“SURE, ah? This is a Tamil film...”
Luckily, the third degree many got at the box-office counter when they bought tickets for Jagat did not deter Malaysian moviegoers – it became the longest-running Tamil-language Malaysian movie.
Like recent local box-office toppers, “non-Malay” features OlaBola and The Journey, the secret for Jagat’s “success” is the reception it got from Malaysian viewers regardless of race.
As fan Kenneth Hew commented on Facebook, “My friend thought she was in the wrong theatre because there were so many Chinese watching, haha. This is truly a film for all Malaysians...”
The critical buzz, sadly, did not translate into box-office success; Jagat grossed less than RM250,000.
Still, director and writer Shanjhey Kumar Perumal is touched by the support for his film as it is a victory of sorts.
A week after Jagat’s release, Shanjhey had to hold a press conference to highlight how a few cinemas were trying to “drop” his film out of their lineup despite their obligation to screen it under the Government’s Compulsory Screening Scheme (Skim Wajib Tayang).
What kept the film alive were film fans who had rushed to catch it and urged friends and family to do the same.
“In terms of funding, facilities and opportunities for filmmaking, Malaysia is one of the best. But there is still a problem in our film ecosystem,” Shanjhey opines.
He is not alone at feeling shortchanged by local cinemas; many claim exhibitors have been exploiting loopholes in the screening scheme.
A common excuse given is the low quality of local films. While this is somewhat justified – according to Finas in 2013, nearly 67% of local films failed to meet its standards – many good ones have fallen through the cracks because of the negative perception.
Finas’ recent announcement of improvements to the troubled scheme should pacify both sides.
As reported by Star2, to ensure all local films shown in the cinemas are up to mark, from July, Finas will start evaluating the quality of films before granting them wajib tayang. In return, cinema operators have to fulfil their commitment, including showing the film five times a day for two weeks.
The new rules can return moviegoers’ confidence in local films, says film critic Hassan Abd Muthalib at a recent Finas’ forum with local Indian filmmakers. This will translate into more bodies in the cineplexes, which will help convince local exhibitors of the value of homegrown movies.
Liew Seng Tat, whose award-winning Lelaki Harapan Dunia only lasted two weeks in the cinemas here, agrees.
“Film exhibitors look at the opening weekend earnings to estimate a film’s potential box office tally. That’s why we always encourage people to catch films in their opening weekend.”
So, while it goes without saying that local filmmakers need to up their game, viewers also need to shed their prejudice about local films.
Recent films show they are worth the RM15 ticket price, Liew notes, pointing to our alltime top box-office grosser Polis Evo – 2015’s cop bromance hit.
“Thanks to Polis Evo, people can see that our production quality has improved. It might not be up there with Hollywood films yet but it is good.”
An issue is our racially-segmented film market – some 90% of Malaysian films are reportedly produced for the Malay market while the balance is divided between a fledgling local Chinese market and an even tinier local Indian market.
“We cannot blame Malaysian viewers or expect them to be converted overnight; for a long time, the only choice we had were films from Hollywood, Hong Kong and Bollywood. Local films meant Malay films, and the Malaysian Chinese, for example, didn’t watch Malay films because they couldn’t compare to HK films.”
To help the industry, he stresses, we need to smash the race box office, as The Journey demonstrated.
“The Journey was set for the Chinese New Year crowd, but the interest that spread by word of mouth was so high that even the Malay audience flocked to watch it.
“Malaysia cannot rely on only one race to be successful, and that is also true in our film industry. We cannot earn enough money at the box office if we rely on one race to watch our film. And the industry cannot grow because the market is just that big.”
Shanjhey too believes that celebrating diversity is vital for the growth of the local film industry.
“There is a debate saying we should all develop movies that are watchable for all races. I think what we need is also for Malaysian film fans to develop their taste to watch local films in a language and culture not their own,” he says, pointing to education as a key element in nurturing diverse outlooks.
“If there is anything that can help audiences be more culturally flexible or appreciate visual art like film, it is education.”
Many industry movers and shakers have called for education initiatives to cultivate art and film appreciation among the young.
As he wrote in his paper “The Malay and Malaysian Films”, film scholar and practitioner Dr Mahadi J. Murat believes it is crucial for our film industry’s survival.
He pointed out, in 2009, out of a population of 26 million, Malaysia had only around 300,000 regular viewers of local films.
“If we can increase the number of viewers to even one million, it would change the face of the local film industry,” he had noted.
Director Bernard Chauly has thrown the gauntlet back to the filmmakers to groom a new generation of cinemagoers, as he is quoted by film rag Film Business Asia.
“In Malaysia, the audience starts at four years old. If we want people to watch films tomorrow, we must start making films for the very young.”
Liew is optimistic that change is nigh, as Jagat has shown to a certain extent: “Although there are still many people who just say ‘I’m not going to watch a Malaysian film. I’m not going to waste my money,’ – there are others who are watching Malaysian films just to support them.”
He believes it is timely.
“When the late Yasmin Ahmad’s films were first released about 10 years ago, they did not earn big money at the box office even though they were critically acclaimed. They were not your typical Malay films, so they scared away many mainstream Malay audience. But I think if her films were re-released now they would attract more viewers.
“I guess these things take time – now our society is perhaps more ready for this cross-racial ‘journey’,” he says.
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