By Siddhartha Krishnan . 7 Min Read
Ever since the trailer of “Jallikattu” had released on YouTube it had captured my imagination. I was eagerly waiting for its release because in my opinion its director Lijo Jose Pellissery is bit of a genius!
An 11-minute continuous shot constituting the climax (watch the making) of his 2017 film “Angamaly Diaries” (its on Netflix) will forever remain etched in my memory. It was unlike anything, I had seen before – original, audacious, innovative and visually spectacular.
Post this, Lijo came to be known as the “master of chaos”. You will have to watch Angamaly Diaries (2017) and Jallikattu (2019) to understand why he has been given that title?
I knew that the chances of watching this film in a theater were very slim given the number of screenings Malayalam films get outside of Kerala. Hence, I had to wait till the film released on Amazon Prime Video. And, as soon as it did, I watched it.
I will try to keep this review as spoiler free as possible.
Note: there are links in this article in case you are interested in diving a bit deeper into the topics discussed.
The premise of the story is very simple. A buffalo which is about to get slaughtered escapes from the slaughterhouse and unleashes havoc. It runs amok on the roads of a quaint little town, on the outskirts of a forest, ravaging property and gravely injuring the locals. Everyone who becomes a victim of its wrath, turns vengeful and selfishly wants a piece of it. Thus, begins a massive bull hunt. Sounds simple? – Well, in a way it is!
However, as with any good cinema there are multiple layers, nuances, sub-plots and symbolism attached to all what is unfolding on-screen.
The story moves at a break-neck speed. In the beginning it is humorous and satirical and towards the end it becomes dark and murky, as the lines between man and beast, start to blur. The locals become increasingly desperate due to repeated failures and are overcome by greed, mistrust and finally rage.
At times, it felt, with each passing scene the director is peeling a layer off to show what we humans truly are at our core – “Animals”.
You might be driven to think at this point that this is art house cinema. Boring and too nuanced. Well, let me assure you, that it is not. The movie is just 94 min long and from start to finish it is a roller coaster ride.
Moreover, the director is not shoving anything down your throat. You can take whatever you want from the film and derive meaning out of it basis your understanding of the world.
By the way the title of the film, just like it’s trailer, is a bit misleading and purposefully so. The film has nothing to do with a traditional sport played in Tamil Nadu except for some symbolic references.
This movie is quite literally carried on the shoulder of its DOP. Cinematographer Gireesh Gangadharan is undoubtedly the hero of this film. It is quite evident that the director came up with some insane demands and the DOP said “yes” to all of them. Some of the shots in this film will compel you to think, “How the hell did they shoot this?”, given the fact, that Malayalam films like these are made on small budgets. It is clear, Lijo and Gireesh, are a great team.
Some scenes in the film reminded me of “The Revenant” and the pairing of director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Not that this film has anything to do with “The Revenant” but the sheer audacity to imagine certain scenes – like the famous bear attack scene or the scene where Leo falls off the cliff with his horse (a top down shot), is where I find the similarities.
Much like “The Revenant” there are many jaw dropping scenes in Jallikattu albeit not of the same scale. This is essentially a sound and light show. For most parts, you will see massive crowds running through the forest, holding torch lights, passing by waterfalls and mountain streams creating anarchy in a jungle. Its a minimalist approach (with no or very less CGI) yet it keeps you hooked throughout. An animatronic buffalo was used to shoot some of the bull attack scenes, where you see the chaos through the bull’s eyes.
The climax scene just like in Lijo’s “Angamaly Diaries” will leave you stunned! I can’t give that away as it will be a massive spoiler.
Sound Design and Background Score:
The other stand out feature of this film is the background score by Prashant Pillai and the sound design by Renganaath Ravee. Again, very simplistic yet arouses the desired response within the audience.
There isn’t much music at the first place. Just chants of “Hoo” and “Haa” but perfectly in sync with the mood of the crowd and the intent of the scene. The overall effect is guaranteed goose bumps.
