Jallikattu (2019)

Jallikattu starts with a chorus of household noises that gradually give way to the birdcalls and insect sounds of the forest. But the peace is quickly disrupted by the chaotic cacophony of groups of men chasing after an escaped buffalo. The pace is frenetic as the buffalo damages crops, buildings and people, old rivalries between enemies are renewed, and the entire male population of the village descend into a kind of primitive madness as they chase after the beast. It’s a potent mix of petty rivalries, domestic and social clashes, underscored by masculinity at its most base, all combining to make Jallikattu a feast for the senses and above all, a wild ride of a film.

After the quick cuts of the opening section, the film introduces the various characters in the village. Varkey (Chemban Vinod Jose) is the butcher who dispenses chunks of fresh meat to a predominately male clientele alongside his helpers, chief of which is Antony (Antony Varghese). Also notable in the early scenes are a police officer (Tinu Pappachan) who is seen abusing his wife (Pravitha Vijayan) although she seems able to fight back quite effectively, and the rich but unpopular Kuriachan (Jaffer Iddukki). As the only supplier, Varkey is asked to provide the meat for Kuriachan’s daughter’s engagement party but when the time comes to slaughter the buffalo, Antony slips up and the animal escapes, starting a madcap chase to capture the beast. Initially it’s just Antony and Varkey running through the fields, but the situation quickly escalates as the buffalo damages crops and the local church before setting a haystack on fire and destroying a couple of small businesses in the village. It’s impressive work for one buffalo and the trail of destruction just gets bigger and bigger as the chase continues.

To try and catch the animal, the villagers first rally together, but the arrival of a group from a neighbouring village sparks the first signs of serious conflict. Adding to the heady mix of testosterone is local hunter Kuttachan (Sabumon Abdusamad), who has recently been released from jail and is keen to extract revenge on the man who put him there – Antony. Kuttachan arrives to his own cheerleading soundtrack, provided by the villagers, and along with his aggressive attitude it seems likely that more blood will be spilled before the buffalo is captured.

As more and more men gather and take up torches and crudely carved wooden spears to hunt the buffalo, the night forest comes alive with streams of light and the sounds of the hunt. The buffalo is heard more than seen – a shadow in the night, occasionally a tossed body or the flash of horns, but mostly there is only the rustle of grass and sound of hooves. In the brief moments when the animal is actually visible, the animatronic buffalo is realistic and convincing to the point where I was happy there was a disclaimer at the start of the film given the level of escalating violence doesn’t bode a happy end for the buffalo. It’s great work from the whole team and the combination of art director Gokul Das and cinematographer Gireesh Gangadharan ensure the buffalo is a central presence despite the mainly fleeting glances.

The film is more about the frenzy of the chase and the sounds and images of men on the hunt rather than a story involving specific characters. The stories around Kuttachan, Varkey and Antony are for the most part short vignettes and the main focus is on the rising blood frenzy of the crowd. Even when there is a brief interlude after the buffalo falls into a well, some of the men are seen killing and cooking a chicken, and the threat of violence is never far away as the different groups clash. With such a male dominated cast there is little scope for any female characters, and only Varkey’s daughter Sophie (Santhy Balachandran) has any real role to play. Her interaction with Anthony requires a screen warning about violence towards women, but despite the character’s attempts to appear manipulative, I felt that she was more resigned to her fate in a village full of such machismo men. The rest of the women seem to be either secretly laughing at the men (given the mostly inept and ham-fisted attempts to catch the buffalo), or just indifferent to their antics. In a sort of ‘watching the children play’ attitude, the women gossip and cook tapioca while mostly ignoring the warnings to hide inside their houses to escape the buffalo.

Probably the most impressive part of the film is the soundtrack – both the music and the ambient sounds are brilliantly integrated into the action and serve to heighten the tension of the chase. Prashant Pillai’s soundtrack underscores the wild excitement of the hunt and the vocal chants sound almost like anthems to the gods of the forest. Along with the stunning visuals, either soaring high above the forest or deep inside the chaotic action, the sounds are vital in conveying the blood-lust and violence simmering in the crowd.

The end is appropriately cataclysmic and while the symbolism may be a tad heavy-handed at times, it’s the overall spectacle that impresses. However, this isn’t a film for everyone. Violence simmers at every turn, frequently boiling over into blood-lust and naked aggression, while the themes are belligerently masculine and at times even misogynistic. But as in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s previous film Ee. Ma. Yau., there is still humour even in the darkest moments of the film. Indeed, this may perhaps be the point – that for all their aggression, the men’s behaviour is so ridiculous that it becomes comical when seen from outside the maelstrom of the hunt itself.

