When I was a schoolgirl, I remember a train journey when two men were fighting over a berth late at night. With utter disregard to the sleeping passengers, they kept shouting and throwing one 'challengu' after another at each other. I woke up and started giggling helplessly at the intensity of their ridiculous fight as my mother desperately tried to shush me, not wanting to anger them further.
The desire to establish who's the alpha male even in the most juvenile of situations has become a subject of interest in contemporary Malayalam cinema. Starting with Maheshinte Prathikaram to the recent Kumbalangi Nights and now Jallikattu (based on a story by S Hareesh), these films break down masculinity and the performance of it, in a dramatic turn around from the usual hero-centric narratives in cinema that extol hypermasculinity as desirable. Directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery, Jallikattu is about a village chasing a buffalo that's broken free.
The film begins with the loud ticking of a clock. Time is passing, we register. But by the end of the film, the question we're forced to confront is - has time passed at all? Or are we still unchanged from where we were at the beginning?
The conflict in Jallikattu is between two men - Kuttachan (Sabumon) and Antony (Antony Varghese), who both work with Varkey (Chemban Vinod Jose), the butcher. The explicit reason for their conflict is Sophie (Santhy Balachandran), Varkey's sister, who is interested in Kuttachan and rebuffs Antony. Or is she only an excuse in the ego battle between the two men?
Jallikattu deliberately sets out to impress upon the viewers how similar humans are to animals, despite years of civilisation trying to distinguish between the two categories. How it takes only a trigger for us to regress to who we really are. In this sense, the film reminds one of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, a novel about a group of children who end up in an isolated island where little by little, the boys lose the influence of civilisation and go back in time to invent their own rudimentary notions of society.
The film captures the basal excitement that rises in our stomach when we witness violence, inevitable in a struggle for survival, despite knowing that we're watching is what civilisation has taught us to abhor. Though we're constantly engaged in defining what makes us human - art, music, language, fine food - we're also constantly disguising our primal urges that give us away.
In Jallikattu, Lijo dissolves these disguises and exposes what really drives us; the need to eat and mate, which we share with all other creatures. If we look at the verbs frequently employed to describe each activity too, they're revealingly similar. Bite, lick, grab, suck, taste, stuff - there's nothing quite as pleasurable as indulging in the fundamental biological plan.
Just as the village pursues the buffalo, the camera (Gireesh Gangadharan) pursues the hunters. The tracking shots of the people are often from behind, as they chase after the buffalo, emphasising how similar the two are. The filmmaker's intention becomes obvious when he juxtaposes the buffalo's hoof print with a man's footprint. The scene with the old man who sits by a bonfire and asks, "How long has it been since you started wearing pants and shirts?", is reminiscent of the two card players in Ee.Ma.Yau who are far removed from the immediate story unfolding on screen, and offer their insightful commentary.
As in Angamaly Diaries, food is central to the narrative in Jallikattu. From bloody, red cuts of meat that are carried even to the church, to Kuriachan's (Jaffer Idukki) elaborate description of the feast he wants for his daughter's wedding (even as she's flirting with another man over the phone - eating and mating in the same frame), the film articulates the obsession that humans have with food. Same as animals but only greedier. Lijo intersperses the narrative with shots of other beings engaged in similar pursuits, forcing us to zoom out of the human drama and look at the larger canvas. And he keeps humans vulnerable to Nature's vagaries, same as the inhabitants of the jungle. When the buffalo is trapped, it is the rain which comes to its aid, equalising the playing field.
Antony does not want Kuttachan to capture the escaped buffalo. In his head, getting the buffalo would mean that he's a better man than Kuttachan, who's the crowd favourite to execute the task. Kuttachan, meanwhile, has an old score to settle with Antony and it is this which really brings him back to the village and not the buffalo. When Antony succeeds in trapping the buffalo, he's not ready to stop. He must also slaughter it to prove that he's the real victor.
On the pretext of going to get a rope from Varkey's to haul the buffalo up from the pit where it has fallen, he makes a move on Sophie who's at home. When Antony tries to kiss her forcefully, he makes only guttural, animal noises, as if language has failed him. Sophie, who resists at first, then tells him that she wants the best cuts of meat, as if she too now acknowledges who the alpha male is. In Shakespeare's Othello, the villain Iago describes sexual intercourse as "making the beast with two backs" - the description is so literal, puncturing the lofty "civilised" ideas of love, romance and passion, that its honesty makes the line sounds astonishingly poetic.
Later, when Antony and Kuttachan are involved in an intense fight, both men only make animal sounds, making the transformation from man to beast complete.
The film's stunning climax, where the hunters form a human pyramid, madly throwing themselves on the pile, having forgotten what they're really chasing, ends on an ambiguous note. Did the buffalo escape and find itself outside the house of the bedridden (and thus emasculated) old man? Or is it Antony who becomes the buffalo torn down by the hunters who can't distinguish between humans and animals any more? There's a hint of the latter interpretation earlier when Kuttachan tells one of the men that human meat is the tastiest, much to the listener's horror.
In the end, Lijo leaves us with images of men in animal skins exulting over the meat that they have in their hands - is it that of another animal or have they killed one of their own? Is there an 'another' and an 'own' at all?
The excellent soundscape of the film (Prashant Pillai) creates a frighteningly immersive environment where the audience is dragged into the screen to become a part of the sloughing of civilisation. Jallikattu means 'bull-taming', a sport where a man, a superior form of life, establishes his manhood by controlling an animal. But what the film really does is to expose the lack of difference - an explanation for the moments when there's a slip... a stampede, a lynching, a riot... when we collectively forget that we have schools, colleges, offices, malls, restaurants, theatres, cellphone towers, and like crabs, we climb over each other, tasting the blood because it feels so good to give up the pretence at last.