Empowering Over Victimising, ‘Jagat’ Is the Realist Masterpiece That Malaysian Indians Deserve
In early 1990s Malaysia, a Tamilian boy faces pressure from his immigrant father to focus on school but is drawn to his uncle’s life of crime.
Director: Shanjhey Kumar Perumal
Cast: Harvind Raj, Jibrail Rajhula, Kuben Mahadevan, Senthil Kumaran Muniandy
Language: Tamil, Malay
Runtime: 90 Minutes
Recently, my angst for the lack of Tamil films in Southeast Asia was at an all-time high, especially after my previous piece. It was then that I stumbled upon Jagat, hidden in a dark corner of Netflix which is unfortunate because this film deserves to sit amongst the big guns of Southeast Asian films – whether Tamil, or not.
Jagat is set in the 90s in a small town in Northern Malaysia – which already is a huge win for me because I love some 90s nostalgia! Following the life of Appoy, the film explores themes of oppression from the top through the eyes of a 12 year-old boy. Appoy struggles to find his footing while being torn between an abusive father and his two crime-loving uncles.
It is difficult to properly summarise the film’s plot with its several subplots that run concurrently. However, at the heart of it all sits young Appoy, brilliantly played by Harvind Raj. Appoy is a dreamer who struggles to get out of the mental box his parents and educators are dying to confine him within. However, that is of course, misconstrued as mischievousness and trouble-making, landing him in grave trouble with his father Maniam (Kuhan Mahadevan).
Along this main plot, Maniam’s two brothers are also embroiled in their own mess. Bala (Senthil Kumaran) is a raging drug addict while Mexico aka Dorai (Jibrail Rajhula) is a gangster. The two have no prospects for their own lives but love Appoy immensely, often rescuing him and offering him reprieve from the cruelties of his father.
The characters of Jagat are remarkably crafted with realism. Director Shanjey Kumar Perumal struck gold with the casting of his complex characters too, with all of them performing exceedingly well.
In an interview, Perumal mentions wanting actors who were of a darker complexion to represent the working class Indian minority of Malaysia. Most of them were brutally displaced from their estates and overlooked in Malaysia’s obsession with globalisation in the 90s. His world-weary characters expertly portray the plight of the minority left behind by a government that perpetuated the economic depravity amongst Indians.
Of course, characters can only be as strong as their actors. Raj, who plays Appoy, is unbelievably good even at 12 years of age. I found myself astounded that he had the maturity to pull off such a complex character that constantly grapples between the devil and angel on his tiny shoulders.
Raj is complemented by Mahadevan, who plays his extremely hot-tempered father desperately longing for his son to achieve some semblance of success; something he and his brothers failed at. Mahadevan carries out some extreme punishments in the film that are abusive, yet somehow, his sincerity in his intentions still shines through. It is with this complexity that prevents the audience from hating him..
Similarly, the supporting cast have a large part to play in how well put together the film is. It is only because each tier of cast does so well that Raj is able to shine in all his glory. Mexico is the ruffian that goes through a lot of development on screen and Rajhula nails his part. Maybe it’s just me, but I am a sucker for the good-guy-underneath-the-bad archetype. Rajhula’s restrained performance helps the audience see Mexico’s goodness, when all the layers are stripped back.
With its fast-paced storyline and intense characterisations, it may seem like Jagat is heavy from start to finish but that is not entirely true. Jagat has many laugh-out-loud moments that are hilariously brought to the audience by the henchmen of the gang. Appoy, too, gets up to mischief and says many tongue-in-cheek comments that are a riot – which brings us to the next major success of the film: the dialogues.
In a country like Malaysia, it is increasingly difficult to strictly restrict the film to one language, which would be Tamil in this case. Not only is it difficult, it is impractical and inorganic. Perumal smartly and unhesitatingly works Malay and local slang into the dialogues. This gives the scenes and characters an added authenticity, driving the relatability of the film – which may be its biggest selling point. After all, Jagat did run for a record eight weeks in theatres, the longest time a local Tamil film has ever been shown in Malaysia.
However, on the subject of authenticity and realism, one minor nitpick that irks me is the unrealistic and awkward fight scenes. The film is, thankfully, not loaded with these scenes as you would expect from the typical gangster and crime trope. However, whenever it is on screen, it is cringey and in slow motion, for some reason. Luckily, what helps forgive this faux pas is, without a doubt, the epic cinematography.
The single best thing about the film for me is its cinematography and visuals. Jagat is visually stunning – a huge feat because of the poverty-ridden narrative. If anyone is wondering how to make rags look like riches, this film shows you how. The use of warm lights and low filter lighting transforms the intensity of each frame completely. In addition to that, wide aerial shots are used to properly set the scene. Look out for that one scene with Appoy in a Chinese cemetery – a prime example of how the visuals have elevated this film with help from the haunting music that is a mix of modern and traditional influences.
In essence, Jagat is a film about the marginalisation of Indians in Malaysia. However, it does not victimise the diaspora. There is arguably a very thin line between evoking empathy for a group of people and victimising them. Jagat never crosses the line into the latter, which is precisely what makes it so poignant and heart-wrenching. Clearly, this narrative was a hit because the film swept the 28th Malaysia Film Festival and was the first non-Malay film to win the Best Picture award.
While the poverty cycle and why Indians seem to be more prone to crime is the overarching theme, there is also a subtext about how Indians oppress each other as well. For instance, Maniam’s wife is always shown to be subservient to the patriarch, constantly at his beck and call. While Maniam harps on Appoy’s need to have an education, he oppresses his wife. Similarly, when Appoy has ideas that are completely out of the box, his school teachers shoot down his ideas and discourage him from being different.
This is an underlying message I did not expect from Jagat. It drives home the message to the audience that breaking the cycle starts with us before we can expect others to do the same. Instead of forcing kids and women to conform, the community needs to champion each other first. This is the realism and brutal honesty that makes this film so special.
It is a painful shock that Perumal took 10 years to make this film due to funding issues. He is a visionary that brought the plight of his people to the large screen and packaged it with class and beauty that would compel anyone to take a second look. Jagat is realism and storytelling at its best and exactly what the diaspora needs to move the needle towards progress and inclusivity.
Catch Jagat on Netflix here or watch the trailer below!
Where to watch:
– The Creative Space Within the Indian Diasporas – What Exactly Is the Tamil Film Industry of Singapore and Malaysia Like?
– Charting and Celebrating Singapore’s Film History With Picks From Netflix’s Collection of Local Classics
– Grasping at Singaporean Malaise, ‘12 Storeys’ Is an Outstanding Family Drama Still Relevant 20 Years On