Jallikattu | Review | Antony Varghese, Lijo Jose Pellissery

festival circuit December 7, 2019


By Lijo Jose Pellissery with 7.7

drama · films · malayalam

A butcher’s slaughter buffalo breaks free and runs amok in a seemingly idyllic village, wreaking havoc and revealing a simmering darkness in its dwellers, within the first twelve minutes of Lijo Jose Pellisery’s Jallikattu. The film wastes no time in laying the foundations for its central conflict; energies are high, tensions seething, and the crowds tumultuous from the get-go.

The opening sequence sets the rhythm for the rest of the film, both thematically and literally. Eyes move rapidly under closed eyelids before fluttering open, insects buzz around in a frenzy, buffalo meat is aggressively cut through, wooden poles are hammered rhythmically into the ground – all to the background score of a clock ticking that sounds more like a gong beating down menacingly.

However, the high energy is broken by a long, silent stretch of the mountains silhouetted against a sky pierced by the first ruddy colours of dawn. This style, theme and rhythm remain true for much of the film to come – each frame quivers with life and bursts of frenzied activity, interspersed with silent stretches of inactivity. These quiet stretches, however, feel neither sluggish nor peaceful. They are tense moments of dormancy before another eruption of mayhem– you don’t hear the clock ticking, not because the clock has stopped working, but because it is being wound to start all over again.

The film’s title refers to a popular game traditional to Tamil Nadu, where a bull is set free into the crowd and people attempt to grab and subdue it, and prevent it from escaping. The parallels between the game and the film are obvious. However, a real situation of a buffalo having escaped and causing widespread destruction and fear is far from being a game – or so you would think.

Toxic notions of machismo and masculinity seep in, personal rivalries boil to the surface, conflicts with authority come to the fore, the primitive id is given into and catching the buffalo becomes more a matter of pride and superiority than protection. This is especially strengthened by the visual of the 95-minute-long “game”, culminating in a twisted version of the human pyramid that you see during the joyous dahi-handi festival.

The themes and metaphors that the film attempts to convey are obvious, but it is the unnervingly beautiful aesthetics and absurdity that the metaphors are packed in, that make watching the film enjoyable and fascinating. The film offers little in terms of respite, and leaves you exhausted not because of any mental effort you put into deciphering the film, but because of the sheer exhilaration you feel when enjoying it.

The film explores violence and toxic masculinity without ever celebrating them. What starts as a comedic display of men arguing with each other even as a buffalo runs amok, quickly turns into something more sinister. By the end, two men find it impossible to bottle their desire to fight and try to kill the other even when the buffalo is chasing them not a few feet away. As the film sprints on with the buffalo and the characters slowly unravel, it is clear that at its core, the film is about man’s need to dominate – be it with women, nature, or each other.

It is no longer man against the wild, but man giving into his wild instincts. This is further strengthened by the background score of heavy grunts and chanting in a primitive language that accompany the men turning into beasts and unveiling their animalistic side.

The narrative makes you wonder where the line between an animal, like Jallikattu’s rampant buffalo, being a frightening threat and being a piece of meat that is someone’s property, lies. The line is blurry in the film and crossed constantly. The men are unable to set their individualistic desires aside long enough to end the threat. The more they get caught up in their personal matters and neglect to treat the buffalo as a threat, the more disastrous the consequences are. However, any and all attempts to portray the buffalo as the threatening beast and enemy in the films do not hold a candle to the inherent brutality and bestial nature of man. We are, and always have been - as is clear in the last scene of the film - the only enemy that others, and we ourselves, need to fear.

Written by Sanjana Bhagwat