Jallikattu movie review: Lijo Jose Pellissery presents an audacious, eye-popping take on masculinity and our savage species
Drawing its name from the controversial sport of Tamil Nadu, Jallikattu turns this description on its head as men mine their basest instincts to defeat the buffalo.
castChemban Vinod Jose, Antony Varghese, Sabumon Abdusamad, Santhy Balachandran, Jaffer Idukki
directorLijo Jose Pellissery
Jallikattu is the sort of film that gores its way into the brain and rips right through pre-conceived notions of what constitutes cinema.
As alive as the beast being hunted on screen through most of its crisp one-and-a-half hours running time, the film pulsates with an infectious, unrelenting energy that is both exhausting and exhilarating, enervating yet invigorating.
It is violent, but - a distinction that populist filmmakers like Sandeep Reddy Vanga (Arjun Reddy, Kabir Singh) refuse to acknowledge - it is not a celebration of violence. Far from it. It is also one of the most intriguing, beautifully impertinent works to emerge from Indian filmdom this year, brought to us by one of contemporary India's most intriguing, beautifully impertinent filmmakers.
Lijo Jose Pellissery's Jallikattu is set in a remote Kerala village where a buffalo goes berserk on escaping an attempt at slaughter by local butchers Antony (Antony Varghese) and Varkey (Chemban Vinod Jose). The beast runs amok through fields, plantations and human habitations, spurring the men of the community to give chase. This happens in the aftermath of a young man exacting revenge on another in a seething rivalry over a woman they both lust after, a local policeman getting violent with his wife, and other conflicts that continue to play out while the buffalo wreaks havoc on people's bodies and property.
Jallikattu is written by R. Jayakumar and S. Hareesh, based on the short story Maoist by Hareesh. The title is drawn from the highly controversial, bloody sport popular in Tamil Nadu, in which bulls are released into human crowds that are challenged to physically subdue the creatures. Pellissery and his colleagues turn that description on its head as the men in their film mine their basest instincts to defeat the buffalo. Many of them simultaneously use this battle as a camouflage for and an outlet to vent other simmering internal struggles, such that it becomes hard to distinguish between the four-legged animal and the primitive, feral bipeds hot on its heels.
In this charged atmosphere, men do not merely speak, they shout, scream, growl and almost spit words out at each other and at the women in their lives. When one such brute attacks a woman (played by Santhy Balachandran), he buries his head in her body, hissing and snarling like a predator hungry for meat. She resists vehemently, but her subsequent calm conversation with him about a mundane matter is a chilling metaphor for the normalisation of sexual violence in our society and the manner in which women condition themselves to gather their wits about them in the face of male bestiality because of the frequency with which they are subjected to such savagery.
Jallikattu remains focused on the ferocious male of the species, but not without reminding us in the briefest of scenes that women themselves may appear calmer but are not above running a dagger through other women whose choices they resent or condemn.
Pellissery's narrative plunges into action from the get-go, using the rhythm of the human breath, the flaming red of the title, the activity at a crowded meat shop, random banter and seemingly extraneous sub-plots to create an electric sense of anticipation before the animal runs riot.
Renganaath Ravee's sound design intermittently draws drumbeats from every available element in the ambient audioscape, ranging from the laboured inhalations and exhalations of an old man, knives striking animal flesh, the buffalo's hooves and the mob in its wake. Prashant Pillai's music cuts in at intervals to inject further adrenaline into the proceedings. Combined with Deepu Joseph's brisk editing and Gireesh Gangadharan's unapologetic though non-exploitative cinematography, this gives Jallikattu a narrative flow so unyielding that it would take one of Varkey or Antony's meat cleavers to slice through the tension that hangs thick in the air.
Pellissery has built a reputation as a non-conformist since his debut almost a decade back. 2017's Angamaly Diaries and last year's Ee.Ma.Yau. earned him a well-deserved cult following nationwide. He has a unique ability to ask uncomfortable questions through cinema that nevertheless yields unbridled entertainment. Jallikattu is as much a courageous socio-political essay, a gutsy cultural critique that is unafraid to tap religious iconography and an allegory for the devolution of men over the ages, as it is an exciting, hormonally charged thriller.
Men giving in to their most primeval urges make for a horrifying spectacle. Yet, as in life, in Jallikattu too it is fascinating to watch their inability to spot the self-destructive turn they take in their bid to dominate women and the planet.
Watch the trailer here
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