A Father, A Son, and the Isolation of a Malaccan Fishing Platform
Jaya just lost his mother and is immediately sent to the only member of his family who is alive, his father, Johar. Johar works in the restricted and remote area of the jermal where hard labor and isolation are the daily routine. A dark past hovers over Johar that forbids him to return to land. Exactly 12 years ago, Johar learnt that his wife was unfaithful, and so assaulted the man she was having an affair with and left him for dead. Johar will be arrested if he ever returns to land. Jaya arrives on the jermal by boat only to be immediately rejected by Johar who is shocked go learn that Jaya is his son. Fully aware that he cannot return to land to bring the boy back, Johar is forced to accept Jaya as a worker on the jermal.
Coming to terms with the news, both man and boy don’t know how to manage their newly found situation. Jaya tries to blend into the crowd of other boys on the jermal, but fitting in is difficult. With his boyish looks and schoolboy demeanor, he is a visible and direct contrast to the hard working boys. Jaya spends the day working hard and adjusting to the harsh and new environment while secretly desiring the approval of his father. Instead, Johar completely denies that he has a son, even when provoked by his friend, the cook, Bandi. The situation is further aggravated by the boys who taunt and bully Jaya to no end.
Jaya can’t seem to adjust quickly enough to his new environment, and Johar is no help. By denying the fact that he has a son, Johar destroys Jaya’s expectation of ever finding the place he has hoped and longed for. Feeling dejected, Jaya attempts to escape, but fails. He is brought back to the jermal and is punished. The boys are taken aback by Jaya’s bold move and gains a little bit more respect from them. The film explores a classic theme but it is given a unique twist by its setting: an isolated fishing platform, or jermal, in the middle of the Malacca Straits off North Sumatra.
The central character is Jaya (Iqbal S. Manurung) who is sent to the jermal to be with his father Johar (Didi Petet), a uncommunicative and solitary figure with a past he is determined to reject. Snubbed by his father, Jaya is left to fend for himself in a tough new environment that transforms him from a naïve schoolboy into a hardened survivor.
A jermal is a great location for a film and not just aesthetically. The possibilities of it being in the middle of the seas gives it the this context of isolation. Director Ravi Bharwani developed the story together with Rayya Makarim in a scriptwriting workshop. This is a very visual film and it explores the irony in the relationship between Jaya and Johar. Johar is this person who can talk, he can express himself but he doesn’t say a word, he’s quiet, everything is closed up. Whereas Bandi, who cannot talk, is expressive and we see that someone who cannot talk is actually expressing more than somebody who can.
Ideas of adulthood and childhood/acceptance and rejection are explored here. We learn that despite receiving many letters from Jaya’s mother about his son, Johar has never opened them and has had no knowledge of a son. He greets the news in the manner of a teenager, essentially refusing to have anything to do with the youngster. But because of his past, he can’t allow Jaya to leave and so he sets him to work among the other kids on the platform. The situation is reminiscent of Charles Dickens with the kids essentially free-range. Jaya knows that he must adapt quickly to survive. Initially he is rejected by the kids as well as his father, so he has to sleep out on the deck, but he quickly learns to live on his wits and it isn’t long before he is winning friends and making the sort of adult choices as regards rights and responsibilities that his father shies away from. As he becomes more adult in his thinking, Johar finds he has a lot of growing up to do as well.
Emotions run high throughout the film, but the action never feels histrionic and the flashes of cruelty are offset. I should note that none of the youngsters including Jaya have been trained to act and this makes it all the more realistic.