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Busan Film Review: ‘Jallikattu’

A rogue buffalo lays waste to more than just property in this deranged horror-tinged allegory from Indian director Lijo Jose Pellissery.

Lijo Jose Pellissery
Anthony Varghese, Chemban Vinod Jose, Sabumon Abdusamad, Santhy Balachandran (Malayalam dialogue)

Running time: 91 MIN.

Get ready to be gored by cinema’s horns, trampled under a stampede of deliciously grotesque, fleshy imagery and tossed aloft on a buffalo-snort of bravado because Lijo Jose Pellissery’s utterly bonkers “Jallikattu” is here to pummel a Midnight Madness slot near you into submission. A fever-pitch, adrenaline-soaked vortex of social issues drama, deconstruction of the male id, and hokey, hubristic descent into hell, this crazed howl of human brutality morphing inexorably into bestial savagery deserves, and feels destined to find, a willingly cultish following on the festival circuit. Consider the idiom “bull in a china shop” put on notice, while “buffalo in an Indian village” waits, hoofs stomping, in the wings.

The comparison is apt, because while plot revolves around a buffalo narrowly escaping slaughter and running amok through a rural Kerala community, causing extensive property destruction and livelihood decimation, it is social convention, class structure and traditional masculinity — all fragile as porcelain — that shatter most irreversibly in its wake. “Jallikattu” pounds on its themes with as much subtlety as a mallet tenderizing a tough cut of meat, but it sets itself apart from similarly frenzied action extravaganzas with its almost gratuitously overt allegorical heft.

The domestic-beast-gone-rogue logline is basically the entire fatted calf of S. Hareesh and R. Jayakumar’s rowdy screenplay, which plays off a traditional Indian practice, far more dangerous than Spanish bullfighting, in which an agitated animal is released in public. After a bravura opening, cut by MVP editor Deepu Joseph into a staccato montage that deliberately merges all the film’s main characters — butchers, outlaws, wife-beating mid-level police officers and callous food-obsessed landowners — into one deeply disparaging idea of contemporary small-town Indian manhood, we get straight to it. Varkey (Chemban Vinod Jose) the village butcher, orders the slaughter of a buffalo for the engagement party of an unpopular local bigwig’s daughter, but his men botch the job and the animal escapes, causing untold mayhem as the village goes on lockdown and the menfolk arrange a posse to recapture it.

The problems spring less from the buffalo’s rampage than from the jealousies and petty enmities that divide the villagers — almost all the early exchanges are fractious, touching on social status, who owes money to whom and whose domestic situation is more stable. The simmering tension is brought to a boil by the arrival of Kuttachan (Sabumon Abdusamad) a local folk-hero bandit who was driven from the village in part due to the machinations of Antony (Antony Varghese), when both men coveted the same woman.

The pursuit of the buffalo becomes a proxy mission for establishing alpha male status between these two. The poor creature (one’s sympathies do end up almost entirely with the buffalo), occasionally glimpsed careening through the undergrowth or tossing a villager on its horns, transforms gradually into an abstraction, a bête noire and a white whale: a symbol of the untrammeled animal instinct that Pellissery’s deeply pessimistic vision imagines seething in the male of our species, just beneath the thin, livid membrane of civilization.

None of it would work at all, of course, were it not for the sheer chutzpah of the filmmaking. Pellissery plows through the 91-minute runtime with a confidence not quite earned by the unnecessary flashbacks, caveman digressions and flimsy characterizations. But the compensations are many: DP Girish Gangadharan’s orgiastic imagery frequently happens on alarmingly rich tableaux, with torch-bearing pursuers stippling the nighttime jungle with points of light and crowding round the lip of a well so that, shot from below, the flames form a ring of fire that looks like the malevolent, glowing iris of an evil eye. And Prashant Pillai’s impressively weird, deliberately intrusive score — imagine if Hieronymous Bosch had been born a musician rather than a painter — plays as though trapped in a love-hate relationship with Renganaath Ravee’s baroque sound design. The sophistication of the craft, coupled to the sometimes creaky storytelling and performance style, creates a pungent strangeness all its own.

If there is an obvious flaw in this approach — and everything here is proudly, loudly obvious, flaws included — it’s that the entire film operates at such a high frequency that it’s possible to become attuned to its wall-to-wall clamor, to the point it becomes oddly soothing. Certainly, for those of us exempt from or immune to its unsubtle, million-decibel critique of a masculinity so toxic it’s like a disease of the blood, “Jallikattu’s” punches land so rhythmically that one can feel removed from the brouhaha, even a little amused by it. After all, despite the wild-eyed, bared-fang conviction of the whole hellish endeavor there is still something inherently comical about two grown, beefy men locked in a death grip embrace, nose-to-nose, bellowing “Arrrgh!” at each other in such close proximity that they couldn’t be exchanging more saliva if they were actually kissing.

But that, too is part of the joy of “Jallikattu,” right up to its certifiably insane final 15 minutes: As lavish as the execution is, the fundamental point is that male rivalry is animalistic and undignified and essentially ridiculous. And as infernal choirs sing in strangled gasps on the soundtrack while a mountain of barbaric, murderous, writhing manhood caked in mud and blood wrestles a forlorn-looking buffalo to ground, what can the punch-drunk onlooker say but “Preach.”

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Busan Film Review: 'Jallikattu'

Reviewed at Busan Film Festival (Window On Asian Cinema), Oct. 4, 2019. (Also in Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: (India) A Friday Film House (in India) presentation of an Opus Penta production. (Int'l sales: Opus Penta, Kerala; XYZ Films, Los Angeles.) Producer: O. Thomas Panicker. Executive Producer: Salahudin Naushad.

Crew: Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery. Screenplay: S. Hareesh, R. Jayakumar. Camera (color, widescreen): Girish Gangadharan. Editor: Deepu Joseph. Music: Prashant Pillai.

With: Anthony Varghese, Chemban Vinod Jose, Sabumon Abdusamad, Santhy Balachandran (Malayalam dialogue)

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