“There is no room for knowledge here,” the man in sunglasses says, swirling his glass of whiskey. “There is only room for power.”
The scene is from the 2015 Tamil-language Malaysian indie movie Jagat (“brutal”), which screened at the New York Asian Film Festival. It's beautifully filmed, but it is not easy to watch. Malaysian director Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, whose feature-length debut was 10 years in the making, gives us an intimate look at the cycle of poverty, drugs, and gangs in Malaysia’s minority Indian Tamil community in the 1990s through the eyes of a young boy.
Appoy is a lively kid whose hero is Michael Jackson (like a very dark version of Taika Waititi's Boy) who resists a normal life as a student. He's bullied at school and beaten by his father who so badly wants him to get an education to escape the cycle of poverty and life as a gangster. But every punishment pushes him closer to the local gang. In Jagat, we see a smart and fiery boy who clearly yearns for something greater slowly succumb to the only thing that allows him to feel like he controls his own destiny.
The film also portrays the reality of Indian Tamils in Malaysia who worked as laborers in the country's rubber estates throughout the early-to-mid 20th century. Tamils are an ethnic group that originated in South India, but have migrated to countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore and created a substantial minority population. (In Malaysia, the Tamil community isn't homogenous—historically Sri Lankan Tamils have maintained a higher socioeconomic status than Indian Tamils.) As the plantations were fragmented and sold and the rubber boom slowed down, these laborers found themselves out of work.
Perumal told me how he struggled to get his subtle genre-busting gangster film through to an audience inundated with flashy Bollywood cinema. "In Malaysia everyone wants to be a star without focusing on the script and the character development," Perumal told me. "They basically mix up a few Tamil movies together and release it. That’s the biggest problem. When I say about the slavery, it’s that cultural slavery."
Appoy is such an intriguing character. He’s so resilient despite so much hardship—where did this character come from?
Well, I consider the story autofiction, meaning half of the story is based on my personal experience and the other half is for the sake of the fiction. Some of the characters, I’ve seen in my life. And some of the characters, I heard from my friends, so I combined all these together into the story.
What do you see in Appoy that reflects yourself the most?
A rebellious character who can’t fit inside the system. Whatever things that I have shown in the film about the child trapped inside the system, [who] can’t express his thoughts, his feelings, that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to do. We’re facing a lot of hardship in Malaysia in order to release the film because people don’t really understand the film. So whatever things Appoy says, that is what I am facing now, not as a child but as a director who can’t fit inside the system, who is trying to do something but who the system is not allowing me to do.
Can you tell me more about your struggle getting the movie released?
Back in Malaysia, we have been watching a lot of movies from Hollywood, Bollywood, Kollywood [Tamil cinema], Korea, Hong Kong, but we don’t really develop the taste and appreciation for the local films. In Malaysia we have the majority of the people, the Malays. And the rest, the Chinese, the Indian, the Tamil, we are considered minorities.
In general, people watch imported films from India, from Tamil Nadu. So this is the first time, that we want to express our own Tamil [identity] in Malaysia to the mainstream. People said it wasn’t commercial enough to release in the mainstream theaters. And also the theaters says it has to screen the movie according to the language so that wherever there are Indian-populated areas, they’ll give us the theaters in that place.
They don’t even think it’s relevant to the larger Malaysian population, just Tamils.
We want to communicate with the entire Malaysian population because it is a Malaysian story, not a Tamil story. But people don’t identify it as a Malaysian movie. They classify it as a Tamil movie and think it should be catered for the Tamil audience. And because the Tamil audience is the minority, they think [we] should be given a very limited [release]. That’s how it works.
We released the movie the same day as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A lot of Malaysian movies didn’t want to release the same day as Star Wars, but we had confidence in the story. Actually, after the first week, the [news] started to [spread] and people wanted to watch the movie, but the theaters started to take out our movie in order to make space for Star Wars and other Hong Kong films and Tamil Nadu films.
We had the confidence in the story that it can reach the people across the border of language, cultural barriers, any barriers. The story and its expression.
I read that it took you 10 years to make this film? Why did it take so long?
