I think the best compliment I can give for Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu is that there is no film like that in the world right now. It may share a few qualities with films made in the past but in terms of innovation and daring, it is very original. It’s an astounding piece of filmmaking that relies heavily on craft to take viewers on a furious trip to the very beginning of civilisation. It’s a 90-minute illustration of the fact that films can be made in other ways too.
Jallikattu is all about the experience, experience, experience. So, any attempt to write a synopsis would only prove futile. I guess it can be best described as a chase film, but one that conveys a lot—both said and unsaid—in the process. The last film that did this was George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. In Jallikattu, an animal is being chased instead of a man. But it doesn’t make much of a difference in the end. As one character mentions early on, it doesn’t take very long for the line between man and animal to blur. It presents man at his most basic and primitive, devoid of any semblance of civility. The jungle-like setting of the film is straight out of Aguirre: Wrath of God and the raw ferocity is straight out of Apocalypto (minus the Mel Gibson film’s penchant for extremely graphic violence).
To give you an idea of the film’s mad pulsating excitement, take the climax of Angamaly Diaries and crank it up to ten—that’s how crazy Jallikattu is. When a bull breaks free of its captors, led by a butcher named Varkychan (Chemban Vinod Jose), it brings forth a set of parallel events, thereby presenting an opportunity for Lijo to explore some themes in the same way that Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho did in last year’s Okja (also about an animal’s escape and resultant chaos). But where Jallikattu and Okja differ—aside from the fact that the former is based on a short story by S Hareesh—is the way the two films engage our emotions. While Okja demanded a stronger emotional response from us, Jallikattu is more emotionally distant even though we want the beast to get away from the humans who get more beastly as the film progresses. The approach here is cold and experimental. The traditional three-act structure is slightly altered to deliver something more organic, which may not work for all. Some may say Jallikattu is more ideal for the festival crowd. But never once does the film feel ‘slow’ or ‘boring’—tags usually reserved for festival films.
Jallikattu puts us in the middle of the unrelenting chaos, all captured smoothly by the extraordinarily talented Girish Gangadharan, whose camera doesn’t get to rest very often. It is allowed a few quiet moments of introspection before being hurled into blood, grime, and sweat again. It’s like watching a insane baseball game where players’ heads crash into each other again and again. Only here, the baseball is ego.
Jallikattu opens and ends with images of flesh, only in two different time periods. My mind immediately raced to the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (another emotionally distant but similarly innovative film).
But Jallikattu is also about man’s obsession with the flesh of a different kind—both of which affect his ability to think clearly. At one point, a butcher-turned-celebrity hunter (Sabumon Abdusamad) tells another butcher (Antony Varghese) that he actually came back not to capture the bull, but to settle an old score with him. The reason is revealed in a flashback. Suffice it to say that a woman is involved. The bull situation also brings other ugly emotions to the surface, like greed. Two separate hunting parties are much eager to claim their share of the prize, once it’s captured. This is not just a battle of wits but also testosterone, culminating in a stunningly wild finale that evokes a particular sequence from Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!
I don’t know if any portions from the film were left on the cutting room floor due to the CBFC’s interference. There were moments where I sensed the film was much more aggressive than it already is—and believe me, there is a lot of aggression in Jallikattu—and that somewhere things were slightly toned down to make it more palatable for Indian audiences. I hope we will get to see a Director’s Cut.
Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Cast: Antony Varghese, Chemban Vinod Jose, Sabumon Abdusamad