A scene from Jallikattu

Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery

Cast: Antony Varghese, Chemban Vinod Jose, Sabumon Abdusamad, Santhy Balachandran, Jaffer Idukki

In Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu, a buffalo escapes slaughter and runs amuck in a village in Idukki. How dangerous does this situation sound? I mean, it’s a buffalo, not — say — a leopard. And it’s not exactly been drugged and prodded and provoked, like in the Tamil Nadu bull-taming event the title suggests. So are we to imagine this most bucolic of creatures on a rampage — running nonstop for the 90-minute duration of the film, causing fires and devastating crops? But this absurdity is an integral part of this narrative, adapted from S Hareesh’s short story, Maoist. I Googled up the story, and found that it has a second buffalo, and that it’s about the Maoist situation and a person’s right to freedom. Even in the movie, the buffalo is a metaphor. But Jallikattu, is first and foremost, a textbook example of how to make an experimental movie that’s also a most entertaining movie.

The absurdity is everywhere, beginning with the elaborate “fakeness” (or rather, in-your-face-ness) of Prashant Pillai’s magnificent score and Renganaath Ravee’s ornate sound design. The ticking of clocks is amplified to sound like the fall of a hammer on an anvil. The inhaling/exhaling of breath sounds like steam coming off a pressure cooker. Human choruses sing in primitive words, as though from a time before language was invented. (Wait till you see why, in the last scene. I was smiling through my dropped jaw.) If you listened to just the music, you’d think it was the soundtrack for an avant-garde dance performance — but then, the film, too, feels like an avant-garde performance. It’s not “naturalistic”. Toss in Girish Gangadharan’s cinematography and Deepu Joseph’s propulsive (and sometimes distancing) editing, and you have one hell of a sound-and-light show.

A scene from Lijo Jose Pellissery's Jallikattu
A scene from Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu

A set piece around a well is literally one such sound-and-light show. A buffalo — maybe the buffalo everyone is after — is trapped down there, so the villagers decide to get it out. If that is indeed the manic creature they are after, wouldn’t it make sense to kill it first? But again, it’s all part of the absurdity. Antony (Antony Varghese) lowers himself on ropes, and he looks like a dancer — “performing” in a three-dimensional “stage”, that’s “lit” by the flashlights of the men on top, peering into the well. At another time, the light from these torches looks like fireflies on a hillside. Lijo and his collaborators create set pieces out of the most unremarkable events, like the single-take scene of a man planning a feast for his daughter’s engagement. Something as simple as three groups of men walking away in three different directions becomes an indelible moment, filmed from a God’s-eye point of view.

The invention, the joyous energy in the filmmaking left me with such a high that I didn’t particularly care that it all has to mean something. The metaphor is the least interesting (and most obvious) aspect of Jallikattu, written by S Hareesh and R Jayakumar. Yes, all men are pigs — okay, buffaloes, in this case, or just plain animals. Like the man who slaps his wife because she has made puttu again. Like the men who fight like beasts over a woman. Like the men who pour in from neighbouring villages to create more chaos, fuel more hatred. At times, it appears that we are still hunter-gatherers, hunting and gathering everything within reach, even women. The characterisations are paper-thin, so it’s not clear how much, say, Antony is imposing himself on his boss’s sister — the boss is Varkey, the butcher who let the buffalo slip away, and he’s played by Chemban Vinod Jose — and how much she likes him. But then, this is not a film that can accommodate personal histories.

If these people were individualised, it would take away from the horde mentality that’s behind the film’s design, which culminates in a series of stunningly Expressionistic images. The political points register a little better — but only a little. “Don’t poor people have a right to live here?” asks a man. Another man, a naturalist who catches a cow’s urine in a pot, says of the buffalo: Let it live. The earth belongs to him, too. But the lofty sentiment is instantly undercut with a joke, and I think Lijo is telling us that it’s easier to preach philosophies than actually live by them. It’s far more fun to gossip about the town’s residents while boiling tapioca, as the women do. Oh, the men gossip, too — say, about the disreputable history of outsiders and settlers like Varkey’s father. Meanwhile, we learn that in older times, meat was expensive, and one buffalo was all that got slaughtered in a month.

In other words, Jallikattu wants to transform local colour and local history into something universal and primal — and even if the bigger point becomes repetitive after a while, the film is always rewarding. The screenplay is essentially a series of vignettes, and some of them are screamingly funny. Watch out for the scene where a “hunter” (Sabumon Abdusamad) with sickle-shaped sideburns is summoned, and the locals gather around him like he’s Mammootty and Mohanlal rolled into one. But gradually, the humour disappears and what we’re left with is the collective feeding frenzy, like there’s all this testosterone out there and it has to be expended on something. The frenzy keeps escalating to the final scene involving a geometric formation, and we see that this isn’t just night but also the dark night of the soul. Just 90 minutes earlier, it was daybreak. A series of eyes — in a quick-cut, machine-like montage — were seen opening from slumber, as the sunrise cast a pink hue over the hills nearby. But by the end of the film, no eyes have really been opened.

 

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