Part of the reason it took 10 years is because the funders, the financers didn’t believe in the story. They wanted a typical formula from Tamil Nadu with the songs and the dancing and the music and stuff like that. I am much more into the film noir style, but Tamil people aren’t interested in that.
When I pitched that I wanted to make a gangster movie, in Malaysia there are a lot of Malayan gangster movies, so they said no more gangster genre [movies]. I said, it’s not a typical gangster movie. Also, it’s difficult for [Malaysian] producers to understand the value of the script.
The other point is that I think I [wasn’t] ready yet [to make the film]. This 10 year duration, I took to enhance my stuff. I feel better that I made the film last year because if I made the film five years back, I wouldn't have been mature enough.
How did you find Harvin Raj, who plays Appoy?
One of the reasons why I started the film late, is because even before, I said I’ll only start the movie if I find the right actor and also the right location. Fortunately I found both. I found him fighting with the other boy, who actually played his rival in the film. When I looked at him, I liked his energy.
When you look at him, he looks like an innocent boy, but he also has a very wild character inside him. We didn’t care much either he knows acting or not. We liked the look. He’s from an orphanage actually. It took a lot of [effort] to get permission from the school, the orphanage. So we only managed to get him, 3 days before the actual shoot. So we gave him a very crash course in basic screen acting.
How is he doing now? Do you keep in touch with him?
Yes, yes, yes of course. Actually, he got in contact with his biological father. Last week I met him. He’s the same. I’m trying to understand him, but he’s very complex.
So the movie takes place in the '90s. Have things improved for Indian Tamil Malaysians? My family is Sri Lankan Tamil, and I have some family in Malaysia, but I don’t know the broader issues.
I believe my community [of Indian Tamils] back in Malaysia, were left out, and a lot of people ended up in a very dangerous system so I tried to trace back the roots. The thing is, there are a few classes of Tamils, but the majority of the people believe that they have advanced so much. They have cars, they have houses, they have degrees, they have everything that shows they’ve advanced in life. But the basic fundamental things still haven’t changed, I believe. I think in general Tamils are still slaves, mentally. That’s what I’m trying to convey. It’s not about the wealth. It’s always about the mental slavery and the cultural slavery that I’m trying to criticize.
It seems like part of that has to do with education. In the film you put education and power against each other—why was that important?
I’ve probably lost hope in modern education. Because my father believes education is the only key to success in life. When I finished my degree, I felt empty in life. Paper qualification is not the only solution for betterment of society. People forget about the holistic approach. People forget about the ancient wisdom and also the basic needs of humanity. People are lost in paper education. Of course it’s important for people to have basic qualification in the modern world, but it shouldn’t be an excuse for us to forget everything.
When it comes to homegrown Tamil Malaysian cinema what are the typical stories you see?
Well the thing is, everyone is trying to be a star, and that’s the problem. Everyone is trying to imitate the Tamil movies from India. But then they forget that in Tamil movies at least to some point, there’s a movie that creates a character, and the character creates the star. People forget the basic things, but in Malaysia everyone wants to be a star without focusing on the script and the character development. They basically mix up a few Tamil movies together and release it. That’s the biggest problem. When I say about the slavery, it’s that cultural slavery.
How has the reaction been to Jagat whether Indians or non-Indians?
In general, the non-Indians like the film better than the Indians, actually.
Yeah, the Indians—some even texted me saying, “I liked your documentary very much.” So I told them, “It’s not a documentary, it’s a fictional film.” I mean, I don’t blame them, but they only grew up watching Tamil films from India so they have a limited mindset about it. They don’t really watch other movies from other countries and other cultures. For them there is no song, and the duration is less than two and a half hours so it’s not [an actual] film.
What do you want the audience to walk away feeling or thinking after seeing Jagat?
To be honest, I don’t know actually. I’ll leave it to the audience. I think art is expendable so I don’t want to impose my feelings on the audience. I just want to express my story, I just want to tell my story and whatever feeling the audience gets from watching the film, I just welcome it. A few people asked me the same question, what are you trying to, and I just said, I just wanted to tell the story. And whatever feelings come up from watching the movie is up to them.