Watching a director's filmography in reverse can be unexpectedly rewarding; it's easier to trace the obsessions and stylistic signatures back to where they had began.
Many of us who saw Lijo Jose Pellissery's Angamaly Diaries (2017)—his breakout film that put him at the forefront of the rise of the new Malayalam cinema—first, and then Ee Ma Yau (2018), will see how the filmmaker has always been drawn to a vision of teeming small cities, towns and villages in Kerala, where lives constantly clash against each other, when they watch Amen (2013), and City of God (2011)—his third and second feature film respectively (and the only two of his first four feature films that are available with subtitles online). The films are full of food, music, festivities, and the church, wherein, keeping with the director's knack for sudden bursts of crazy, violence breaks out in the streets, toddy shops, cinema halls and funerals with almost cartoonish thrill.
In his new film, Jallikattu—which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, played in theatres in India in October, and is now streaming on Amazon Prime—Lijo takes many of his recurring elements to an extreme.
As in Ee Maa Yau—which centres around a funeral—Jallikattu pivots on an 'event', and shows us the effect it has on a community. The film, for the most part, is about a mob trying to catch a bull that has escaped from the hands of butchers in a village in Idukki. Let's not forget that the animal the people are after is also one of their main sources of food. And so, barring the act of eating we see every facet of food in the film: from scenes of women washing, cutting and boiling tapioca—the "lifeline crop" of the place—to the selling and purchasing of meat, to the bargaining that goes on in between. In one of the tracks, dripping with satire, we see how the sudden beef-shortage affects the wedding menu of a rich man's daughter—he eventually settles for chicken curry as the best substitute for beef curry, to be had with appam.
The film comes on to its own once the men, in scattered groups with varying interests, enter the jungle at night; and the lines between the chaser and the chased are blurred. Lighting up the lush foliage with torches, with his deft handling of people on the loose, mixed up in rain, mud and blood, Lijo whips up scenes of carnage of Biblical proportions. The score alternates between a ticking time bomb and a pagan horror soundtrack.
Are we to feel the big thrills of a creature feature, or muse on the human circus around it? The imagery of buffalo, mob and meat has current political echoes in it. But the director himself doesn't like to explain his films. He doesn't even like giving interviews. "I feel whatever I have to say, I communicate through my films," he said when we met at his room in a hotel in Bandra. He was in Mumbai for a day for a screening of Jallikattu, organised by Film Companion, and he had somewhat reluctantly agreed for an interview. He wore a pair of shorts with a collared T shirt, and he had a glass of red wine in his hand and an opened case of salted cashews on the table. It had barely been fifteen minutes since he arrived at the hotel from the airport, and he had already been drinking—his cinematographer Girish Gangadharan, with his wine glass, was also there. "We start early," he offered me some.
The conversation would've been different had it taken place later that evening after the screening; but it was going to be late; and Lijo said he would rather hit the bar at the end of the day than give an interview. We began. He spoke about Jallikattu, the sense of place in his films, and how there was a shift in his filmmaking approach after his third feature.
I'll start with something that is a recurring element in your films. You seem to be fascinated with the movements and behaviour of crowds, or people in groups.
We are living in a very loud world. Apart from that, I have always enjoyed films that have delved with crowds, like Costa-Garvas' Z. I really love that film. I like these huge films; huge as in how, say, Ran is tilted. But the idea of creating a huge film is not intentional or pre-planned.
In your films, food seems to be present all the time. Jallikattu is about food in the sense that it revolves around a buffalo that's going to be slaughtered for meat.
I enjoy shooting food. I have tried to watch how it is showcased, how people are so close to food. Even music. It's all around us, we can't stay away from them. Whatever the location is, I've always tried to go deep into the place—their dialect, their cultural differences, the food habits, the beauty of the place, the attitude of the people. For me, the place is definitely a character in a film.
Does atmosphere come first to you or story?
It comes along. I get sounds and music along when I read things. So I just take a note of that. These notes come into discussion when I sit with my music director or sound designer, or cinematographer, or any of the technicians.
Why did you decide to set Jallikattu in Idukki?
The ups and downs of a hill terrain was very important for Jallikattu. The film talks about those ups and downs—like life. And the chill in there makes you uneasy when you deal with a concept like this. A large portion is set in the night. Towards the end of the film, you should really be frozen when the chill and the mud and the blood, everything gets mixed up.
Also, Maoist, the Malayalam short story it is based on, happens in a place like that. The language it was written was also from the hills.
The short story is a satire. But when I read it I felt it is a thriller…I felt conceptually it's very important to say how people are mostly losing their minds. The idea of the space between the animal and the man disappearing excited me.
In terms of genre how would you describe the film?
