When my partner and I went to watch Lijo Jose Pellissery's Jallikattu after a few days of its September release in a rogue multiplex in Thalayolaparambu, Kerala, we took my 70-year-old mother, a retired schoolteacher, with us. But she gave up on the film very early and even managed to get some sleep, sitting in the middle of a euphoric crowd of predominantly male viewers. At one point, when her sleep got disrupted by the surrounding noise, she glanced at the screen for a second, then turned to us and asked: "How long will they run after a buffalo? After all, it is just a buffalo!"
Incidentally, film critic Baradwaj Rangan's review of Jallikattu for Film Companion begins with the same question. Summing up the film's premise, he says: "Imagine the situation. We are talking about a buffalo. It's not like a panther or something!" But unlike my mother who still holds that question against us, Rangan brings up the matter precisely to abandon it — as if doing so is the precondition to appreciate the film, as though asking questions of logic has become old-fashioned. He continues: "In fact, it all sounds a little absurd that for 90 minutes of the running time, we are going to be threatened by a buffalo that is running amok. But this absurdity is very integral to its premise (…)."
The absurd seems to have become a ready frame of reference to attribute value to cultural commodities these days, much like how the realist aesthetic was considered the promise and precondition for good cinema until a few decades ago. But, of course, we are living in weird times when the absurd abounds all around us, and it is only normal that the art would look to capture it. However, there is a difference between art attempting to capture the absurd — a project that usually identifies the absurd as so, like in Anurag Kashyap's 2007 film No Smoking — and art aligning itself with the absurd, thus normalising it. After all, realism could be deployed to reveal layers of reality we were encouraged to not register (consider the 2014 Marathi film Court), but also as a norm symmetrical to the rationalised view of the world put to order by capital and the State.
Today, we don't take that old order as a big deal any more, as we have now been granted full view of the ordering processes, allowing us to see for ourselves the absurdities involved. Unsurprisingly, trends in contemporary culture suggest nobody anymore grants realism that high status it used to enjoy: we go to watch films made entirely out of computer graphics, not to be fooled by those images as having anything to do with reality, but to see how well the image-making has been achieved by the CGI team. Viral videos bring to us on our mobile phones glimpses of "the really real", captured firsthand — the stuff that big media doesn't care to tell us about. We watch television news as well as the news-making processes in the studio behind the news anchor at the same time. Almost all contemporary films make direct references to cinema as an industrial-cultural institution engaged in representing the world in slanted ways. In other words, our faith in the order is not diminished by our knowledge about the ordering processes; on the contrary, we now see the normal as absurd.
This also makes non-mainstream art-making more challenging, for it is not easy to conceive of meaningful interventions in art when old avant-garde devices have become mainstream. And this problem has a direct bearing on the themes of alienation and existentialism — themes that have overwhelmed much of parallel cinema in India. One could say, with the explicit theme 'there is a beast in all of us', Jallikattu engages with a fundamentally existential/alienating question. Yet, it produces a response in the viewer that is quite opposite of the melancholia that the classical existential/absurdist art evoked: for those for whom the film worked, the dark truth they get from it doesn't alienate, but exhilarates. A case in contrast could be the 1959 French absurdist play Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, written as a critique of the rise of Fascism, in which the inhabitants of a provincial French town turn into rhinoceroses. In contrast, here we have a film producing a collective of enchanted viewers with the ironic assertion that 'deep inside, we are all beasts', making them look like the old film society crowd on steroids. Instead of the existential question producing a disillusionment with the mob, here the film produces an entrancing identification with the swarm.
To me, this aspect is central to the film, and Pellissery's films in general. Interestingly, Pellissery has said in interviews that what fascinates him the most is the mob: evidently, he loves setting his films amongst mobs; he admits he almost cannot shoot indoors; his famous long, single shots are usually attempts to capture the mob in its hysteria, left unto itself. Since so much has already been made out of the mobs we see in these films, let us look outside of the films to try to see if we can make sense of the collective that materialises around Jallikattu, in patterns and modes of reception.
The Mob and Cultural Knowledge
For all the generous thumbs-up that Jallikattu received from critics, especially in the English media, the film clearly had a minority of detractors who trolled as pretentious both the film and "the intellectuals" who saw something in the film that the common viewer couldn't see. So, the film worked for a specific segment, and not for the general audience of popular cinema. In all probability, the makers of the film would take that as a compliment than as a judgment, as their claim is also that it is a connoisseurs' film meant for those with some basic capacity to produce a discourse on cinema invoking certain cultural knowledge about new trends in art, international cinema and related areas. The film is virtually left to them to make sense of and publicise, considering the existence of such a segment as a real dependable factor. Thus, the 'knowledge work' that this recently emerged and expanding audience segment would voluntarily do — mainly online — to valourise the film was crucial for the filmmakers. It is a dream the old parallel cinema movement would have liked to see coming true, because here is a collective of viewers organically emerging by invoking certain notions of common knowledge, finding pleasure in doing the required brainwork to recognise the alienating conditions they live in when art shows it to them… and the Internet is the apparatus that gives form to this collective.
