As Jallikattu hits theatres, tracing Lijo Jose Pellissery's unconventional journey, from Nayakan to Angamaly Diaries
As his Jallikattu makes waves across the globe, we take a deep dive into the career of maverick director, Lijo Jose Pellissery
Lijo Jose Pellissery's popular acclaim did not happen overnight. Despite critical appreciation, his first few films did poorly at the box office, rejected by a public unused to his unique storytelling style. These same films are now heralded as having a cinematic language ahead of their time — the forerunners of what has come to be called a new generation of Malayalam cinema. As his Jallikattu makes waves across the globe, we take a deep dive into the career of this maverick director.
When debutant Lijo Jose Pellissery approached actor Indrajith Sukumaran with the script of Nayakan, the latter was wary as Malayalam cinema was groaning under the weight of superstar blockbusters and comic entertainers. But once he started narrating the story of a Kathakali artist’s tryst with the underworld to wreak vengeance on those who destroyed his family, Indrajith was hooked. When he voiced reservations about the young director’s ability to execute it on screen, Lijoquickly handed him three CDs of his short films. One was a thriller called 3 in which Lijo also acted while another one was a children’s film. “That did it for me,” recalls the actor.
Lijo Jose Pellissery's rise to fame
Released in 2010, Nayakan, an avant-garde dark thriller, though appreciated by critics, was a failure at the box office. But interestingly it was around this time that Malayalam cinema was hit by a new wave—Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic had set the precedent with a thrilling multi-linear narrative, followed by Aashiq Abu’s Salt N Pepper and Samir Thahir’s Chappa Kurishu.
Lijo, meanwhile, surfaced a year later, with City of God, that had quite an ensemble (Prithviraj, Indrajith, Rima Kallingal, Parvathy, Shwetha Menon) and experimented with a hyperlink narrative style. The parallel narratives include a love story between two Tamil migrants, the various degrees of abuse a famous starlet deals with, a henchman and his boss both of whom fall for the actress. Mostly shot with a shaky camera, the film, set in the backdrop of urban Kochi, is one of the earliest ones that showcased the auteur in Pellissery. But the film had to be chopped mercilessly owing to its lengthy running time. The director also faced lot of flak as the audience were not familiar with that kind of cinema back then.
Two years later, he came up with a fantastical rustic musical, Amen, that was nothing like his previous two films, thereby underlining his modus operandi. “Constantly reinvent, think out of the box and never stay in one’s comfort zone,” is what Lijo Jose Pellisery told this writer in an earlier interview.
Made on a budget of Rs.10 crore, Amen was set around a quaint little Church in a village in Kerala. It was a love story between Solomon and Shoshanna and how divine intervention in the form of a young priest unites the lovers. It was also the first instance which showcased his love for milieus deeply entrenched in Kerala and its subcultures. What is quintessentially a simple romance gets a magical whirl in the hands of the director who brings in an evolved sense of aesthetics to the frames, adding a soundscape (Ranganathan Ravee) and musicality (Prashant Pillai) that was unfamiliar to Malayalam cinema till then.
Indrajith who plays the divine priest, Vincent Vattoli, recalls an incident— “I was sitting inside the van and saw Lijo briskly walking outside. He wanted to shoot the climax in a single shot—So the scene where the original priest alights from the boat and meets the French lady and the one where I change out of the priest’s costume and appear from the side of the shop, get the guitar, and get into the boat was a single shot. He gives me jolts like this.” The actor also admits that it’s only during the climax scene that the cast and crew came to know about Vincent Vattoli’s mysticism. Amen was his first big hit. Years later, he attempted something more elaborate in Angamaly Dairies—a 11-minute single shot climax which is still talked about.
But Lijo being Lijo, didn’t rest on his laurels. He dived into an expansive stoner gangster film soon after—Double Barrel (2015), headlining Prithviraj Sukumaran, his favourite Indrajith, mainstay Chemban Vinod, Isha Sharvani, Sunny Wayne, Asif Ali and Arya. Set in Goa, it had two robbers hired by the underworld to snatch two precious stones. Despite its spectacular theme, frames, background score, and costumes, the film was heavily panned by the audience and critics alike owing to the incongruity of the script (paradoxically the only film he scripted). “Double Barrel climax was shot with 12 cameras. But now he envisions the visual and sound before the shoot and only the frames that are needed are taken,” admits Ravee.
“Sorry guys, no plans to change. No plans to impress,” wrote Lijo on Facebook, after the backlash. Ironically, that very Facebook status is today looked on with reverence by aspiring filmmakers and students of cinema.
Angamaly Diaries, and the rest is history
Then came Angamaly Diaries (2017) and the rest, as they say is a slice of cinematic history. Its slice-of-life narrative (written by Chemban Vinod) was set in Angamaly, a charming town in Central Kerala. The quasi-gangster flick leisurely topped with food and local fights was tripping over the director’s love affair with the simple pleasures of life. Men high on testosterone were seen digging into pork chops and selling pork meat for a living. Yet men remained boys at heart and were ready to be courted by women who loved wine and beef. Raw, sweaty, bloody fights often ended with a handshake or an invite to their wedding. And music robustly wafted into the scenes— “When I asked Lijo for the story, he said it cannot be explained but experienced. And I have never heard him say that. After the narration I could feel the aroma of pork chops, the characters and even the sound of pigs. For the Theeyame song, Chemban and Lijo found a folk singer in those parts performing at a toddy shop and recorded it on the phone. I blended it into our soundtrack,” says musician Prashant Pillai.