The frenetic pace of the film and incessant beat of the soundtrack sweep you along with the action and leave little room for anything other than wonder at Lijo Jose Pellissery’s vision. Toxic masculinity aside, the film is a departure from standard Indian cinema and as such deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Different and challenging, Jallikattu is well worth watching on the big screen if you can.

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Ee. Ma. Yau.

Lijo Jose Pellissery’s award winning film from last year is a fascinating story of a death and funeral in a small community in Kerala. Although the story sounds sombre there are plenty of comedy moments along with piercingly accurate observations of human behaviour as the family gathers to mourn and bury Vavachan (Kainakary Thankaraj). Chemban Vinod Jose is fantastic as Eeshi, Vavachan’s son, but it’s the minor characters including Eeshi’s mother and his seemingly unflappable friends and neighbours that make Ee. Ma. Yau. such an exceptional film.

My subtitles translate the title to R.I.P., but google suggests that it’s a reference to Eesho, Mariyam, Yauseppe (Jesus, Mary and Joseph), a funeral prayer in Kerala. The opening credits feature a funeral procession that slowly wends its way across the screen with a backdrop of the ocean on a sunny day. This kind of celebration with a band and an array of church officials is what Vavachan tells his son he wants for his funeral as he reminisces about his own father’s demise while drinking a few glasses of arrack. It seems to be a normal conversation, and potentially one which Eeshi has heard before as he agrees to providing his father with a magnificent and impressive funeral without ever considering that he may need to deliver sooner rather than later. 

The film begins earlier as Vavachan arrives back in the village with a duck, several bottles of booze and a bundle of money that’s basically worthless after demonetisation. He looks serene and at peace on the bus with his duck, but on arrival back at the village first he fights with another villager Chavaro (Kunjunju) and then at home argues with his wife Pennamma (Pauly Valsan) who is unimpressed by Vavachan’s long absence. Along with her daughter Nissa (Krishna P.) and daughter-in-law Sabeth (Arya Salim) Pennamma conspires to add ‘medicine’ to her husband’s stash of alcohol and the duck curry, to make him stay at home. But as Vavachan sings, dances and drinks, he suddenly falls, hits his head and is gone before anyone can react to the sudden crash.

Eeshi has no money, so the sudden burden of his father’s fabulous funeral is a huge problem, which he resolves in time-honoured fashion by selling his wife’s jewellery. His father’s last words resonate in his ears as he arranges for a coffin far beyond what he can actually afford, although it also comes with a free suit and even a beautician thrown in for good measure. Although his friend and neighbour Ayyappan (Vinayakan) tries to rein in Eeshi’s attempts to create his father’s perfect funeral, it’s ultimately lack of funds, a suspicious priest and the inclement weather that combine to give a completely different ceremony than Vavachan had described.

There are so many wonderful characters here, each with their own quirks that together paint a colourful picture of life in the village. Pennamma seems to be a typical housewife as she discusses her husband’s failings while cooking his dinner, but once Vavachan dies she transforms instantly into the chief mourner, wailing incessantly over his body with her cries getting louder and more strident whenever anyone arrives at the house. She has an uncanny ability to know when someone is near and start crying just in time! Every visitor is then subjected to her pointed comments and snide remarks, all made under the guise of talking to her husband’s corpse that ensures Pennamma can pay out every insult (real or imagined) she has endured over the years. Pauly Valsan is excellent here and her Pennamma is a compellingly accurate portrayal of a widow making the most of her brief time in the spotlight. P.F. Mathews screenplay is keenly observational and he captures equally realistic reactions from the other members of the family and various other villagers who come to mourn Vavachan’s passing, or just call in to see what is going on. As Eeshi is out trying to organise the funeral, Sabeth is mostly worried about the appearance she will present to visitors now that her husband has pawned her jewellery. Nissa on the other hand is trying to fend off her rather too amorous boyfriend who wants to take advantage of the upset and keeps trying to get Nissa alone.

More and more issues arise as Eeshi tries to organise the funeral. First of all the doctor isn’t available to come and certify the death, and then the nurse is made suspicious by the strong smell of alcohol and the injury to Vavachan’s head. Chavaro causes problems by suggesting that Vavachan’s death was not natural, and Father Zazcharia Parappurath (Dileesh Pothan) takes his concerns seriously. The priest is a wannabe detective and immediately starts to ask questions and investigate the circumstances of Vavachan’s death while berating the local police officer for his inaction. At the same time, a journalist repeatedly calls Eeshi to get details of the funeral, which Eeshi cannot give as the priest has not confirmed the time. Adding the final straw, Vavachan’s prolonged absences are explained at the most inopportune moment, just before the torrential rain hits.

