‘Jallikattu’: Film Review

A rampaging buffalo transforms men into beasts in India’s Oscar submission from Lijo Jose Pellissery.

In a small village in tropical Kerala in the south of India, civilized society breaks down after a buffalo gets loose and the villagers mindlessly join in the hunt. Veteran director Lijo Jose Pellissery returns to the theme of mob violence he handled so well in the 2017 Angamaly Diaries, which pitted local gangs against each other with tragi-comic flair. There’s nothing funny about the darkly symbolic tale Jallikattu, adapted from a short story by S. Hareesh, which builds dangerous primal instincts into a crescendo of violence, in imagery recalling Indian horror films. The symbolism may be a bit heavy-handed for offshore viewers, though in India the film has won multiple prizes and has been picked as India’s Academy Award hopeful in the International Feature category.

In a disquieting intro, this Christian town of hot-tempered macho men is depicted as a fevered pack of glutinous carnivores who obsess over their next meal of meat. That includes pork and beef, two products that are frowned upon or even banned in Hindu and Muslim India. Here instead huge shanks of hoofed red meat dangle provocatively on hooks in the open-air butcher shop of surly Kalan Varkey (Chemban Vinod Jose). When a big bull buffalo decides to escape that fate and runs rampaging over cultivated fields, the men of the village are hot at the chase, lusting to kill it.

The Bottom Line

Amorphous violence explodes in a darkly unsettling tale.

It’s all quite a disorganized hodge-podge, with the muscular searcher Antony (Antony Varghese, a Pellissery regular) particularly determined to capture it. To be on the safe side, the butcher calls in the ruthless ex-con Kuttachan (Sabumon Abdusamad), who hates Antony’s guts. Clearly a showdown is in sight, and the final scenes of a frenzied mob out for carnage snowball into a nauseating climax.

Twice winner of the best director award at the International Film Festival of India, Pellissery is a leading indie filmmaker with a wide popular and critical following, known for his bold filmmaking and getting the most out of south India settings. But while the location work is colorful and vivid, the characters are not. It’s fair to say that the little village nestled in forestland is far more memorable than its residents, who are barely individualized beyond their roles as the butcher, the priest, the wife-slapper, the ornery out-of-towner.

Anyway, the cast soon merges together into a mob, and as the pace quickens, it’s hard to distinguish who is throwing themselves into free-for-alls or carrying torches through a nighttime forest. So the raw emotion is there, though some nuance and subtlety would have enriched the obvious if always timely takeaway that a mob turns us into primitive savages. While the actors struggle to emerge from the chorus, the one character everybody will be rooting for is the bull, a triumph of old-tech animatronics (think the shark in Jaws) whose silicon-and-hair body with a stunt man inside is majestic and noble-looking in the midst of the depraved humans. A tip of the hat to production designer Gokul Das and his team.

Another standout credit is Renganaath Ravee’s startling sound design, a skin-crawling sampling of natural sounds, drumbeats and the like that underlie the action like a cave man’s heartbeat.

Production companies: Opus Penta, Kasargod Aadmi Pictures, Chembosky Motion Pictures
Cast: Antony Varghese, Chemban Vinod Jose, Sabumon Abdusamad, Jaffer Idukki, Santhy Balachandran, Tinu Pappachan, Vinod Kozhikode, Thomman, Jayashanker
Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Screenplay: S. Hareesh, R. Jayakumar, based on Hareesh’s short story
Producer: O. Thomas Panicker
Executive producer: Salahudin Naushad
Director of photography: Girish Gangadharan
Production designer: Gokul Das
Costume designer: Mashar Hamsa
Editor: Deepu Joseph
Music: Prashant Pillai
Sound design: Renganaath Ravee
World sales: XYZ Films
91 minutes