I don't want to genre-specify it. The short story is a satire. But when I read it I felt it is a thriller. We picked elements from the story which we sprinkled around to make it have that satirical angle to it. At the same time we definitely underlined the thrills, and the deep sense you have to get when you move into the second half. I felt conceptually it's very important to say how people are mostly losing their minds. The idea of the space between the animal and the man disappearing excited me.
There's also the Marathi film, Valu (2008), by Umesh Kulkarni, which has a similar premise.
Somebody told us that when we decided to work on the short story. So I watched it to make sure that we don't go in that zone.
It's interesting that you chose animatronics for the bull.
We didn't have a choice. I waited for almost 4 years for this reason. We were not able to crack it—what to do, if not VFX? So we went back to the 70s—the classic way: create a dummy, shoot it with smart cuts, use very less of the real animal, and use a touch of VFX only where you have to—like adding a layer, an eye movement. If you look at Jaws, it was convincing as a shark. We don't feel that it is a dummy. We feel scared.
You've gone the Jaws way of showing as little of the animal as possible.
That's mostly the way we have treated it. We gave shown it only in places where we needed that impact. We were trying to avoid the VFX part of it; not only would that not work out budget wise, I am never convinced about a VFX animal on screen. Even in films such as the new Jungle Book (2016), they're super looking, but as a VFX animal. I am not saying this is the perfect way to do it. We find a lot of mistakes. But I think it is definitely better than if we would've gone with VFX.
Thanks to streaming, people are watching Malayalam movies more than ever. Does the knowledge that the audience is no longer just confined to your state impact your film?
I feel all the stories in the world should be communicated to each other. Why do we like films from Latin America, or South Korea? Because people are curious to watch the lives of others.
There is not much difference in stories in the world. It's all the same. It's just people and geography and clothing and food habits that change—the basic system of that place, the way they are connected, the aesthetics they carry. When someone asks me, 'Why are you not doing a film in any other language?', it's because, as of now, I have stories to tell from here. If I get a better script, which I have to narrate from a different landscape, I will go and narrate it from there.
In an interview you said that you had a different ideology in the first half of your career. Can you talk about it?
I used to think of films as a lot of homework—toiling hard to achieve, wanting everyone on the set to be on the edge to get it right. Earlier, I would break down the shots into cuts, everyone would know what we are going to shoot: the costumes, the colours coming in a frame, the styling. There is a shift that happened after Double Barrel. I still plan and prepare, but I don't take it like the last thing on earth. Also maybe that's because of the kind of films I am doing is much more candid. The way to approach a film, I've realised, is to go just empty handed and jump into it, listen more to your senses.
But I am still figuring it out. I will be figuring it out if you meet me after 20 years. Because if you are a perfect filmmaker, you should stop working. It's always about finding how far you have reached. I still feel I have just reached 30 percent, because I find my films really really weak in a lot of places… You have to be self-critical. Otherwise there is nothing new for you to do. I find bad performances. I find bad sound. I find bad visuals. I find mistakes as I watch them again and again.
Okay, tell me some of the problems you find in Angamaly.
There are lots of them. But let it be (laughs). When I watch it now, I feel that maybe the sound should have been adjusted it to different speakers. You figure out these things during multiple watchings. That's why you are not enjoying when you are watching your own films I guess. I used to enjoy Jallikattu until a month back. Now I am finding only mistakes.
The use of sound is such an integral part of filmmaking. Does it dictate the editing? Your films have a strong sense of rhythm.
I love setting up the sound design and score. There is a song in the college in Angamaly Diaries which is originally two different songs—a background score piece and another song. I said, Let's combine them; then we fit the song into the visuals, and the edit was planned that way.
In Eee Maa Yau, we had designed instrumental pieces; we were planning to go to places like Bosnia to record trumpets. But once the film editor was done and I watched the film, I felt that we don't have to bring music because it's already there—the sound of the wind, the ocean waves, the way Vavachan's wife cries, the rain, the band that comes and plays there. You have to just fix it in the right places and hike them up a little more than usual to give that musical effect.
In Jallikattu also there are hardly any instruments, it's mostly acapella. We have used human sounds: people tapping on the skin, howling, voices. I feel you have to discover these things in a film. If you are shooting in a Mumbai street, you have to figure out what all are there in the atmosphere which you can use as a soundscape or a music scape. But it has to go with the setting. If you require operatic, gothic music, you can't just pick sounds, you have to go the musical way.
Are some your favourite filmmakers interested in the use of sound?
Most of them. I love Kieslowski for the kind of impact music has in his films. The use of background score in Padmarajan sir's films is very beautiful; Johnson Master, who did them, was one of the best musicians in background score. Or the way Kubrick has treated music in Clockwork Orange. It's about how interestingly you can bring in music…If you talk about music, this will just go on.
Are you working on anything?
I have shot a film already. I was shooting when Jallikattu was releasing. But I can't tell you anything about it.