Man vs Wild: The Spectacular Horror of Lijo Jose Pellisery’s Jallikattu

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Man vs Wild: The Spectacular Horror of Lijo Jose Pellisery’s Jallikattu

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

The source of horror in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu, the Malayalam filmmaker’s seventh feature in nine years, is not a supernatural element. The horror lies within humans – in factors that are an integral part of civilisation and are all too normal.Set in a verdant village in Kerala, the film opens with a bird’s eye view of the sunrise gradually piercing the chilly indigo sky with a splattering of warm orange. We see the lights in the houses being turned on. People get ready for work, as they do every day. Shop shutters go up. It is business, as usual. Except, this won’t be just another day in the village.

A rich man’s daughter is about to get married and he wants to throw a buffalo feast for his guests. A butcher, Varkey (Chemban Vinod Jose) is in charge of providing the beef. But just as Varkey is about to slaughter the buffalo, the beast escapes. Destroying the crops and trampling down the shops in the village, it runs to a nearby forest. Here begins the village’s collective descent into madness, all caused by the mere escaping of an animal meant to be slaughtered.

The men in the village make several unsuccessful attempts at reining in the buffalo. There’s Antony (Angamaly Diaries Antony Varghese) who wants to be the one to catch the buffalo and be recognised as the village hero. But when Antony and his cohorts fail to catch the buffalo, the villagers decide to call upon Kuttachan (Sabumon Abdusamad) who was ostracised from the village for smuggling sandalwood and cultivating cannabis. It’s this tussle between Antony and Kuttachan that forms the dramatic crux of Jallikattu. Rather than being limited to a conflict between two men, the film manages to ask much larger questions about humankind. 

Jallikattu makes no bones about the fact that its protagonists are misogynist chauvinists. Early on in the film, we see a cop violently threatening to beat up his wife; throughout the film, women are present only on the sidelines without much agency or power. Essentially, Jallikattu is set in a universe dominated by male action (and Malayalam cinema often makes an example of this) – a metaphor for society’s collapse at the hands of the imperious male id running wild. The film is quite literally, man versus wild.

Jallikattu is set in a universe dominated by male action – a metaphor for society’s collapse at the hands of the imperious male id running wild.

Pellissery and cinematographer Gireesh Gangadharan make ample use of the lush greenery and the drizzly ambiance of rural Kerala to build an ominous atmosphere that gives the village a mythical feel. Contrasting the greens are the abundant shots of red animal flesh, underscoring how integral killing is to this society. It’s instructive that Jallikattu is set in Kerala, one of the few Indian states where the idea of eating beef is not frowned upon. Butchery is an utterly normal part of life in this universe, thereby freeing it of any obligation to drive home a “message” about violence. Instead, the shots of meat serve the larger purpose of painting man as a fundamentally arrogant animal, one who thinks that he can bend and mould nature according to his will. 

It’s only a matter of time before nature hits back.

The two halves of Jallikattu are sharply demarcated in style and tone: For the most part, Pellissery doesn’t give us a full view of the beast, much like the shark in Spielberg’s Jaws. The first half takes place during the day, with the camera tagged to the buffalo running amok as the men try to trap it. No matter how many men are running after it, it always finds a way out, almost making a mockery of the system that the humans have in place. The second half, in contrast, is set during the night, as the buffalo runs wild in the jungle after the villagers almost manage to trap it in a well. The visuals in the second half are dominated by blinding flashes of light perforating the dark forest night as hordes of men run through the forest with flaming torches and electric flashlights. It is at this point in the film that the village’s collective madness gets the better of the men: Supposedly the most intelligent animals in the ecosystem, they turn into zombies mindlessly running after prey. 

Jallikattu makes a jaw-dropping – yet seamless – leap from realism into actual horror mode, replete with zombie movie imagery. There’s a scene where a mass of men turn from cognisant humans into zombie-like creatures propelled purely by a feral drive, like moths to a flame. Pellissery doesn’t make the viewer empathise either with the buffalo or with any of the humans, but revels in the symphonic way in which the entire fabric of society comes apart. On the one hand, a mob of humans cannot rein in a wild buffalo despite multiple attempts and on the other, all it takes is a few men to set a police car on fire and drive the cops away. The institution of human society rests on such precarious pillars that all it takes is an animal to escape captivity for civilisation to come apart. 

Perhaps, the horror in Jallikattu feels potent because it is not posited as a horror film. It’s rooted in a world all too real, where cops are wife-beaters and BJP flags loom the streets and men will literally tear each other apart to assert their superiority. So when the rug is swept from under our feet and it transforms into a horror film, it inspires awe and dread because it hinges on our recognition of how close to the real world this horror feels. This is where we’re headed, Jallikattu tells us. All we’ve got to do is look within.