It was only after Lijo Jose Pellissery figured out how to create a fake bull that could pass for the real deal that he started to work in earnest on his latest film, Jallikattu. After all, the bull plays the starring role.
Set in a remote village in Kerala, Jallikattu is about a bull gone wild and the frenzy that ensues for most of the film’s 90 minute run-time. The breathtaking opening audiovisual montage takes the audience straight to the heart of the village – Varney’s butcher shop, where the meat cleaver hacking away portions of bull carcasses forms the pulse of rural life. When Varkey (Chemban Vinod Jose) and his assistant Anthony (Antony Varghese) set out one night to butcher a bull earmarked for a wedding celebration, the animal escapes. The entire village of men, along with some troublemakers from a nearby village and an exiled old rival, give chase. Women and children remain indoors or within the confines of their homes, as man and beast rampage around.
“With a bull, it cannot be trained at all. Once it gets wild, no one can control it,” says Pellissery, who was in town earlier this month to attend the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of Jallikattu along with some members of his cast and crew. Despite a minuscule budget, a small team of artists led by his art director, Gokul Das, built an animatronic version of the bull. “We created an animal which can be operated by a man from inside. He can run with the animal. So it was a combination of [animatronics], great camera work and great editing.”
“As the story and plot move forward, the entire crowd loses its purpose. They forget for what they are running and why they are running. It’s definitely an allegory of the whole world, I guess,” Pellissery says. “What we are running after, I don’t know. We are claiming a lot of things, and fighting about a lot of things."
Sitting in the lobby of Toronto’s Le Germain Hotel, dressed in camouflage pants and a navy windcheater zipped atop a black T-shirt, Pellissery keeps glancing out through the windowed wall he’s sitting next to. His Calvin Klein watch is still set to the time in Kerala. The prolific filmmaker seems bemusedly bored of answering similar questions over and over again, as if he’d much rather be on the set of his next film, which is already halfway done.
For Pellissery, filmmaking is in an organic and instinctual process. His father was a well-known film and theatre actor and ran a theatre company. His mother’s side of the family were cinema buffs. Always involved in the performing arts, he was drawn to films because of the medium’s ability to reach a wider audience. Pellissery, 40, is one of the filmmakers leading the charge of what’s being called a “new generation” in Malayalam cinema (films made in Kerala in the local language).
“I don’t know if it’s a new generation, but there is a new movement because we now have access to films from around the world,” he says. “People have started watching films from different spaces, they see how the language of cinema is changing. It’s not just happening in Malayalam cinema.”
The idea for Jallikattu had been sitting with him even before he started on his two previous works Angamaly Diaries (2017) and Ee.Ma.Yau (2018). Jallikattu was inspired by the short story Maoist by a well-known author S. Hareesh, who in turn based his tale on a real-life incident of a bull running amok in the city of Kottayam. Although Pellissery took an immediate shine to the story, he was unsure of how to best cinematically render the bull. He watched films featuring animals from across the world and was unimpressed with expensive VFX attempts. Once they figured out the idea of creating an animatronic animal, Jallikattu started to come together.
“The team worked on [the animatronic] for five-six months, on every strand of hair. It can move its head, its legs, its tail,” he says. “We went the old school way of creating an animal. Basically that is what motivated – how Spielberg created Jaws in the 1970s.”
To mirror the structural elements of the plot, Pellissery scouted for locations with a terrain of mountains and valleys, lush forests and mud. He found a small town called Kattappana, which had jungle-like surroundings on its outskirts. In his films, the setting plays as much of a character as the actors, he says.
“When it works, people get the feeling of being in that place. When they get that feeling, I am happy enough,” he adds. Although shooting in such a remote location was a new experience for Pellissery and his crew, they adapted to the process. “We were having fun on the go. Even when we were shooting with 2,000 people [for the climax], it was just like another day on set.”
Pellissery isn’t interested in analyzing or intellectualizing his work. Whatever people take away is fine by him, even if they call his films weird.
“My mother doesn’t understand my films,” he says, chuckling. “I told her, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it the next time you watch.’”
When pressed further, especially on the male aggression running riot in his film, he shrugs.
“It’s what the mob is doing nowadays. Look around – you can’t switch on the TV, can’t read the newspaper without stories about mobs. It’s growing into us, just like Jallikattu. Things in the mirror are not too far.”
What of the bull that started him on this journey?
“The bull is still there. It’s going to live ever after, at my place,” he says, laughing. Then he clarifies. “Not in my home. In my hometown. We have arranged a place for it.”
Jallikattu opens Oct. 4
Special to The Globe and Mail