Interview with Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, director, writer and producer of “Jagat”

Jagat has won awards (after changing the competition procedure) and was commercially successful. Are you proud of what you accomplished with it, its impact, considering that it took ten years to shoot?

Commercially not much, but for the limited theaters and the limited run, it was good, but commercially, no. But I am actually proud for its success and its impact, and I think, that in the end, the hardships actually helped the film to become better.

Jagat portrays Tamil in Malaysia living a very difficult life in the 90’s. What is the situation now?

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I think the situation is a lot different, they have a lot of hardships. There are many people that were brought into the place by the British to work in their estates, like 200 years ago. After they gained their independence, there was no proper restoration plan and they were rejected from the industrial development. So these people were left out in the early 80’s and they did not know what to do. Some of the them became workers, like lorry drivers because it was easy for them and they got a little money, and some became laborers in the industry and some became involved with crime. But now, a lot of people are educated, they have taken their diploma, at least one in each house, it’s common. But what I want to say is, although we have succeeded in life (some have bought houses and cars) but the mind slavery still exists. So that’s I am trying to say with the film. People became successful in life, but some people became extreme in crime. So you can see the two extremes. Sri Lankan Indian were brought by the British government to govern the people. So they became more educated as they had access to higher education. And they became the elite people. The politician argue that no one gets a bigger start. But you have to see the bigger picture. These people came and had more access to education and they developed more. And these people, 90% percent of them came in the 80’s and 90’s and are still considered elite. So the mind stereotypes still exist.

In the beginning of the film, there are some grotesque rituals. What is the reason that you begin the film with this sequence?

Because I think the main problem lies with religious activities, religion, crappy entertainment and alcohol. And so that’s why, in the beginning I showed that a ritual is going on. It’s a ritual, it’s not spiritual. People follow ritual, but do not develop spiritually in order to attain peace. It is a ritual, people expect to get something from it. The Tamil movies from Kollywood have been shaping the Indian Malaysian mass opinion, such as it’s ok to beat women, stalk women, it’s a sin to become rich, it’s okay to be poor, etc.

The father in the movie has good intentions but he always ends up beating the boy. What do you wanted to show with this action?

Because the previous generation believed that only through hardship you can shape character. They don’t know how to communicate. They have the love, but because of the patriarchal society, the father had to be harsh, hard. So they think that this is the best way to raise their children. It’s common actually, although now it has started to change. But in earlier days, almost 90% of the people have told me that they were beaten by their fathers.

Is it difficult directing children, particularly the protagonist? Some scenes are quite harsh, with him getting beaten repeatedly.

He is like clay, he can absorb, but it was difficult for me to direct him actually, because he wouldn’t focus. Sometimes it would take me 10 takes, 15 takes. And then out of the many takes I would choose the best and mold it together. In one point, he will get it and then actually forget about it, so you have to grab that moment from him. But the good thing about him is that he is not pretentious, and it was fun for me to work with him in order to grab that moments. And he is a very tough boy. If we shot continuously, the other boys would be tired but not him. He is adventurous and he liked the filming process, so he was always roaming around the set.

So, what made you choose him, because you actually picked him up from an orphanage.

In the beginning, I told myself that if I don’t get the perfect casting and the perfect location I will not shoot this movie. So the location and casting were very important for me. But the problem in Malaysia is that Indian actors don’t have method acting, people just follow whatever comes from India, there is no local flavor. So that is why I did not want any stars, I wanted to work with non-actors. It is very hard to find child actors, because when you organize the audition, the same children seem to come again and again. But I said to myself, I will find the perfect actor eventually and the opportunity came when I was shooting a documentary one day and I caught the boy fighting with another one. They were actually fighting, they were enemies. So I got there and I told him, “Why are you fighting ?” And then his face became very innocent and he said, “No I did not do that”. So he can really transform from a wild character into an innocent one. And then I asked my crew if that boy would be all right to play in the movie and they said “I do not think so,” but I could not get him out of my mind. Because I liked the innocence and the wild element coming from him, the combination of the two. So I asked to bring him on location, but we had some trouble to get permission to cast him, since it involved lots of authorities, like the orphanage, the school, and his mother. But all these people were supportive to give permission, after we expressed the intention and the importance of the film.

