Web series ‘Pettaikaali’ looks at jallikattu from class angle, busts some myths
Contrary to the way most Tamil films have portrayed jallikattu as a masochistic sport, the web series has earned a name for being an ethnographically-rich documentary about its 5,000-year journey
As jallikattu, the famed bull-taming sport, officially kicks off at Alanganallur village in Madurai district on January 17 and continues for at least another two weeks, a new Tamil web series has become the talking point.
Contrary to the way most Tamil films have hitherto portrayed jallikattu as a masochistic sport, the web series titled Pettaikaali is critical about the game and shatters the myths surrounding the way the game is conducted.
It looks at the sport from a class angle and, in eight episodes, the series has earned a name for being an ethnographically-rich documentary about jallikattu’s 5,000-year journey.
Streaming on Aha OTT, the series has been directed by debutant L Rajkumar and bankrolled by National Award-winning filmmaker Vetri Maran.
The message the series wants to convey is simple: in jallikattu, the bulls do not undergo any kind of ordeal, as claimed by animal rights activists.
From Madurai to Sivaganga
Though the state has various forms of bull-taming events lined up throughout the year, the event gains much focus on the eve of Pongal, particularly in the southern parts of the state, like Madurai.
The web series has drawn attention, in the first place, by showing Sivaganga district as the place of occurrence instead of cliched villages of Madurai. It says Sivaganga also holds a fair share of bull-vaulting history but it has not enjoyed the limelight that Madurai has got all these years.
The plot is based on a historical friction between two villages, namely Thamaraikulam and Mullaiyur. Residents of the former consider themselves as a dominant group and, hence, tell the latter that they don’t have the rights to tame their bulls, which are participating in jallikattu. They think if the youths of Mullaiyur tame their bulls, it would become a shame for Thamaraikulam.
However, the youths of Mullaiyur go against the order and the series goes on to show how it impacts the lives of people on both sides.
Class, not caste, a bone of contention
There is a general perception that jallikattu has innate caste issues. That could be true in other regions, like Madurai and Ramanathapuram districts. But in Sivaganga, as the filmmaker claims, the class angle plays a bigger role than caste.
The forefathers of a large number of people in the region served as cavalry in the Pandya army. They now work as agricultural labourers on the fields of landlords. At one point, the labourers demand a small parcel of land for their livelihood and want to be freed of slavery. But the landlord rejects their appeal, prompting the labourers to develop a grudge against their masters.
As time goes by, the labourers gradually move to the forests and start domesticating wild bovines. These animals become their livelihood and a society emerges. Day by day, the people of Mullaiyur come up in their lives, which disturbs the wealthy landlords of Thamaraikulam. They dislike being treated equally with the people who were once slaves under them. That is the reason they are barred from taming bulls from Thamaraikulam.
The rupture between these two villages are portrayed through six powerful characters, namely Selva Sekaran (played by Vela Ramamoorthy), Veera Sekaran (Bala Hasan), Muthaiah (Kishore), Pandi (Kalaiyarasan), Parthiban (Antony), and Thenmozhi (Sheela Rajkumar). A bull named Kaali plays the titular role.
Beauty in the detail
Pettaikaali has detailed the sport like few others. The authenticity of the detailing is reflected in many rules that are still practised in the sport, such as a pidiveerar (a tamer) should not hold the horns and tail of the bull, but only the hump. Also, a bull should not be tamed by more than one tamer at a time.
The filmmaker claims that cattle breeders cannot bring their bulls easily to the arena. They should first seek permission from their traditional deity, and astrologers or temple priests must be consulted for that. The bull owners are also stopped from malpractices, such as making the bulls inebriated and throwing or smearing chilli powder on them.
The series also breaks some myths built by Kollywood over the years. Most films showed that if the landlord’s bull was tamed, it was killed immediately. But in reality, the bull was not killed but sold — either for breeding or for consumption.
According to Rajkumar, after the game, the bull was set free, and it would return to its master’s house. “If it returned, the family perceives that their traditional deity has returned to their house. If it does not, it is considered a bad omen. Sometimes, the bulls die by jumping into wells if they are defeated in the arena,” Rajkumar has claimed in a column he writes in a Tamil weekly.
Lord Shiva as saviour
Another interesting thing one can observe in this series is the use of religion. It is generally believed that cattle breeders mostly worship Lord Krishna. However, the series reveals that the cattle owners in Sivaganga are worshippers of Lord Shiva. It must be noted that an ancient temple in that district is itself known as Kaalaiyaar Kovil (temple of the bull).
“In many Shiva temples, people first worship Nandi, the bull, and then the main deity,” he said.
For Rajkumar, a major rationale behind conducting such a sport is to find out whether a bull can be used for fertilisation or farming activities. The untamed bull is used for impregnating the cows and the tamed bull is taken for ploughing the fields.
Velraj’s cinematography and background music by Santhosh Narayanan keep the audience engaged. The one major takeaway from this film could be condensed in the following dialogue: “Jallikattu is a game between the human’s valour and bull’s physical strength. Watch the game just as a sport and don’t bring petty politics into it.”