A still from ‘Jallikattu’
A still from ‘Jallikattu’

Lijo’s Bullseye

  • Two years after ‘Angamaly Diaries’, Lijo Jose Pellissery is back with the barnstorming ‘Jallikattu’
  • In the film, a huge buffalo escapes, spreading chaos in the whole town

The world premiere of Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu at the Toronto International Film Festival in September—a public screening—is packed with the Indian diaspora. You can hear snatches of Malayalam across the aisles, and with the cast and crew present, the atmosphere is buzzing like a first-day-first-show in a south Indian multiplex.

Pellissery captured the imagination of the nation with his fifth film, Angamaly Diaries (2017), which created such a stir that people mistakenly refer to it as his debut film. A couple of days after the premiere, Pellissery meets with the media and, asked about the subtle shift in the grammar of his film-making over the years, quips that he is only a seven-year-old film-maker. He corrects himself. “Seven films old film-maker."

A poster of Jallikattu
A poster of Jallikattu

He followed Angamaly Diaries with 2018’s Ee Ma Yau, a move towards a more classical Malayalam style—his earlier work was more Hollywood, readily identifiable and relatable. It could be a reason why Ee Ma Yau is not as well known outside Kerala as Angamaly Diaries.

“It’s just evolution. An ageing process. It’s an influence of many things—films, the people I met in the intervening years, and books," his face lighting up as he speaks of books to me in Toronto.

His films often have fantastical elements and he has spoken about his fascination with Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Latin American literature. Not to mention the many interconnected characters in his films. “Yeah. It’s all there. I think that’s very important. The kind of stories you listen to. Or even music. All of these feed your brain with the imagery that might end up appearing on screen."

For the last two films, he had Malayalam novelists as screenwriters—P.F. Mathews for Ee Ma Yau and S. Hareesh for Jallikattu. Jallikattu is based on Hareesh’s short story Maoist. “Moving into an idea should happen organically. Therefore, working with writers as good as Mathews or Hareesh is an advantage for me. Because as a story the content is so good and strong. The readings that excite me are ones that make me feel that we should go and make a movie out of it. One just has to figure out which story is the one."

So, what excited him about Jallikattu? “First, it was about this animal entering the village and turning everything upside down. Not only physically, but everyone is mentally affected as well. And it could be a mix of many things around us. If it looks violent, then definitely the surroundings fed me with thoughts related to that."

That brings us to the obvious question. Jallikattu has political undertones with a whole lot of subtext. Pellissery’s film is not about the Tamil Nadu sport jallikattu, in which a raging bull is released into narrow spaces and the participating crowd of men try to tame it by holding on to its hump long enough or removing the flags attached to its horns. In Jallikattu, a buffalo about to be slaughtered for its meat escapes, bringing the whole town not to a halt, but rioting chaos.

In an interview to Indian cinema website Silverscreen in December, Pellissery said, “There is a subtext, and if no one gets it, it’s all fine." But he is more guarded now. “It’s not about me making a statement. For me, it’s telling a story from the raw material I have, and it ends there. And not defining what I meant. It’s about the entire set of audiences who decide how they receive it, not me. They have all the freedom to do that. If you figure out a thousand other ways of reading it, I am happy with it. If someone is inspired by this work and creates something else with it, I am happier."

But it wasn’t easy for Pellissery to bring Jallikattu to the screen. “The evolution of the short story to what you see now took around two years. Just because we did not know how to go about it with the animal. I was never convinced with the VFX from any company that we met or any contemporary film that I saw." He says he wasn’t ready to pay a massive amount to create an animal which would ultimately look unconvincing on screen. That seems prudent considering the shoddy VFX in several big-budget Indian films recently.

“To crack that, it took a while. We went the old-school way. Like how (Steven) Spielberg created Jaws in the 1970s. If back then they could do that, now it must be even better." Jallikattu’s narrative demands are huge. There are scenes of the animal running through dense forests, roads, houses, and in one stellar sequence, even a bank. There is one where it is lifted out of a deep well. In some scenes, admittedly passive, sober ones, they have used a live animal while for much of the action—quick, violent and disorienting—Pellissery and his team turned towards animatronics.

Any Lijo Jose Pellissery film has two constants—food and religion, prominently the church. “I love shooting food. If you go back to the basics, it is the place, the kind of food, the dialect and language they use. The sensibility they possess. Their own bubble. I use these factors to make that space real. How they live as a community is reflected in such textures."

The religious aspect is predominant in other films—be it the Syrian Christians of Amen and Angamaly Diaries, or the Latin Catholics of Ee Ma Yau. “I had a very Christian upbringing. I grew up in a hostel that was more of the same again. The symbols I saw around me come through in my films. I definitely don’t intend to focus on it as a singular entity. It is just an angle that I know too well."

Aditya is a Chennai-based film critic.

Jallikattu released in Kerala on 4 October.

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