The film entails some comical moments, but the context is always dramatic. What do you wanted to show with this?

You can see it even in the locations, there is contrast in life. The surroundings are beautiful, but life is hard. You can see that people, despite their hardships, they make jokes if you sit with them. Even with the gangsters, they are actually funny people. Of course, when they are “working,” they can be brutal, but they are actually funny funny people for me. So when you sit with them and drink with them, they usually talk unnecessary and random things. So I wanted to portray that, because being funny is part of their life.

Appoy, the boy just wants to watch TV and not study, and he is very fond of American culture. Is that the case still with Tamil children in the region?

Right now, yes it’s still the same, the same phenomenon. My nephew is actually very fond of Superman, Batman, T-shirts etc. If you try to buy him something else he rejects it. So yes, when I was growing up we used to watch American cartoons like He-Man, Thundercats, Silverhawk, Gi Joe, etc. So you don’t have the local flavor at all, you end up with Hollywood or Indian cinema and there are also companies bringing popular Hong Kong movies, like Chow Yun Fat movies. In Malaysia you could watch movies everywhere, but not a true Malaysian essence movie which talks about out people and our culture. There are very few movies who tried to break this scenario.

So what is the situation with Tamil cinema in Malaysia, apart from your film?

I think there is a huge gap between Malay movies, Chinese movies and Tamil ones. For Malay ones, they had funding from the 80’s and the industry has been there since then. And with the Chinese movies, the situation is that a lot of people went to study abroad and when they returned, they started dealing with movies, and when the industry was collapsing they still went to the cinemas. So the base was there. Regarding the Tamil films, there are many people in the industry that they just copy Indian films. So there is a huge gap. So that’s why we feel we must make a Tamil movie. One, to express ourselves and communicate with other ethnicity, and two, to balance the situation, because the industry has to exist somewhere, in order for the next generations at least to have something to look at from local cinema, not just copies. But there is not yet a strong example of this effort, we are trying, but I am not sure we can achieve anything.

You now own a production company, Skyzen, which actually produced Jagat. How did that came about and what are your plans with the company and yourself?

I wanted to produce Jagat myself, in order to have freedom. So to do that, I had to have a production company and that’s why I instituted Skyzen, so I can produce my works on my own. In the future, I want to make a genre movie, a gangster or a supernatural one, an honest genre movie, and also to make a low budget, independent one, because there are some stories that need to be told at any cost, at any way, at any place. There are a lot of stories I want to tell to the world, so I want to balance that, the genre and the indie ones.

Why genre movies though?

Because the literacy level of our local audience is very low. For Jagat, I tried to combine artistic elements and commercial elements, because I wanted to draw the local audience first. I believe that every movie should have a purpose. As for Jagat, even though the story is about poverty, about crime, the actual story is about sharing the stories of the Tamil community to the other communities. Because we are living together, and we have to understand each other, that’s the important thing. And then the story has to be challenging. But actually, I realized when it was screened in festivals, that the people there considered it a commercial movie and in Malaysia, an art movie. I was trying to be honest to my feel actually, and that’s why I used the music. And some people said your music is too loud. But I don’t believe that. The music is part of my expression. I wanted to express things about the system, so I wanted for the people to come and watch it because it is genre, but still to communicate my subliminal message to them.

Can you name some of your influences, some of the filmmakers that you like?

I like a lot of directors. Actually, I started watching movies more seriously recently. Because as a kid, I only watched the popular movies. Nowadays I watch a lot of movies, but for Jagat I was inspired by Johnnie To and Ram Gopal Varma (India), regarding the gangster part, because I like the rawness and how they portray the crime community. But actually my favorite directors are Scorcesse, Tarkovsky, Kim Ki-duk and David Lynch.

The interview took place during the Five Flavour Festival, in Warsaw.

Also read the review of the film, here.