The opening scene of the film testifies the contribution of editor Deepu Joseph to this project. At the crack of dawn, the bulbs switch on, the clock ticks, eyes open, ants crawl and the characters are introduced. Their jobs, their routines and their lives in perfect sync with the stellar background score and all of this happens in 8 minutes straight. The world of “Jallikattu” becomes crystal clear to the audience. Everything moves at a fast yet required pace.
Production Design, Action Choreography and Costume design:
The production design by Gokul Das helps you stay engaged with the place, its people and happenings. The scene (spoiler alert), where the crowd works in unison to pull the bull out of a well is worth mentioning here.
But the way the movement of the crowd was choreographed within the jungle, at night, and the subsequent anarchy that unfolds, is simply breath taking and more than made up for some of the flaws.
The costume design by Mashar Hamsa was apt for the characters of the film. It was rustic, raw and relatable.
The film is based on a short story named “Maoist” by S. Hareesh who is the screenplay writer of this movie along with R. Jayakumar. Research suggests that creative liberties have been taken with the original story to make it more cinematic and engaging.
The final product is crisp and packs a punch.
I think enough has been said already about the technical know-how and craft of Lijo Jose Pellissery.
To add, I’d just like to say this, that when you can make the simplest of things like the opening of eyelids, crawling of insects, cutting of meat or the dripping of sweat, cinematic and immersive, you know that there is someone gifted managing the show.
From there, when you take the story forward and mount it on a grand scale what you end up getting is a visual spectacle. Lijo proves again that you don’t need big bucks to make a good movie. What you need is honest intent.
Although, known faces like Chemban Vinod and Anthony Varghese are part of the cast, they are also part of the crowd.
In many ways the crowd is the only actor.
Hence, you cannot really pin-point, one great acting performance, because actors keep coming and going out of the frame within the blink of an eye. Moreover, it does not feel that the actors are really acting. It’s as if a real bull was let loose and their reactions were being captured.
It is not that the movie has no flaws. All you need to do, is to ask, what these people were chasing at the first place? It was just a buffalo and not a tiger or leopard!
So, what was the fuss all about? To add to that, when you know that 90% of this film is based on this premise you might be inclined to question the logic of it all. In a way, I do agree that this criticism is justified.
But the counter to this point is that the writers may have had no intention to take you through this chaos into a real world at the first place. Maybe, it was all meant to be a bit surreal.
Towards the end there is a scene (spoiler alert) where an ailing old man looks out of his window and finds the buffalo with a halo around its head. A case to support the surreal theory or was it just my imagination? I will leave it up to you.
Let me assure you that I can be very critical when it comes to cinema. I usually choose not to speak about movies which I didn’t like and let them pass. Also, I am very choosy with the movies I watch and the books I read. So when I do venture to see a movie, I expect the makers to respect my time and money. My only demand is to be entertained.
Furthermore, I don’t believe in classifications like art house and commercial cinema. I think there can only be two classifications – good and bad cinema. Language, country, state, region etc don’t matter to me because I like good cinema and watch all kinds of movies from around the world. I think only people who are okay with mediocrities, associate with these kinds of meaningless classifications.
So, did “Jallikattu” entertain me?
I think it did – with its creativity, innovation and originality along with a nuanced and layered story line. It has its flaws but the vision of the director and the craft of the DOP keeps you engaged and invested till the end. I will give 4/5 for Lijo Jose Pellissery’s “Jallikattu”. It is a visual spectacle and an immersive cinematic experience not to be missed!
Before I end:
The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019, where it got a standing ovation from the audience. It was also showcased at the BFI London Film Festival and the Busan International Film Festival and got widespread critical acclaim. The film released in India on 4th October 2019. It has been given a 7.7 IMDb rating and you can watch it on Amazon Prime Video with English subtitles.
Siddhartha Krishnan is the author of “Two and a Half Rainbows – A Collection of Short Stories“. He is also an enthusiastic blogger and on his website www.whatsonsidsmind.com, he regularly puts out his essays, articles, travelogues and film reviews.
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