Jallikattu (2019), by Lijo Jose Pellissery, belongs to what is often referred to as new-gen Malayalam cinema, defined by an indie aesthetics deeply rooted in the local specificities of Kerala. Owing to OTT platforms and social media conversations, these films have made it to popular cinematic parlance outside Kerala as well. While Jallikattu making it to the Oscars is a pleasant surprise, what is even more interesting is the fact that it was already quite popular by the time its entry to the Oscars was announced. Unlike ‘regional’ films of erstwhile years that were watched by people after they gained recognition of some kind, Jallikattu, owing to a certain kind of circulation afforded by digital media, has people rooting for it already, even non-Malayalam speakers. What this perhaps points to is the possibility of a new contemporary Indian cinema that isn’t dominated by Bollywood. At the heart of it though, it is a masterclass in making cinema spill over the boundaries of the cinematic form.
The premise is simple. A village in Kerala wakes up to a wild buffalo that escapes butchering, turning the village upside down. The film tracks the men in the village, as they attempt to tame it. For the uninitiated, the film gets its name from the sport played in Tamil Nadu, where a bull is let loose voluntarily, followed by attempts at taming it. The term jallikattu derives from the words salli (coin) and kattu (package), referring to the coins that are tied to the bull’s horn, and that the participants are supposed to retrieve. In the film, there’s no prize for capturing the buffalo; the purpose is to restore normalcy to the village, or so we think. What starts as a mission to chase the buffalo turns into a spectacular expedition of chasing the limits of masculinity to its basest form. The ‘beast’, as the buffalo is often referred to, the raison d’être of the film, has the least screen space. We often know of its presence through the destruction it creates, and through the reactions of the people who are simultaneously chasing and being chased by it. The visceral percussion-heavy background score makes sure one is never left unaware of the racing heartbeats (and intermittent moments of calm). Much like the beast, hyper-masculinity is often identified through the ruptures it leaves behind. One never knows where to find it. One often finds men chasing it, negotiating with it, and being tamed by it. What is interesting is the absence of engagement from the women in the village. Their presence in the film is mostly through interactions with the men in the house and the village asking them to stay put, shouting at them, or, in one instance, manhandling them without consent. The women have to be kept away from the masculinities that roam outside; at home, it is acceptable to claim and tame them yourself. This absence also gives us a sense of how the village life is defined by a certain kind of masculinity. When the men eventually do manage to capture the buffalo, the fight to claim its meat takes so much of a centre stage that they lose sight of the buffalo itself. The film’s defining scene is when all its elements (and the men chasing the buffalo) come together to form what is a monumental heap of masculine energies, with men climbing on top of each other to get hold of what is at the base of the heap – the buffalo. This moment marks the loss of the aim of the quest. What remains is a self-destructing, mud-slinging masculine madness that reaches its peak, only to fall into its basest form. The film is a visual essay on the hunter-gatherer instincts that defined human existence before being taken over by pastoral societies. In their search for the buffalo, the men move away from their constructed hoods towards a space that, according to lore, used to be a forest. The architecture of this space marks both the depths and the limits of the masculine energies that assemble there. The centre of this space becomes the ground for the eventual disintegration of these same masculine energies that, in their quest to claim the buffalo’s meat, end up pulling each other by the flesh. As in the rest of the quest, the climactic moment of the film has no women either. This perhaps points to the fact that if masculine endeavours belong only to the men, then the disintegration of masculinity too has to be performed by just them. One sees this vulnerability being translated into the camera movements as well, which are dominated by tracking shots, as opposed to the point-of-view shots one is habituated to seeing. The camera does not just capture the events but also achieves enough proximity to the characters to share their vulnerabilities. One hopes that the emergence of this new kind of aesthetics, whose essence lies not just in its vulnerability, but in its acceptance of vulnerability, finds expression in more of contemporary cinema.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.