India’s Oscar entry this year, Jallikattu, is an unusual film. It bristles with a raw, unbridled energy which keeps you engaged till the end. The film is based on a short story, Maoist, by S Hareesh and runs on a well-worn track that man is a ‘beast at heart’. And, that man has to be feared more than a wild, bewildered buffalo, which, in this case, has escaped a slaughterhouse and is on a rampage through rubber plantations.
All through the 94-minute drama, the film seems to play out this narrative through furiously fast-paced camera work; a guttural, thumping tribal beat soundtrack and a ferocious, no-holds barred brawl between two men who growl like animals.
Ok, we get the picture. But, it becomes too much of an over-kill when new-age Malayalam filmmaker, Lijo Jose Pellissery, drives home this point further when a group of cave men running through a cave (sic) fight with each other to feast on the exposed, red flesh of a live buffalo. (Somehow, this reminds you of a scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, when a buffalo is sacrificed even as Captain Willard assassinates Colonel Kurtz). If you overlook these obvious flaws, Jallikattu is a visual treat.
The director weaves in some well-crafted shots of the frenzied buffalo chase by the villagers at night. The top shots of men carrying flame torches in hands and the low angle shot of the buffalo trapped inside a dark well, glancing up helplessly at the circle of men with torch lights, are a visual delight. Frames of villagers barreling through dark green plantations or through tree-lined burbling brooks are lit up just by the torches these men carry.
In an interview during the release of Jallikattu last year, cinematographer Girish Gangadharan (who has also shot Tamil superstar Vijay’s Sarkar), had revealed that the film was shot at night with balloon lights. Also, the camera was hardly ever static and most of the shots were done walking and running ‘in sync’ with the characters.
Jallikattu also has Pelissery’s signature long takes. There is one long shot of the men running on a low-hanging bridge, which is spectacular to watch. Gangadharan has admitted that he had revisited films like Jaws, Apocalypto and Mad Max: Fury Road, to get into the momentum of the fast sequences.
The film dwells on food a lot as well conjuring up images of slow cooking meat curry with coconut milk, yummy tender yam with curds, and coconut slices soaked in beef fat. There are enough sequences here to drive home a Keralite’s penchant for beef curry. In one scene, during the hunt in the dead of night, Kuttachan, who has been called in to kill the animal, asks his young companion squatting beside him, “Do you know which is the tastiest meat in the world?” After a pause, he mutters, “It is human flesh” and flashes his torch on the face of the young man, who is frozen with fright.
“Did I scare you?” asks Kuttachan with a hard laugh.
Moments like these keep the film’s sparse screenplay going. Otherwise, some montages which are meant to capture the individual quirks of the villagers fall flat at times. This seems to happen especially in the scenes dealing with women.
Actually, this is a film fully charged with male testosterone, probably because the subject largely deals with men having to chase a truant buffalo. But, the portrayal of women is frankly baffling – a wife tearfully wipes away a tear as she is slapped for serving her husband the same old rice cake for breakfast; in another sequence, you have a squabbling wife of a policeman threatening to go off to her father’s house (we don’t know why!) and one of the principal characters, Sophie (played by the winsome Santhy Balachandran) is forcibly kissed by her brother’s help, played by Anthony Verghese. She vigorously fights him off since she clearly dislikes him. In the next second, however, she calmly tells him that she will cook him the beef curry with tapioca when he brings her the beef pieces from the captured buffalo. Is this about winning over the pretty village lass after victoriously taming the bull? Well, best not to think about this. Let’s keep it surreal.
Lijo Pellissery belongs to a new generation of Malayalam film directors and we hope they are more gender neutral than their predecessors. This director, who is said to be influenced by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Akira Kurosawa, Quentin Tarantino, K G George etc., has steadily built up a reputation for himself as an unconventional filmmaker.
This son of a theatre artiste, who had travelled with his father’s theatre group when he was a child, entered the Malayalam film industry in 2010 with Nayakan, a story of revenge involving a Kathakali artist. His first commercial success was Amen in 2013, a romantic musical comedy, which was critically acclaimed.
Subsequently, his small-budget Angamaly Diaries, a black comedy, centred around a gangster plot drew a lot of attention nationally and his Ea. Ma. Yau bagged him Kerala state awards. Pelissery’s movies are often full of dark humour, religious motifs and pokes fun of parochial behavior.
“Lijo is one of our brilliant filmmakers, who belongs to the new generation,” says Sibi Malayil, a committee member of FEFKA’s Director’s Union. “Lijo has his own unique style, which he has evolved with time. His Jallikattu is a symbolic film which says how people can easily turn into beasts. It may not have been a commercial success when it released in theatres, but it was very well received, especially by the younger audience. It is picturised so beautifully, and shot mostly at night with large crowds and minimal lighting. I think the subject is universal and people at the Oscars will be able relate to it. We hope this film, the third Malayalam film after Guru and Adaminte Makan Abu, will bring the Oscar home,” Malayil said with confidence.
Another avant-garde Malayalam filmmaker, Mahesh Narayan, whose Fahad Faasil starrer, Malik is waiting for release, is happy that a Malayalam film has been chosen as the India entry for Oscars.
“It is a big achievement for regional cinema,” he says. And adds, “We have all been watching how Lijo has progressed into a master of the craft every time he makes a film. And, we are always waiting to watch his next,” said Narayan.
Before its selection in the Best International Film category for the 2021 Academy Awards, Jallikattu has picked up Kerala state awards. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, where it was well received but did not pick up any awards.
Pelissery also won the Best Director Award for Jallikattu at the 50th International Film Festival of India. Now, it remains to be seen if the film makes a dent at the Oscars or just sinks into oblivion like the other Indian entries every year.