Jallikattu Movie Review: Will Jallikattu break the jinx?

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Jallikattu
On: Amazon Prime Video
Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Cast: Antony Varghese, Chemban Vinod Jose

What’s so great about a film being sent as India’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film — category now renamed as Best International Feature — at the Academy Awards? Especially given that no Indian film has ever won this award? Although Mother India (1957) lost out, by a single vote, by veto — only in the second year that the category was properly introduced?

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Here’s the thing. Most big-time movie awards in India are popular by nature — for whatever that means. Yes, there’s the National Awards, which has nothing to do with television ratings. But they’re handed out by the government, which in turn renders it political in some ways.

The entry to the Oscars is chosen by a jury of peers, constituted by the Film Federation of India, a producers’ guild. Implying therefore that only one film picked from multiple languages/regions is indeed the best Indian film of the year — at any rate, best suited to formally represent India at the Academy Awards. Since there really is no such thing as Best Film — only the favourite film for a particular jury.

Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu has been adjudged that. Which explains its significance far more than fans of Pellissery currently arguing among themselves if, within the prolific director’s own filmography, actually — Ee. Ma. Yau (2018) > Angamaly Diaries (2017) > Double Barrel (2015) > Jallikattu (2019)!

An equally important parameter is if this movie, by itself, compels you to wake up and take note. Surely it does. Right from the opening sequence, that goes on for a good ten minutes plus — with characters in it choreographically waking up, their eyes and legs in motion, to a ticking clock, that sound like thumps on the floor. Along with several seemingly ambient notes, as you survey a village in Kerala.

A word on Prashant Pillai’s background score: It is, for the most part, A cappella, that is pieces of music, without any instruments! Why this mix of heightened natural sound? There is no better way to organically express the cacophony that follows and continues thereafter. That’s really what Jallikattu primarily is — an exercise in filming or existing, in chaos!

To the point that you seldom, if ever, settle on any particular character — the full-blown dramas in their internal lives, let alone comprehensive back-stories of any kind. In this deliberate dehumanizing, the filmmaker forces you to think of them as humans, as against people.

How is this framed? Like a creature movie. Except man is really the creature. Okay, it’s not that there really are no characters. Of course there are. Chiefly the butcher, whose buffalo has unlocked itself, and run amok. This is what sets off a series of similar events — several single-take sequences — all through this 90-minuter, with an entire jungle-village out to nab that buffalo, creating mayhem among ordinary men.

How hard is it to catch and frickin’ kill a buffalo for God’s sake? There is a lame allusion somewhere to why they can’t simply shoot it down. Looking for stronger explanations would be missing the point of this wilfully absurdist playoff between man and the wild, where both are one and the same.

Jallikattu is named after Tamil Nadu’s cultural festival, that involves bull-taming as a popular blood-sport. Beef prominently figures as top prize in the local meal in the film. Both subjects on their own are contentiously political hot-button issues, if you may. But the beauty of Pelllissery’s picture (and I’ve read a few of his interviews) lies in the fact that he doesn’t spell out his allegories, ever. Guess if you had to simply write or talk about something, why make a film?

This one, in its essence, is a sensory experience — compelling you to put your feet up, and marvel at the surrealism first. I watched Jallikattu much after everyone else, with a gentle note that I must wait for the climax! Gotta check it out. As an audience, that’s the best thing you can hear, before checking out any movie.

Keeps you hooked alright. As does the star of this show, a buffalo — it’s an animatronic; you won’t believe it’s not real — making Jallikattu, India’s very own Jurassic Park, on a severely indie budget! I’m told that animatronic got delivered in Rs 20 lakh!

The film is in Malayalam, which as representation alone should make us glad. For, Mallu cinema is way ahead of anything coming out of the rest of India at the moment; Mumbai included. Is this the best choice for the Oscars? Haven’t seen a few from the lot it was competing against — Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple in particular — to tell for sure. Will Jallikattu break India’s jinx at the Academy? Not betting my bottom rupee. Will be ecstatic if it does of course!

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