Bong Joon-Ho requires a mental map of space. In an interview, he confessed this need for spatial awareness. While shooting Parasite, the house they were supposed to be shooting in was not ready. To prepare, he tasked graphic designers to create a visual replica of the structure. Having acquired a sense of space, he felt prepared for the actual shoot.
Space is one of two fundamentals of cinema; other being time. Each location, setting and environment has its own spatial arrangements. This structure of space, whether it be the affluent bungalow in Parasite or the native village in Jallikattu, pours out in every frame. Since cinema is an artificial construct, the recreation of landscapes must feel real. One could be shooting a film situated in South Korea in India, or vice versa, but it must look and feel authentic. To build a convincing fictional space, the director needs raw material. Here, this raw material equates to rooted experience of the real world.
Jallikattu is placed in rural Kerala. The name of the village is not mentioned. The opening sequence sets the rhythm of the movie. Narratively, it provides nothing. Spatially and temporally, it provides everything. Within a couple of minutes, the viewer has a sense of space and its rhythm. The village of the movie is constructed like a clock; each piece exactly where it should be. The viewer can almost touch and smell the soil and the air.
The second fundamental of cinema, time, is directly connected to space. Each space has its own rhythm. A local train runs on a different rhythm than a mail train, although both are technically trains. Since, as one argument goes, cinema is replication of reality, this sense of space and rhythm manifests itself in every frame; intentionally or unintentionally. Great cinema is where it happens intentionally.
Lijo Jose Pellissery is a master of recreating the native Kerala landscape. He's done so with Ee.Ma.Yau, Angamaly Diaries and the subject of this essay, Jallikattu. Every frame in the movie is filled with an extraordinary amount of people. The camera rarely stands still because the people keep moving. No matter where you go, there's a group of people already populating a frame. They stand in circles, line-up in groups and crowd around events. Everyone is involved in everything. That is how villages exist. Only a director who has a sense of this clustered space can fill a frame with an authentic recreation of it. To orchestrate a mob of people, one needs an understanding of mobs. Coupled with that understanding, one needs to marry this sense of reality with the aesthetics of the frame. This can only be done by an experienced pair of hands.
Spatial recreation is followed by temporal recreation. The rhythm of the village life is best known by a villager. The village in Jallikattu is always excited, bursting with energy. One assumes the pace of a village to be steady and slow. It is not the case when the entire village is out chasing a buffalo. The real in movies may not be real in life, but it must always feel like it. The movie's often long, high-octane shots infuse a sense of chase the situation demands. The movement of the camera, the long duration shots, staging of crowds, lighting of scenes… all are concerted efforts to create a world that resembles reality. Once that is done convincingly, the narrative drama hits on the bull's eye.
To be able to pull off such feats, a sound understanding of real spaces and rhythms is of absolute importance. The primary reason behind Jallikattu's success is its superb craftsmanship in constructing a world that is grounded in reality. Pellissery is famous for invoking a sense of space. He does so with one of the simplest plot devices of all: food. His movies are filled with food, flavour, people and culture. He dips into his life as a Malayali Christian in Kerala and paints the screen with rich cultural portraits as well as exceptional cinematic flourishes. This balance of culture and entertainment is not possible without refined understanding of both the subjects.
Cinema needs to go native. Only then will cinema be able to represent authentic experiences of reality while being entertaining. A democratized cinema community that encourages film-making from the village to the metropolis will bring forth a cinema that is full of life. This is happening gradually as mainstream Hindi cinema shifts its focus from larger-than-life city movies to small-town stories. This must be accompanied by a nourishment of native talent. Only then will we see real spaces and real rhythms represented on screen.