In other words, if the old avant-garde filmmaker had to make films with just a vague optimistic idea of the existence of an addressee, which the distributors and exhibitors would easily dismiss as non-existent anyway, now the Internet seems to be capable of manifesting this obscure category as a real force — in forms ranging from affective displays on electronic media screens to the fan videos people create and circulate online. One might argue that the collective that surfaced around Jallikattu is a pretentious, knowledge-flaunting one, but still, it shows certain desirable dimensions when it says, "we all recognise the absurd for what it is", or "we can collectively agree upon a set of references", and so on. It is sad that today the image of the mob immediately brings to our minds Islamophobic lynching mobs. But if there is one thing definitely desirable that the Internet offers, it is its capacity to produce organic collectives rallying around common knowledge. Perhaps, we should cherish this capability of the Internet to produce the commons, against its predominant use to let more and more people to say, "let us agree to disagree". If so, we should ignore the film if it didn't work for us, and take the phenomenon around it as evidence of something desirable about a future with Internet. We shouldn't make the mistake of taking the credit away from the mob and attributing it to the art work, like we did in 2011.
When the Internet arrived
The sublime energies of the early days of the Internet's popular use has occasionally spilled over to the traditional public sphere in Kerala, producing spectacles. For example, one of the first viral videos in Malayalam was born in March 2011 when Kerala's own "cringe pop" queen Santhosh Pandit released an in-your-face terrible song "Rathri Shubharathri" on YouTube to promote his first feature film Krishnanum Radhayum which, when released later in the year, turned out to be equally awful but also extremely popular for the very same reason. As Malayalis had already taken majorly to social networking platforms by then, the song's YouTube link was shared widely for precisely what it was worth, making it a sensational Internet phenomenon — much like the laughable video song Silsila Hai Silsila had gone viral among Malayali Internet and mobile phone users just a few months earlier. Data was still expensive, but that didn't prevent Malayalis from downloading, sharing and remixing these songs and dancing to them in ecstatic merriment — all gestures performing one clear message: "it's so bad that it's super funny, and we all get it instantly".
Distributors had refused to pick Krishnanum Radhayum primarily due to the absence of any recognisable stars in it, until the Internet phenomenon made the 'public enthusiasm' around it too obvious to ignore. Being no strangers to gambling with chances, theatres decided to try their luck at grabbing a share of the big capital that corporations such as YouTube and Google had started harvesting out of the collective enthusiasm around the Internet. The gamble paid off, as the film was released in theatres in November 2011 to a "rousing welcome" from especially the young men in Kerala. All reports suggested that the film's release instilled a fresh lease of life into the gasping exhibition sector in Kerala at the time. As one TV report suggested, the State-owned Kairali theatre in Thiruvananthapuram brought in Krishnanum Radhayum by removing the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Ra.One, which could only collect Rs. 6 lakh over a week, whereas the first day's collections for Pandit's film clocked in Rs. 50,000.
The moral anxiety this caused was not small. Cultural critics and academics were called to diagnose what was going on. Broadly, two theses emerged. The media pundits pathologised it, calling it the result of sadomasochism or the cynical narcissism in deriding an inferior "other". We are in no position to say there was no element of truth in this argument. But far more amusing was the analysis that academics with far more theoretical ambitions offered. In a TV debate, film scholar and critic CS Venkiteswaran chose to see it as a subversive moment when viewers cheered Pandit and his film for sabotaging dominant cinema's conventions and aesthetics. For him, Pandit was an outsider taking on the star-controlled mainstream film industry by rejecting its old codes, and the audience was responding positively to the interventions of Pandit. Crucially, in the process of arguing so, he dismissed the enterprise of aesthetic evaluation altogether, saying aesthetics is relative, after all. Another research project funded by Delhi's CSDS-Sarai on the phenomenon drew very similar conclusions, identifying Pandit as a defiant subaltern figure. We shouldn't miss the irony here: the whole phenomenon was about the joy of discovering that an instant collective agreement on certain lowest common denominators in aesthetic evaluation is possible. Yet, academic analyses saw this as an occasion to renounce aesthetics, and to attribute agency back to the very object and its creator who had merely failed spectacularly to clear the bottom line, its failure reifying the collective wisdom. We took the agency away from the mob and attributed it to the object that the mob used to materialise itself around; we started seeing complexities where none existed, and overlooked what actually needed some serious attention and appreciation.
The collective that materialised on the Internet around such cringe pop objects were far more inclusive and supremely entertaining, compared to the exclusive, culturally elite groups of cinephiles that a film like Jallikattu manages to mobilise around it. We can see versions of the former in some of the most enjoyable corners on the Internet, like "International Chalu Union" — an online parody platform run by Malayalis where every post is an occasion to valourise common wisdom rather than the art object and its creator. Almost all posts are memes made out of captured images from popular cinema, in the form of tributes to cinema — as though acknowledging cinema as the former institution that hosted this collective intelligence in vague intangible forms, which the Internet now succeeds in giving form to. The real test for Pellissery's films would be to settle into this repertoire of images, imageries and insights that the resources of the commons would keep invoking in order to throw light on the absurd world, by reifying one collective wisdom.
Note: Jallikattu is part of Indian Panorama at the 50th edition of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa, November 20-28, 2019. It is also one of the four Indian films in the International Competition section at International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), 6-12 December, 2019.