In Ee Ma Yau (2018), his 6th film in a decade old career, Lijo is seen toying with the dark humour of death. Placed in a coastal village in Kerala, the story unfolds with the demise of an old man. Written by PF Mathews, the narrative fastidiously captures the underlying chaos and pathos of the characters, the Syrian Christian customs and regime, drizzling them with unexpected mirth in the backdrop of evocative frames and meditative soundtrack. “He loves motifs and instruments,” says Pillai.
“I loved the whole process of mixing the sound, music into it. It’s not a musical film, but that part was still exhilarating. The background music, especially. I enjoyed the process of seeing the film on screen; just being in that space, creating something that gives me so much pleasure,” says Lijo.
Jallikattu (2019) his latest release, was among the '10 horror, sci-fi and genre films that blew minds' at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The film was also selected for the BFI London Film Festival as well as Busan International Film Festival. Over 95 minutes, the film (based on novelist S. Hareesh’s short story) set in a village in South Kerala, kicks into action when a buffalo which is being readied for slaughter escapes, spurring the villagers to action. It’s perhaps the loudest and metaphorically the most violent film he has ever made. The frames shriek with the anxious grunts and snorts of man and beast, as they fight it out—one for supremacy and the other for respite. It’s a brilliantly visualised cinematic universe where the director finds unprecedent supremacy over his craft. The film also sets gold standards for cinematography (Gireesh Gangadharan) and sound.
Behind the scenes
Sound designer Ranganathan Ravee and Musician Prashant Pillai have been with the director since his first film. The director met Pillai at a short film reality show in which Bejoy Nambiar won for a film called Gateway. It was through Pillai that Ravee met Lijo.
Ravee, who has associated with Lijo for all his films, recalls being shown myriad images and short films during the pre-production of Nayakan and thinking this “guy was something else.” From having differences of opinion during Double Barrel to admitting that he isn’t sure he lived up to the thought process of the director during the making of Jallikattu, Ravee has fond and volatile memories of his association with Lijo.
Between Nayakan and Jallikattu, the biggest change he sees in the filmmaker would be planning and confidence in his craftmanship. Till Angamaly Diaries, all his films would be ready only 2 or 3 days before release. For Amen, the last reel was mixed only a week after its release, prompting director Priyadarshan and Bhadran to call Lijo and point it out. Lijo picks Angamaly Diaries as the film which helped him enjoy the process of filmmaking and not to work under pressure. It was ready a month before release. While Ee Ma Yeu and Jallikattu were ready 6 months before release.
Lijo, according to Ravee, is uncompromising when it comes to detailing. For Jallikattu, to recreate the sound of a tiny bell, despite scouting all the Poly studios in India, Lijo finally relented only after Ravee got the original bell in the film and recreated its sound. Similarly, in Angamaly Diaries, they had to buy the actual bomb from a temple and capture its sound and only then was Lijo satisfied. “Every single technician is very close to me, they are just like me, or a part of me. We work in the same creative and intimate space and that is probably the good vibe they get. But having said that I don’t need to get along with them to get my work done,” says Lijo.
Indrajith takes pride in the fact that he was instrumental in introducing the director into Malayalam cinema. “He is loving his work more. As a newcomer he had pressures to tackle. It took time for people to accept him. He does films he likes. Now, he takes his own sweet time in planning, reinventing stories and characters.”
The real Lijo Jose Pellissery according to the actor has an “incredible sense of humour” and cracks the “Double Barrel kind of small comedies.” He laughs loudest for sarcastic humour. But cinema puts him on a serious mode.
Interestingly, his stunning growth is reflected in his interviews too. In fact, there is an old story about how he visited a superstar for a film narration soon after Nayakan, but his narration was so underwhelming that the exasperated actor politely waited till the climax was narrated and showed him the door. Though there are still those who find a shyness in his interaction off-screen (“Can’t believe this unassuming man made Amen," a friend remarked), the director has definitely improved his communication skills with every film.
Though his cinema has often been said to show deep influences of Quentin Tarantino, Lijo is a huge fan of one the best Indian filmmakers of all times, K.G. George. Incidentally his favourites are in tune with his vision of cinema—Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, Vetrimaaran, James Cameroon, Ram Gopal Varma…
At a time when political correctness in cinema subtexts are being read and dissected, Lijo Jose Pellissery has openly spoken against “forcefully intellectualising cinema.” “How can you call it a creative space if you're not free to voice your thoughts. You can’t create a censor board in your mind. I don’t believe in the concept of moral of story. So, no rule books for me.”
Last week, this writer saw Jallikattu in a packed theatre and it was heartening to watch the motley bunch give a rousing round of applause when the name Lijo Jose Pellisery flashed on screen. The superstar director has truly arrived.