What was going through director Shanjhey Kumar Perumal’s mind when he found out that his debut feature film Jagat is sharing the same opening day as the highly-anticipated Hollywood blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
“It’s not a major challenge,” he replied.
In fact, it’s a small hurdle to overcome compared to the challenges he faced trying to make Jagat for the past 11 years.
The intention to make Jagat started in 2004 when he graduated from Universiti Sains Malaysia with a degree in Film and Broadcasting. Shanjhey wanted to make a feel-good comedy based on his time growing up in Parit Buntar, Perak.
“It was difficult to get funding for a local Tamil movie. More so for a movie like this where it’s closer to real life and without song-dance elements,” Shanjhey said during an interview.
When Finas introduced the Skim Wajib Tayang (compulsory screening) for local Tamil films in 2012, Shanjhey said “things began to change”. The 35-year-old filmmaker was able to secure RM300,000 and Jagat began to take shape. Over the years, however, the script went through numerous changes. Shanjhey no longer wanted to make a comedy.
“Life was hard but I have beautiful memories growing up in a small town. As I grew older, I began to look at things differently and realised that maybe, things are not what they seem.”
Jagat (Tamil slang for “jahat” or bad) evolved into a solemn drama which touches on subjects like poverty, quality of education system and gangsterism. If Shanjhey had to sum up the movie in one line, it’s about how the education system, family unit and societal expectations affect a child’s upbringing.
In Jagat, the child is Appoi, played by newcomer Harvind Raj, 12.
“Appoi is a talented kid but the school couldn’t understand his capacity. The education system has more emphasis on how well a child memorises facts and figures. It doesn’t recognise a child’s talent or creativity. So that really affects someone like Appoi,” Shanjhey explained.
While Appoi can’t immediately grasp subjects like Maths, he shows great prowess in art and creative writing. However, this does not sit well with his father Maniam (played by Jagat assistant director Kuben Mahadevan).
The labourer is a disciplinarian who wants Appoi to focus on being an academically-inclined student. So much so that he doesn’t allow the boy to watch television or spend any time on art. The movie also focuses on Appoi’s relationship with his uncles Bala (Jagat director of photograpy Senthil Kumaran Muniandy) and Mexico (Jibrail Rajhula). Although both of them give Appoi sensible advice, they are no role models.
“Uncle Bala is a reclusive drug addict who offers him a different view of the world. Appoi also sees the glamourous side of being a gangster through Uncle Mexico,” the director offered.
The story then unravels to focus on the consequences of each character’s action. For a kid like Appoi, there is hope that he may find his way in life while Mexico and Bala have limited time to break out of their own personal prison.
When it came to casting, Shanjhey was obssesed with finding the right people for the roles. He said he could easily cast experienced television drama actors, “But I wouldn’t get the desired realism feel that I want …”
He found the movie’s central character Appoi while shooting a documentary at a primary school in Kuala Lumpur. His first impression of Harvind – the boy who would be Appoi – was that he was perfect.
“Harvind had a lot of energy. He was just running and jumping around. I thought he had the characteristic of Appoi – someone who is both innocent and mischievous. We didn’t know if he could act. But it was not an issue as we could give him lessons.”
But it was not easy getting Harvind to star in Jagat. Shanjhey said it took several attempts to convince the school – which is Harvind’s guardian at a children’s home where he is placed – and his family to get the boy’s involvement in the movie.
They had to consider the gruelling month-long shoot in 13 different locations across the country.
The approval for Harvind to join the cast came three days before production was scheduled to start. The director revealed that he never had a Plan B if Harvind couldn’t star in his movie.
“Yes, we took a major risk simply based on this strong feeling that he would eventually come on board,” Shanjhey said with a smile.
He was accompanied by Harvind during the interview. The shy kid said he was “happy” to be cast in Jagat. Harvind formed a close relationship with 33-year-old Kuhan, who played his on-screen father.
“He spent a lot of time coaching Harvind about his character. Kuhan had said he could relate to Appoi because his father used to be really strict with him as a kid. So he really helped Harvind bring out the Appoi in him,” explained Shanjhey.
Apart from the cast, Shajhey also paid close attention to the location of the shoot. Faced with a limited budget, he knew that nailing the right cast and perfect location would make or break his film. He wanted a village set in a valley surrounded by mountains to be the main setting for Jagat.
“I couldn’t find it. I spent several years trying to find a place like that. Then, finally, I found Klian Intan in Pengkalan Hulu, Perak. It was deja vu for me because it reminded me of the place that I grew up in.”
“We had about 25 crew members and all the shoots were planned precisely. For example, we’d only shoot at a certain location for its sunset. It was chaotic to get from one place to another! And with a small budget, we couldn’t afford to waste any time.”
It has been an intensive labour of love for Shanjhey to make Jagat.
“The idea of seeing this film become a reality is something I dreamt of for so many years. I felt like I can’t do anything else until I’ve completed this project.”
After more than a decade, he can now breathe easy.
“I’ve spent the last few years making short films and documentaries. So, to have a feature film like Jagat under my belt makes me feel complete as a director. It’s a very satisfying feeling.”