Lijo Jose Pellissery's Malayalam-language film "Jallikattu", which had its world premiere at the ongoing 44th Toronto International Festival (TIFF), is an unflinching, pulse-pounding depiction of the savagery that humanity is capable of unleashing when faced with a crisis.
The film hinges on a water buffalo that escapes its planned slaughter in the nick of time and runs amok. The runaway animal leaves a trail of destruction, which triggers unsettling pandemonium in a remote Kerala village and exposes the community's social and political fault-lines.
The film's director is, however, guarded in accepting an overt political reading of Jallikattu, but he is quick to add that "once I finish a film, I leave it to the audience to derive any interpretation they like." Pellissery says: "If I have to explain everything, then why would I make the film at all?"
Jallikattu is the kind of film that hits the ground running. It wastes no time in sucking the viewer into the vortex of its conflict-ridden universe with the aid of a storytelling style that banks more on revealing the whys and wherefores of the central face-off than on the obvious plot elements.
"I do not want to connect what is on the screen with anything that is happening around us today," he says. "The visual style of the film springs from the core of the story (authored by S Hareesh, also the co-screenwriter)," adds Pellissery.
About the crackling, manic energy that defines this and his previous two films – "Angamaly Diaries" and "Ee.Ma. Yau" – and the role of cinematographer Gireesh Gangadharan in the process of achieving that quality, the director says: "We don't do a lot of prior planning, but we keep discussing as we film and the style evolves as we go along. In fact, the climax of "Jallikattu" was shaped by how we filmed.”
The biggest challenge during the making of "Jallikattu", Pellissery says, was that "we had to keep the animal in the centre of the action”. He adds: “VFX wasn’t an option because that would have been too expensive. Moreover, I never find the VFX that is used to bring animals alive on the screen convincing. So, we had to strike a balance between the real animal and animatronics."
The streak of violence that the men in the film possess leads to shocking acts. “This isn’t a dig at masculinity. The film demanded male characters because it is about the hunting-gathering traditions of the place. The location, Pellissery says, was chosen keeping in mind its undulating landscape, dense foliage and scenic beauty.
Jallikattu, which is scheduled to release theatrically in early October, is due to travel to the Busan International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival. "Bringing a film from a village in Kerala to Toronto is a different high," says the prolific Pellissery, who has already wrapped up half of his next film.