Whenever a new Lijo Jose Pellissery film comes out, everyone begins behaving as though an unofficial competition has been greenlit—the competition for coming up with the most intelligent analysis of the film. One gets the feeling that LJP has been turned into Malayalam cinema’s David Lynch by some. When someone says his work is not hard to get, the person is assumed to be a snob (which is true in some cases). When someone says the opposite, they’ll most likely get the response, “I don’t think you got it properly.”
I’m not interested in getting into this competition. I now believe that if you have an interpretation of an oddball film with a fair amount of ambiguities, you should keep it yourself instead of sharing it with others—unless, of course, it’s your closest pal or spouse or parent. If you put out your ‘decoding’ on social media, there are chances of someone stealing it and passing it off as their own to appear intelligent in front of their buddies. Or, there is a chance of someone mocking your take to look more knowledgeable about cinema than you.
I have seen Churuli twice by now, and I don’t think it would be fair to come up with just one interpretation of it. I’m not implying it’s an obtuse film. I found it relatively easy, although I have to admit a couple of images went over my head. I’m sure a lot of people who grew up on a steady diet of science fiction —even the most bizarre and frustrating kind—will find Churuli to be a fairly straightforward film. If I even give a minor hint of the central concept, I might give something away. I can, however, describe what Churuli made me feel.
Last week, Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham played with references to The Shining for laughs. In Churuli, LJP comes close to capturing the wild, otherworldly spirit of the Stanley Kubrick classic. By this, I don’t mean that they are both telling the same story. I’m merely implying that, just like that film, Churuli takes its central characters to a strange place that seems to exist on a whole different plane, detached from the rest of the world. It pulsates with unreal energy, but not in a way that made me anxious. I was completely caught up in its world and the behaviour of its inhabitants.
Ordinary Malayalis in appearance, the people are blessed with an extraordinary mastery of spewing multiple cuss words with the same vigour as Joe Pesci in Goodfellas/Casino. References to male and female genitals often show up in what can be now regarded as the most expletive-laden Malayalam film ever made. It’s not off-putting. On the contrary, I was so glad to see a director breaking free of the shackles of conventional filmmaking and going wild with his actors who don’t hold back either.
Now, all of this is not done for the sake of appearing radical. The characters’ behaviour makes complete sense when the setting is taken into consideration. When the two central characters get past a dangerous wooden bridge (a scene that recalls William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer), they find themselves in the company of individuals that make them feel uncomfortable just minutes after making them feel at home. At one point, someone calls this a place where a man can do anything as he pleases without fearing the law. “Isn’t that what paradise is?” he asks. The laws that bound our world don’t seem to apply to this place aptly named Churuli. This quality reflects on LJP’s filmmaking style too, which is as unrestrained as it can get.
I don’t know which version of the film was shown at IFFK—I couldn’t get a seat then—but I’ve had conversations with those who felt two completely different things. Some found it frustrating, while others found it gratifying. Churuli is a minimalist sci-fi film, but, oddly enough, the film reminded me more of a Western than anything else. Chemban Vinod Jose and Vinay Forrt feel as unwelcome as Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock. Perhaps it has to do with most of the activity centred around the makeshift bar run by Jaffer Idukki’s character. The actual sci-fi stuff happens in the last 30 mins although the groundwork begins much early, in the form of eerie occurrences. (Two distinguished names from the current crop of actors make cameos, one of which was a surprise for me.)
Aside from Jaffer Idukki, who seems to get better and better with each film, Churuli is kept alive by Chemban Vinod Jose and Vinay Forrt as undercover cops on the trail of an elusive criminal. Some of the dialogues cracked me up, like the one about Sukumara Kurup. The comical effect is enhanced further by the knowledge that a film on Kurup is currently running in theatres. As the senior cop and his subordinate who often get ragged like college freshers by Churuli’s residents, Chemban and Vinay nicely complement each other.
Cinematographer Madhu Neelakandan takes advantage of the misty location to conjure some of the most exquisite images put to film. The CGI is minimal and neatly done, but the most striking visual effects in Churuli don’t involve CGI. The other share of the credit goes to sound designer Renganath Ravee’s wonderfully innovative sound design that reminded me of Frank Warner’s work in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
In terms of structure, I found Churuli to be a more coherent and less ostentatious film than Jallikattu. However, both films (especially the latter) share a common problem: the over-the-top hype—probably kickstarted by international critics—that makes these films seem more profound than they are.
What makes Churuli superior to Jallikattu is that it doesn’t seem too eager to please and is all the better
Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Cast: Chemban Vinod Jose, Vinay Forrt, Jaffer Idukki, Joju George
Streaming on: SonyLIV