“Like a bull in a china shop” is an age-old adage we are well familiar with.
What can happen when a bull escapes a butcher’s knife in a village of the hilly town of Idukki (Kerala) is anybody’s guess.
Director Lijo Pellissery — the master craftsman of Malayalam cinema — needs no introduction.
‘Jallikattu’ is the story of a bull that escapes slaughter and the ensuing chaos it brings about in a village of Kerala.
Based on Kerala Sahithya Akademy Award-winning writer S Hareesh’s short story, ‘Maoist,’ this social drama premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff), receiving rave reviews.
Subsequently, it was screened at the Busan International Film Festival this month, before releasing in Kerala on October 4.
‘Jallikattu’, produced by O Thomas Panicker, releases in UAE on October 17.
“Tiff was a good experience,” said Pellissery who is now working on his next film. “People were amazed about shooting scenes involving a big crowd.”
‘Jallikattu’ is not a complete adaptation of ‘Maoist’, he says.
“We have taken the core idea and expanded on it; the crux of the story involves the man and animal element; how the distance between man and animal slowly disappears as the story progresses.”
Hareesh, in association with writer R Jayakumar, has written the screenplay. Set in Meppara village of Katappana, a hilly town of Idukki district in Kerala, the story occurs over a day, after the bull escapes one morning and is caught the next day.
The bull is obviously the protagonist. The supporting cast includes Chemban Vinod Jose playing Varkey, a butcher, and Anthony Verghese is his assistant, Anthony. Santhy Balachandran plays Varkey’s sister Sophie. Sabumon Abdusamad plays Kuttachan, a bandit, while Jaffer Idukki essays a significant character.
Two bulls were roped in for the film but there was not much live filming going on with the bulls.
“We did few scenes with the animal standing and walking,” said Pellissery who was not much keen on using VFX for the animal scenes, He chose to go with animatronics and with art director Gokul Das’ support, the bull has been setting fire to screens.
Pellissery is no stranger to shooting with a crowd. His ‘Angamaly Diaries’ is remembered for its long, 11-minute shot that captured a church festival in the midst of an action sequence.
“We took it lightly,” dismissed Pellissery when asked about the challenges of filming with a crowd.
“Actually, we had a good time. There were unplanned and instinctive situations though. It keeps happening while shooting. We had a different climax earlier and halfway through changed it,” revealed Pellissery.
Writer S Hareesh
It’s been a new experience for Malayalam writer S Hareesh, known for his novels and short stories, to step into the celluloid world and pen a screenplay. For ‘Jallikattu’, he wrote the script in association with R Jayakumar, his first in cinema.
“‘Maoist’ [his short story on which ‘Jallikattu’ is based] is a satire, but ‘Jallikattu’ is about mob violence with a thriller element,” he said.
“While writing ‘Maoist’, I was the king and could do whatever I wanted. But with regard to the film, Lijo was the king. He is the creator of ‘Jallikattu’. Jayakumar and I assisted him in the process.”
The script was ready before ‘Angamaly Diaries’ (Pellissery’s earlier film) but its filming was delayed. There were discussions and questions on how to represent the animal. Should we use VFX which will not be satisfactory?
Last year, one of Hareesh’s short story was made into a film — ‘Aeden’ — and it brought home four Kerala State Awards.
The Kottayam resident found the spark for ‘Maoist’ after a bull in the neighbouring butcher’s shop escaped and had to be brought back.
“I have witnessed many similar situations. When a buffalo escapes, it is more tough than an elephant, even though it looks gentle,” said Hareesh, who is working with Pellissery again on his next film.
About the Tiff reception of ‘Jallikattu’, Hareesh said, “There were five shows. The audience comprised of Canadians largely and with few expat Indians. They were impressed with our culture. One of them said it reminded him of Nobel laureate William Golding’s book, ‘Lord of The Flies’.”
Art director Gokul Das
Three-time winner of the Kerala State Award for art direction, Gokul Das is elated.
“People are finding it hard to believe that we did not shoot the action sequences with a real bull,” said Das.
Since Pellissery planned on using animatronics for ‘Jallikattu’, Das made four models of a buffalo.
