It’s been a five-film sandpaper-eyes exhausting-yet-fulfilling-day, and yes, it’s odious to compare, but I am thrilled to report that Lijo Jose Pellissary’s new film Jallikattu has been the clear winner: it’s world premiere, where the director and his cast and crew are present, is a smash-hit.
It’s one of those films where nothing much happens and yet everything happens. A water buffalo has run amok in a tiny Kerala village, and in the 96 minutes run time, we see warring residents, greedy outsiders, wise old coots, nosey neighbours, men and women involved in that oldest dance of lust and stealth, displaying all the emotions known to humans, from pettiness to grand gestures, and everything in between.
If you’ve seen Pellissery’s (2017) Angamaly Diaries and Ee Ma Yau (2018), you will be familiar with the way the director orchestrates chaos. All the strands he plays with simmer away at a slow burn till there comes a crescendo, and you are left gasping. Through the immersive method of his filming, he makes sure that the viewer is both observer and participant, and we emerge from that experience, knowing more, feeling more.
In Jallikattu, that feeling is intensified. The control the director displays as the film races along, showing us the buffalo crashing through built inhabitations as well as the surrounding forests, is evident, and through it we see what the film is aiming at – a galloping, raging mass of masculinity where being a man is equated with how you can kill and subjugate and snarl, and even more importantly, amongst men and beasts, who is, really, bestial?
Amongst the men chasing the buffalo, and often their own tail, is the good-looking Antony Varghese, who made his debut in Angamaly Diaries, and Chemban Jose, both of whom were present on stage, along with Santhy Balachandran, resplendent in a traditional ‘kasavu’ sari. They clean up well, these actors, because in the film they are unrecognizable, hidden under the layers of fear, uncontrolled greed, and grime that they collect during the chase, crashing through bushes and ambushing their own.
Jallikattu is exhilarating, and I am still all shook up, a few hours after the standing-ovation gala screening. The other Indian films at TIFF — Shonali Bose’s The Sky Is Pink, Geetu Mohandas’s Moothon, and Gitanjali Rao’s Bombay Rose—have a hard act to follow.
The other film I really liked was Sarah Gavron’s Rocks, all about a young woman struggling to cope under the most challenging circumstances without once asking us to feel sorry for her. In Gavron’s debut 2007 Brick Lane ( based on a novel of the same name by Monica Ali), you could see how comfortable this British director was portraying the lives of ‘people of colour’: Satish Kaushik, whom we usually see playing the fool in Bollywood movies, puts in a career best performance here, as a middle-ager trying to hack a life, and a young wife.
Olushola, 15, better known as Rocks (Bukky Bukray) and her group of friends are clearly children of immigrants, but are equally clearly, trying to create a space for themselves in a country that they consider their own, much more so than their parents. When we see them first, they could be a group of girls hanging, joshing, having fun, but soon the film turns dark when Rocks comes home to a mother who has absconded, leaving behind her seven-year-old brother, a slim envelope with some cash, and a hastily scrawled ‘sorry’.
Gavron films with authenticity and empathy. We see this bunch of young women as they see themselves—dealing with teenage insecurities, and other messy details of home and school. The end credits tell us that the cast of non-professionals helped create their personas. That, right there, is why you believe.