Moments do not just pass by in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu. Every one of them is accounted for, the tick-tocks of an unusually loud clock making sure you notice an eyelid opening, a breath inhaled. The movie begins in darkness, switches to daylight and goes back to the comforts of a night lit by flickering torches. Before you dwell into the tale of a buffalo on the loose and the many meanings the script brings, you learn to immerse yourself in the moments, one after another.
Lijo’s brilliance is almost taken for granted, a given. Word had travelled faster than the movie, about the applause it had won from people who didn’t know the language. It’s not easy to shake off the pressure and watch Jallikattu on a clean slate.
But once you are thrown in, you might feel entrapped in a vortex of human beastliness. The breath that you heard someone inhale in the beginning becomes a freedom you hope for. Lijo's imagery, shaped through crude pictures and light-hearted situations, makes Jallikattu a magical movie. You don't need a lot of colours or beautiful gardens or even spells for magic. You just need to capture the right moments.
Prashant Pillai’s music pulls you out of your seat and puts you into the thick of a village scene – many things happening at once. Gireesh Gangadharan’s camera blinks through the men in the village carrying on their daily affairs – men cutting meat, men buying meat, conversation bits, recognisable faces (actors Antony Varghese and Chemban Vinod). Finally it moves to the women at the house, Santhy Balachandran among them, frowning as Antony's character makes passes at her.
That’s just the background being built. The story begins on the night Varkey the meat seller (Chemban) tries to kill a buffalo but the light goes off and the animal runs into the wilderness. The chase that would last through the movie begins there.
It’s during the chase that you truly discover the people of whom you saw just glimpses in the beginning. Antony (Antony) does not just cut meat with his knife, he has a score to settle with a man called Kuttachan (Sabumon). Kuttachan has a reputation, people rooting for him to come and kill the beast on the run. Sabumon adapts easily into the role of a ruthless man with a loose tongue, a gun on his hands and no fear in his eyes. So does Antony the actor, making you dislike the man he plays, crawling in the night, the guy on the sly. You wonder who’s the bad guy here.
Surprisingly Varkey’s character is little explored – he’s just the man who was dumb enough to let a buffalo go loose. He doesn’t notice the goings on with his sister (Santhy) whom gossipers say, has had many lovers. Santhy has few scenes, and none of them near the buffalo. She appears to have her own way of doing things, not bothered by much else.
Not that any single character gets a lot of focus. Like in Lijo’s other films, many small characters make a mark with traits that set them apart – the father planning a daughter’s wedding with a lot of thought given to the cooking of the beef, the old man who speaks for the environment and animal welfare but forgets all of it later, the gangs challenging each other on who will get the lost buffalo.
It is not a story of a few but many. Perhaps mankind as a whole. There is a phenomenal scene when men form a pile, climbing over one another. Men screaming, running and coming together – you don’t know if they’d fight or simply add themselves into the pile. On the screen, however, cacophony becomes the norm. You remember the line spoken by an old man in the warmth of a night fire – ‘this land had once been full of animals, and it is still so, look at those two-legged creatures’.
In all the aggressive chasing and running around, the women barely take part -- they are mostly the arguing voice inside a house or the gossipers outside a kitchen. The tough work of taming the animal stereotypically falls on the men, but this is perhaps deliberate because the film is about all that is wrong with the world, and the absence of women fits into the pile of dirt.
In 95 minutes, the moments build together a mini version of the world, exposing its filth. You wait with an old man wheezing on his bed on screen, to breathe free again.