Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Cast: Chemban Vinod Jose, Vinay Forrt, Joju George, Jaffer Idukki, Geethi Sangeetha
The one thing you can say for sure about Lijo Jose Pellissery: he doesn't do ordinary. The closest he came to that flavour was with his generic first feature, Nayakan. Thereon, he made a hyperlinked drama in City of God, a rapturous romance in Amen, a Tarantino/Guy Ritchie-esque stoner-caper in Double Barrel, a celebration of food and testosterone in Angamaly Diaries, a dramedy about death in Ee.Ma.Yau, and an Expressionistic allegory (men run amuck like a buffalo running amuck) in Jallikattu. You may like some of these films, dislike some others, but here's the other thing you can say for sure about Lijo Jose Pellissery: he detests being labelled. He doesn't make the same move twice. He doesn't even make the same aesthetic choice twice. If Angamaly Diaries ended with an uninterrupted 12-minute tracking shot, his follow-up, Ee.Ma.Yau, began with an uninterrupted static shot.
And yet, you can slot a film as Lijo Jose Pellissery-esque through running themes and writing choices. There is, for instance, a strong Christian core, whether serious (the "miracle" in Amen) or frivolous (the shootout by the huge crucifix in Double Barrel). The films are always about multiples of men, with women being supporting characters at best. You find all of this in Churuli, which had its world premiere at the International Film Festival of Kerala. The narrative, if that's the term for it, is adapted by S Hareesh from a story by Vinoy Thomas, and it "revolves around" two cops with the assumed names of Antony (Chemban Vinod Jose) and Shajeevan (Vinay Forrt). Soon, they will see that everything begins to "revolve" around them. The spiral-whirlpool suggested by the title is a constant motif, and possibly the only way these events can be explained.
Throughout the screenplay, there are hints of a conventional story, in the interactions between Antony and Shajeevan. Take this line: You have to overlook some criminals (the ones who may give you information) in order to catch the criminals you are really after. It does sound like something an older cop would tell a younger one, while on a case. And their mission here is to nab a wanted criminal who (according to an informer) is hiding in a village in the high hills. Or take this other scene where Antony wakes up during a rainy night and finds Shajeevan missing. The next day, Antony asks Shajeevan where he was, and he says he was there all the time. In another movie, we might think Shajeevan is hiding something from his superior officer. Maybe he wants to crack this case on his own. Maybe he's found out something that makes him feel he cannot trust Antony anymore.
But these hints of a conventional story mean little overall. One of the most fascinating aspects of Lijo's storytelling is where he places the inciting incident. In Jallikattu and Ee.Ma.Yau, it's almost at the beginning, or a little into the film. In Angamaly Diaries, the inciting incident (the bombs being hurled at the pork stall) occurs an entire hour into the movie, until which we have been witnessing a plot-less "sight and sound tour" that defines the place and its people. In Churuli, we get a bit of both. The inciting incident occurs fairly early, when Antony and Shajeevan cross a rickety log bridge that connects their destination with the outside world. Lijo stages this scene magnificently. The jeep they came in struggles to cross the bridge, and — shot from underneath — we see its back-and-forth movement eroding bits of wood and wood-dust. The engine, which we have already been told is powerful, now sounds like an angry monster. (Renganaath Ravee is the sound designer.) As the tense stretch went on, I began to wonder if the jeep would make it or plunge into the abyss.
And this becomes the inciting incident, this "nothing scene" where an ordinary vehicle and some ordinary men attempt to get across. Once Antony and Shajeevan enter this place, it stops being a "place" and starts resembling a portal to a different dimension, or a different world where everyone behaves differently and has many names. (And we think back to Antony and Shajeevan, who themselves have adopted names that aren't their own.) Hereon, the rest of the film can be summed up by a first-time viewer (or one who has not read the original story) as simply this: anything goes.
To be fair, Lijo holds our hand at the very beginning before leading us into his labyrinth. Over a beautifully animated stretch (it feels like gently smudged watercolours), we get the story of a Brahmin who set out to capture a phantom in a forest. The connection to the Antony-Shajeevan track is instantly apparent. (Lijo has never been interested in doing subtle.) The cops are out to do something similar. They are posing as daily wagers and they have to discard their "higher position" (they are the "Brahmin" of the parallel story, after all) and mingle with commoners, who they look at with mild contempt. One of them says as much: Once you mingle with ordinary people, you become like them. But soon, they will find themselves lower down in the hierarchy, transforming from the controllers they were in the outside world to the controlled.
The film's Big Idea is this: Just like the Brahmin in that animated stretch goes around in circles (or spirals), so does the screenplay. Usually films come full-circle. But here, it's like a hypnotist's wheel. From the centre-point of the inciting incident, the narrative (and your head) spins further and further away into an unending whirlpool. With the aid of the visual effects team, cinematographer Madhu Neelakandan has his own little acid trip. What look like fireflies turn into orbs of light. A modest medicine-woman's dwelling turns into a fire-lit cave out of some erotic reverie. Men in sci-fi attire stand around giant gears, as though inside a spaceship designed by a first-year Mechanical Engineering student. Translation: Once again, Lijo has expanded his oeuvre with a film that (at least outwardly) resembles none of his earlier ones.
But after a while, the wilful eccentricity begins to numb you. Shajeevan says, "I feel like I have been here for ages." I wanted to put an arm around his shoulder and say, "I feel you, brother!" (This sense of being lost in space-time may be what Lijo is after.) As always, there's so much to blow the mind. Along with the amped-up sound effects (a moustache being stroked sounds like a razor-knife sliding down a stubbly neck), we get snatches of the pan flute from composer Sreerag Saji. The most memorable recent use of this rather mournful-sounding instrument might be during the closing credits of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 1. But here, we also feel the eeriness from Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, which first brought the instrument to a modern movie audience.
But narratively speaking, we remain lost in Lijo's labyrinth, and the "clues" begin to not matter at all. Is Shajeevan's "man of no vices" status important in the larger scheme of things? What is that scene where he looks at himself in a fragmented mirror and smiles? Why are there at least a couple of mentions of "fooling around with young boys"? What about the fair where — alongside a very macho competition of strength — we get a Hindu religious discourse about "mystical beings from the sky"? Yes, we know we are trapped, but how many images can we take of spiders in their webs? By the time we see two characters speak through blood-rimmed lips, while munching on monkey balls, I had officially crossed the line from mind-blown to mind-fucked — though I did enjoy the cameos by Joju George and Soubin Shahir.
As for the WTF climax, what do I say? It contains a bizarre line that (if I caught it correctly) goes something like this: Is there anyone who has not killed or raped at least in one's mind? It also reflects (apparently) the Biblical passage from Jeremiah that says "He shall come and strike the land of Egypt, giving over to the pestilence those who are doomed to the pestilence, to captivity those who are doomed to captivity, and to the sword those who are doomed to the sword." After the movie ended, as I was gluing back together the fucked pieces of my mind with the blown ones, I found myself wishing Lijo would next make something simpler and with less metaphorical weight, like a love story — even if it ends with boy and girl hanging from the two outstretched arms of a giant crucifix.