The opening ten minutes of the Malayalam movie Jallikattu (a traditional bull taming game) set the routine of life in Meppara village to a chop-and-cut rhythm of shots, the ticking of a clock (more about that in a bit), heavy breathing (reminding me of the rhythm that Kraftwerk set for their adrenalin-pumping Tour de France), and a polyphonic a capella encompassing all that flies in the course of 24 hours, and also setting the focal point for the movie: buffalo meat that’s sliced, boned, and chopped for customers every day, some of who come to the shop and haggle for extra bones for the soup, and some regulars and important ones who get extra liver. These ten minutes also circle the characters who will have their own roles to play once all hell breaks loose in the village.
There’s Antony (Antony Varghese) working at the butcher’s shop who’s got a thing for the doughty Sophie (Santhy Balachandran) who spurns and spits away his advances, and for a good reason too. Kalan Varkey (Chemban Vinod Jose), Sophie’s brother, owns the meat shop and with Naxalite Prabhakaran (Vinod Kozhikode) goes through the bloody routine of knocking a buffalo dead and then prep for the meat disbursing as the sun comes up. It’s as Varkey and gang are set to execute their latest buffalo (set to a long shot) that Mr. Bos indicus shows who’s boss and escapes, setting the story and screen on fire. Literally.
Based on Maoist, a short story by S. Hareesh (who also wrote the screenplay with R. Jayakumar), Jallikattu is a stunning achievement, set to a countdown of greed, destruction, and mayhem by director Lijo Jose Pellissery. As the loose cannon animal sets loose through crops and the village, anger against it—and Varkey—mounts, and other characters mount the burgeoning jostle to capture it, or at the very least, rally and rail against it. Pellissery teases out the molten lava that’s already boiling inside the townsfolk—the forever on edge Sub Inspector (Tinu Pappachan), the restless bride-to-be (played by Irsha) and her father Kuriachan (Jaffer Idukki) who’s planning mouth-watering buffalo meat curry for the wedding, and goes on to describe it with mouthwatering passion, negotiating the liquor quantity required for the wedding (one of the sly state-of-Kerala jokes that the director and his writers slide in: on the higher side), even as he multi-tasks circling around his house pouring a stiff one, asking his wife (played by Shobha Singh) for snacks, and then going back to his planning. The animal’s escape upends Kuriachan’s plans for the feast, but also exposes his own shenanigans. There’s Peshakan Shangu (Santhosh Peter) who’s the only who seems to understand that animals are beautiful, innocent, and we ought to co-exist with them. Until his herbal patch is destroyed.
Director Pellissery peels away at his characters’ stories and behaviors using local gossip and irony—Omana (Soniya Joseph) snarks about Varkey and Sophie that turns out to be an ironic kettle and other cutlery. Word and news about the animal on the loose spreads, but all the local priest (Johnson) cares about it is how much meat he can get if the animal’s caught. Adding animal fat to the already bubbling cauldron is the arrival of Kuttachan (Sabumon Abdusamad), whose swagger matches that of the bull. He has his own panache that he employs to make bullets out of a pail handle—don’t ask, that scene’s done in a single take, and is a marvel of a detail. Here’s where the story between Kuttachan and Antony comes thwacking its way through in flashbacks. Composer Prashant Pillai employs a screechy leitmotif to cut to a past of Romanesque betrayal. Elsewhere, his score uses the a capella to draw out a sigh as the sun sets followed by a holler to signify that there’s more to the night. The chorus gnaws and buzzes as the director deep-dives into the animal kingdom to depict life, death, and struggle.
With cinematographer Girish Gangadharan, Pellissery creates Renaissance-imagery onscreen. The hunt for the animal at night is vicious and visceral from near, but from afar, it’s a manic and magical dance of torch lights and flame torches. There’s a shot of the buffalo from below for the interval calling card, the torches in a circle above it, as if an alien ring of abduction. When the villagers regroup, the drone camera observes them as if in an Olympic synchronous sport, the torches forming a circle, then cleaving neatly into three directions. And in another scene, the camera slithers and moves ahead as the men with torches move like ants, from below a bridge as part of them are already on it, running for the capture. This is all breath-taking stuff, but it’s not just the imagery that the director’s aiming for. With an all-round superb cast (and casting), he has other motifs and motivations.
Pellissery uses the sound of the clock ticking as the countdown for mankind’s self-destruction, while the buffalo is an icon for the Lord of Death, Yama’s vehicle, always grazing nearby. The movie is a savage, unyielding look at patriarchy and blood-spilling ego amongst men, and how eventually the hunt for the animal is but a motif for displaying and flexing power and brawn. Collectively, it’s countries hurtling towards chest-thumping nationalism and self-detonation. It’s men who, despite the progression in looks and posture, haven’t come too far from their cave-dwelling, stone-club wielding ancestors. For men, there’s only one solution: kill, kill kill. (The women folk may just escape this madness, ultimately and ironically saved by the same force of patriarchy that swallowed their identity in the first place.) It’s the senseless destruction of the beautiful equilibrium nature had set for all of us to nurture and enjoy. It’s the crowd that’s propelled by social media to lynch and mete out justice to meat eaters. And in the beady eyes of the all-knowing, all-seeing buffalo is our future: we’ve set our course for our end. The only redemption for mankind is a complete decimated reset to begin at the very beginning of life in its earliest form. Jallikattu, then, is an unnerving and inevitable epitaph for mankind:
Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
Our avarice and machismo
Led our existence to bust.
Jallikattu is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) There’s mild violence, gore, and lots of buffalo meat.
Director Lijo Jose Pellissery Time 1h 35min
Writers S. Hareesh, R. Jayakumar
Stars Antony Varghese, Chemban Vinod Jose, Sabumon Abdusamad, Santhy Balachandran
Genres Action, Crime, Drama