. The latter eventually goes into drug dealing as the money is better.
Aah, the fisticuffs are fast and furious in this film. Violence is all around, hence the PG18 rating. Hats off to the stunt choreography by Ayez Shaukat-Fonseka Farid. The faint-hearted will cringe at some of scenes, but look out for the pent-up anger that erupts rather than the punches that really do miss the point of contact.
Jagat, directed by Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, is shot in small towns in Perak, Kedah, and Selangor, among other Malaysian states, with great attention paid to details. For instance, the wordings on a T-shirt is a metaphor on the scene that just passed, or a piece of music that is going on. Kudos to music scorer Kamal Sabran (of Space Gambus) and the cast of whom most are first-time actors while Harvind (Appoi) is said to be from an orphanage.
The film is set at a time when Malaysian Indians were forced out of the rubber estates once they were sold. So, with few skills for urban life, Jagat shows what life was then, and still is for the marginalised segment which was promised, as a radio news bulletin stated in the film, zero povery eradication back in 1991.
Director Shanjhey holds back no punches for this realistic portrayal, which he says is a Malaysian story with universal themes of poverty, violence and the importance of education. For the director, the film was difficult to make in terms of lack of funding, and full production team.
Shanjhey entered movie-making in 2006 with a short film, ‘Thaipoosam’, which was screened at the 36th International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands. In 2009, his short film ‘Machai’ won the Grand Prize at the BMW Shorties Malaysia.
Jagat, his feature film debut, is a dark offering but a welcome insight into contemporary Malaysian Indian society. It’s been a while since cinema-goers had such artistic cinematic endeavours on Malaysian Indians and contemporary society in Tamil since the movies, Aandal and Chemman Chaalai (The Gravel Road), in 2005. Aandal is about a naive estate girl who society makes into a street-wise prostitute, and seeks to change her destiny. Chemman Chaalai, by Deepak Kumaran Menon, is about a young Malaysian Indian girl and her family, living on a rubber estate who wants to leave the estate and further her studies, but financial hardships make her dreams nearly impossible to achieve.
Jagat does not offer a happy ending. Instead, the movie offers fruitful discussions and serves as bothe an eye-opener on life today as well as a reminder on the paths one chooses to follow. An excellent watch.