“It was of the same height as the two real buffaloes that were procured for the film,” said the Thrissur native.
Standing at a height of four-and-a-half-feet and length of five feet, these silicon bulls carried a space in the belly region, to enable a technician to operate a camera from the inside.
“Crouching inside that space, my associate worked. It is not easy operating like that. And not that everything works right on the first take. We went for several retakes. Today, the compliments coming home is greater than any award,” said Das, who relied on his days with Sabu Cyril (his mentor) for executing the art design.
Music composer Prashant Pillai
The trailer of ‘Jallikattu’ emphasises that music and sound design is one of the main pillars of ‘Jallikattu’.
Music composer Prashant Pillai has worked with Lijo Pellissery since his first film, ‘Nayakan.’ Pillai recalled Pellissery sharing with him a one liner of ‘Jallikattu’ and telling him-‘This is not a story that I can explain to you and tell you where the score will come. I want you to think of it in a very organic way.’
“It was a weird situation for me,” remembered Pillai. “After more discussions, we decided to create a library of sounds associated with the bull — like the bull breathing and it running on sand, slush, grass and banana plantation.”
“When we started work on the film, the idea was to capture the Stone-age era sounds- sounds emerging from life around like that of sticks or sounds emerging from a goat skin or a calf skin stretched and people banging with a rhythm.”
A script reading with Pellissery at Katappana where the film was being shot, helped Pillai get a better understanding of “what the film is going to be”.
“So I went back and got working. I provided Lijo with five to six pieces initially. Our original plan was to use human a cappella and human sounds. We have hardly used any instrument. We sourced some from already available library.”
Having worked with Pellissery since his first film, ‘Nayakan’, Pillai and Pellissery share a good understanding.
“Lijo is more like a family. Often a film’s story is told over a span of a week or days depending on when we meet. I enjoy reading the synopsis. That inspires me most. The rest is my imagination that helps me design the score of the film. ‘Ee Ma Yau’ [Pellisery’s last film] being personal to me, the score came out deep and engaging way.”
There are no songs in ‘Jallikattu’, only background score.
A stage play changed the course of Santhy Balachandran’s life.
The Anthropology Masters graduate who was pursuing Ph.D at Cambridge UK switched tracks when two directors wanted to work with her after spotting her in the trailer of her play.
‘Jallikattu’ is her third film after ‘Tharangam’ and ‘Renduper.’
In an exclusive chat with Gulf News tabloid!, Balachandran talks about her journey into cinema and ‘Jallikattu.’
‘Jallikattu’ follows a bull when it runs amok. This bull has been brought in Kalan Varkey’s house, a butcher. I play Sophie, his sister. She is a product of her society, a village girl with her own agenda. Sophie is a catalyst to what happens in the story. Her presence serves as the motivating factor for the actions of the other characters, her presence effects a lot of what happens in the film. Every character has their own motive for their behaviour.
There are many layers to the story. It presents a picture of a small hamlet in Kerala and the basic premise is whether there is really a difference between man and animal. Where do you draw the line and how do the lines get blurred?
Learning with Lijo:
I had read the short story, ‘Maoist.’ I was given the script before the shoot, so I knew how it progresses. I created a brief for my character and showed it to my director. Lijo sir said, “You have got it right, but leave that aside and come to the sets and interact with the actors and let the scenes develop”.
Lijo sir does not believe in his actors doing homework. He prefers an organic process and wants them to behave in front of the camera. He has a clear idea of what he is looking for and prefers it to develop it organically. He guides you but it’s not something that you have worked on many times before a take. It’s more spontaneous.
It was wonderful to have a premiere at an international platform. I was intrigued by how well an international audience could connect with a story with a local flavour. The story is rooted in its setting and character. Yet people were able to connect with the universal aspects of it and the humour too. People commented that although Sophie’s screen time is short, her presence is felt throughout.
My new play is ‘A Very Normal Family’, directed by Roshan Mathew. In films, I have ‘Paapam Cheyyathavar Kalleriyatte,’ a social satire directed by Shambu Purushottaman. I am shooting for ‘Aaha’, a sports drama directed by Bibin Paul Samuel. It is set around a tug of war competition. I have got offers from Tamil but I am waiting for the right script.