Generational male angst: Jagat and The Force Awakens

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With all the buzz about Star Wars: Ep. VII – The Force Awakens, some local moviegoers may not be aware of a little local film that was also released yesterday. Jagat, written and directed by Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, is a Tamil-language Malaysian film made with a modest budget. It has a gargantuan task going head-to-head with The Force Awakens, the Star Wars sequel that is probably the most awaited and geekiest film this year.

The two films may be worlds apart – one is a multi-million-dollar Hollywood blockbuster with everything at its disposal, and the other, a lone filmmaker’s immense struggle to bring his vision to fruition with whatever’s at his disposal. But ironically, they do share some thematic similarities. Both are about male angst, men driven impotent by circumstances beyond their control and who seek to compensate that with anger and violence. Both are about generational pain and suffering that trap with their cyclical nature. Both are about the battle between the dark side and the light.

But what’s interesting is the clear contrast provided by the two films being released simultaneously. When big movies like The Force Awakens come along, exhibitors will often relegate other movies to smaller, fewer halls. Blockbuster franchises like Star Wars and James Bond are deemed surefire hits and exhibitors are not afraid to gamble with extra halls for them. Normally, other productions would voluntarily make way for films like these.

But Jagat is doing something quite unprecedented for an independent film (I’m using the term “independent” loosely). It’s on a collision course with a Hollywood juggernaut. And Jagat is also a different kind of Indian-language Malaysian theatrical release. It eschews the usual Indian movie conventions and goes for a lot of visual shorthand in place of verbal exposition. Hence, no one really knows what’s going to happen when David meets Goliath.

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Nostalgia vs Next Gen

I’m not a big fan of J.J. Abrams’ work. In fact, I don’t care much for his films. I couldn’t sit through his “Beverly Hills 90210” version of Star Trek, and I thought his Super 8 was a mediocre attempt at 80s monster nostalgia.

But I would admit that with The Force Awakens, he had the unenviable task of satiating the nostalgia-lust of those old enough to have seen the original trilogy on the big screen, and winning new converts. The result is a film that is constantly winking at its audience and at itself. And that can get quite tiresome.

The trouble with this new generation of fanboy-geek filmmakers in Hollywood today, a group that includes Abrams, is that they’re always in the service of the fans. Movies now make changes whenever there’s a complaint from fans. The days of the Hollywood auteur and the maverick filmmakers of the 60s and 70s are truly long gone. Today, much of mainstream commercial Hollywood is of the fanboys, by the fanboys and for the fanboys, from studio executives all the way to the cinemagoers.

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And so, The Force Awakens is a kind of movie custom-made for a specific purpose. And because Abrams himself is a fanboy, the movie is really just a piece of fan fiction. What happens is that The Force Awakens is like Episodes IV to VI crammed into two-and-a-half hours, made up of nods, tributes and homages that overwhelm whatever little originality it first had. It’s like the snake that swallows its own tail; it folds in on itself, becomes a self-knowing film about its own saga. The young ones approach the saga with caution while the old ones tell them, “It’s true, all of it!” And we begin again, like new.

If you think about it, when George Lucas first made Star Wars: Ep. IV – A New Hope (as it’s now known), he was just telling a story he wanted to tell … to 12-year-olds, that is. He was one of the young, maverick directors of the 70s, in service to no one but himself. Yet, he was already putting together pieces from other mythologies, cultures and folklores, and making them into something of his own.

Today, Abrams is putting together pieces of the Star Wars saga itself into something he tries to claim as his own. But it’s too much of contemporary Hollywood’s descent into fanboy filmmaking. Take, for instance, the latest James Bond film Spectre, a kind of fanboy homage to the Bond of old. Then there was Mad Max: Fury Road, also a kind of fanboy film, or rather a film made by Mad Max‘s original creator for the fanboys. Coming soon are Ghostbusters and many more.

If you ask me, The Force Awakens is kind of like a remake or reboot. Think about it.

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Anger is an energy

While The Force Awakens is a big machine built with specific parts meant for specific purposes, Jagat is a small but purposeful contraption that chugs along to the beat of its own intention. It is not hemmed in by notions of merchandising and projected sequels. It is not made in service of any particular group with a vested interest or expectation. It is a filmmaker telling a story he wants to tell. To grown-ups.

It is a story that feels personal, about the kinds of people and places the filmmaker is familiar with. It is an observation, a study, of a people on the fringes of society, released from one form of exploitation only to fall into another, unknowingly trapped by their own inability to break out of a cycle of anger and violence perpetuated since time immemorial. It is a story without a solution, yet it is a hopeful story.

In direct contrast to its blockbuster competitor, Jagat is the kind of film born without the shackles of commercial necessities, without the need to cater to expectations. In fact, it goes against many expectations. Yet it maintains an entertainment value with its many moments of humour, action, tension, drama, poignancy, and real humanity. It is, in fact, a commercial film.

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Set in the 1990s, the film is about the underclass Tamil-speaking Indian community who, having left the estate life, are thrust into a world they’re not quite familiar with nor are ready for. As such, they fall into yet another form of exploitation, finding themselves deeper and deeper into the cycle of poverty that breeds resentment and angst. The generational trap is portrayed through a young boy, his father and his gangster uncles, and how they eventually destroy themselves and each other.

It’s a gritty, potent tale very much like a cross between Scorsese’s Mean Streets and U-Wei’s Kaki Bakar, well-told and structurally interesting, an impressive debut feature. Equally impressive is its marketing and promotion, but admittedly it’s hard to beat the Star Wars hype that’s been building since months ago.

Like I said, no one really knows what’s going to happen. But keep this point in mind:

The Force Awakens has special effects but is emotionally flat.

Jagat has no special effects but is emotionally engaging.

The choice is really yours.

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