Monday 22 June 2020

On demand: "Jallikattu"

As a filmmaker, the Keralan maverick Lijo Jose Pellissery would appear to be fascinated by the mob, a feature that sets him in illustrious company. (Hitchcock and Lang would count among his cinematic forebears.) It also leaves him well-placed not just to comment on modern India, but the wider world: he spots that which is primal and tribal in the everyday. This fascination manifests most obviously in Pellissery's swirling, hectic, apparently uncontrollable crowd scenes. The fisticuffs that broke out in the backalleys of 2017's Angamaly Diaries grew to occupy what seemed like half of Kerala, whether the locals were in on the action or not; the extraordinary funeral rites of 2018's Ee.Ma.Yau provided the perfect capper to that film's thesis about the draining hard work involved in allowing a man to rest in peace. Jallikattu, Pellissery's most stylised and yet most commercial-seeming venture to date, opens by chopping together proofs of a jungle village's manic ebb and flow; these images come to congregate and jostle one another like people. Much of the attention is focused on the village meat stall, seen doing a roaring trade, although at the umpteenth shot of a cleaver tearing through animal flesh (this is not, at least not initially, a film for vegans), an idea is planted that this way of life is unsustainable; something's got to give. And so it does: the rope tying the butcher's pet buffalo frays, enabling the vengeful beast to go on the rampage through the surrounding area, and leaving the villagers to either gang and tool up in a bid to halt it, or - more wisely - get the hell out of its way. That's right: Jallikattu is Sharknado played more or less straight, Unstoppable with the runaway train replaced by 500 pounds of horned beef. If that doesn't get you salivating somehow, then the cinema may not be your natural home.

Important to note, however, that we barely see this unit once loosed - more notable is the crisis it prompts. What makes Pellissery so special is that he's one of the few directors currently working anywhere in the world who is as adept with social commentary as he is with action, who can stick the big-picture stuff audiences have traditionally thrilled at and deft character beats that yield subtler, more thoughtful responses. He's John Woo with the brain of Henry James, an ironist who loves setting things off. Everyone's on edge in Jallikattu even before the rumble of approaching hooves (there's a Peeping Tom doing the rounds, and a wedding being planned, which you fear can only go the same way as Ee.Ma.Yau's funeral); after trampling a herb garden and crops, and running amok through the bank, the buffalo succeeds in sowing further anxiety, division and confusion in its wake. The first responders are the local alpha males, although it's soon clear they don't have a coherent strategy beyond charging out with sleeves rolled up to their biceps; other men flood in from neighbouring villages, get drunk and look to make a night of it; the growing consensus seems to be that brute force is the way forward, which is why, though they vastly outnumber their quarry, the men wind up outthought at every turn. Nobody seems to have considered the fact that hundreds of blokes charging round in the dark with sticks and guns will likely incur some form of collateral damage; no-one seems willing to let the buffalo go, for the thorny matter of male pride is at stake. (Even when they have the poor creature cornered, the hunters are too busy arguing over who gets to kill it to actually do the deed.) Jallikattu builds on the burial rites of Ee.Ma.Yau, in that it extrapolates from one event a complete, immersive picture of a society, here one with one foot in the present and the other very firmly in the Stone Age. 

The bonus is that it should generate such an exciting picture. The controlled chaos of Pellissery's shotmaking is gripping in itself, even when it's not immediately clear what's going on from a narrative perspective. You never can tell which way these meathead characters (from the buffalo on down) are going to enter or exit the frame, or where this camera - which assumes some of the elasticity and stamina of the camera in any Looney Tunes cartoon - is headed. It leads to remarkable setpieces (a Fitzcarraldo-like effort to haul the buffalo out of a well, a final-reel pile-on that carries everyone back in time), but Pellissery can also mix things up via droll sketches of those less testosterone-y villagers idly watching TV or scrolling through their phones, effortlessly showing up the primitive idiocy of this wild moo-se chase. His ever-swelling ensemble are good either way: they can fade into a crowd, or step up to add some new note of satire. I don't think Pellissery is rolling his eyes at the stupidity of Man so much as actively and enthusiastically enumerating the many and distinct ways in which men are capable of being stupid; still, he cuts briskly through them, taking just 94 minutes to outline an entire, crazy world, the grunts and hollers he addends to his soundtrack providing their own succinct comment. Nine months on from the film's release at home, we find Kerala being cited as a model for dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak, its leaders celebrated for listening to experts, taking swift action, and thereby avoiding the death toll being racked up elsewhere. Think deeply, act decisively: that's also Jallikattu's moral, although the cherishably perverse Pellissery chooses to underline the point by filming what happens when growing numbers of people don't do this. A few years ago, the results might simply have stood as a cautionary tale; as we charge headlong into the third decade of another turbulent century, Jallikattu now unspools as that rare action movie you could cite as a teaching aid.

Jallikattu is streaming on Amazon Prime.


  1. Lijo Jose Pelissery is so far above the next best film maker in Kerala, its not even funny. If you have any recommendations, I'd like to check them out.

  2. Great observations Mike. If you haven't seen it I would recommend another two interesting movies from Kerala, 'Thondimuthalum Drikshashiyum (The mainour and the witness) and Kumbalanghi Nights

    1. Thank you! I wrote about "Kumbalangi" here:

  3. An interesting take Mike. Well written.

  4. A maniacally excited mass, foreboding stillness, the slice of the cleavers, outward manifestation of the inner animal instincts - that's Jallikkattu for you. An insanely fantastic movie