What I really enjoyed about this film are these minor characters and small vignettes as each plays their role in the funeral. The priest’s investigations, Chowro’s troublemaking, the one neighbour who stays with the body and seems unperturbed no matter what happens, the police officer reluctant to venture out and become involved, even the government worker called out to mend the power line are all realistically drawn and relatable to real life. The situation may eventually end up fairly extreme, but on the way there, Lijo Jose Pellissery touches on many typical reactions and conversations that occur in most funeral’s, whether in India or anywhere around the world.

What also stands out is the sense of community that comes through strongly as Eeshi’s neighbours all pull together  – whether it’s trying to find the doctor to certify the death, getting Vavachan ready for his funeral or putting a tarpaulin up to shield the body from the rain, everyone pitches in to help. But while most of the activity revolves around Vavachan’s death and funeral with all the associated comedy, there are touching and poignant scenes involving a grave digger, who has an epiphany of sorts on the beach along with a scruffy stray dog. Here is the compassion and spirituality that is missing from Vavachan’s funeral, and even more markedly, missing from Father Parappurath’s attitude towards the dead. Although the film is about a funeral, for the most part it’s not sad, excepting when the gravedigger himself dies and is buried in the grave he was digging just hours before.

I love the realism in this film that’s cleverly enhanced by the touch of fantasy that brings disparate elements together to create an engaging whole. The attention to detail is perfect while Shyju Khalid’s camerawork captures the miserable weather, grieving family and curious villagers beautifully. The comedy is well written and funny without ever becoming patronising and the variation of light and shade in both the story and characters seems perfectly balanced. Ee Ma Yau is at heart a simple story, but there is so much more going on here and despite being set in a small fishing village the  characterisations and symbolism could apply to almost anywhere. Add in the wonderful sounds of nature, sharp observations and excellent script, and Ee Ma Yau really is a wonderfully engaging film. 5 stars.

 

Sapthamashree Thaskaraha

PosterIn his second film Sapthamashree Thaskaraha, Anil Radhakrishnan Menon takes a number of ideas from various Hollywood heist movies and expertly gives them an Indian flavour with a collection of memorable characters and an appropriately Keralan setting. It’s an entertaining film with more comedy than I expected in a crime thriller, and as with North 24 Kaadham it’s the clever characterisations that stand out. The story is well written with some clever twists and engaging dialogue while the heist itself, although improbable, is not completely impossible. Anil Radhakrishnan Menon keeps the action tense during the heist scenes but manages to add in plenty of genuinely funny moments too, while the excellent cast work well together to make a better than average movie.

The film starts with one of the ‘seven good thieves’ of the title disclosing his crime in a church and his rambling confession becomes the narrative for the film. The priest in the confessional is ably played by Lijo Jose Pelissery, more commonly found on the other side of the camera, but he does an excellent job here as the fascinated recipient of Martin’s (Chemban Vinod Jose) recollections. It’s not just a bare rendition of events either, as there is some excellent comedy woven into these scenes and both the priest and Martin add snippets of background information as they go along.

The seven thieves meet in prison where they are all sharing the same cell. This does seem a little strange to me given the variety of their crimes, although perhaps the common theme is that they all have relatively short sentences. Martin is a fairly inept thief, mainly involved in petty crimes and hindered by his assistant Gee Varghese (Sudhi Koppa) whose incompetence in the art of crime is reflected in his wardrobe choices. Martin’s journey to jail introduces another two characters, Narayankutty (Neeraj Madhav) and Krishnan Unni (Prithviraj) who both stand out as different from the other prisoners on the bus. Narayankutty is intimidated by the other inmates, and as his back story is revealed it becomes obvious that he’s basically a computer geek with little awareness of the real world. He was convicted of supplying a camera secreted in a soap box to a couple of peeping toms, although it’s clear that he never thought about why the two men wanted such a thing. However his talents ensure he is invaluable to the team later when his computer expertise is vital for their convoluted robbery plans. Neeraj Madhav seems perfectly cast as the nerdy Narayankutty with his generally bemused attitude and facial expressions underlining his naiveté while his attempt at distraction during a bodybuilding contest is just hilarious.

Three of the prisoners have a connection to Pious Mathew (Joy Mathew), a wealthy local businessman who has acquired his money through a series of illegal extortions and schemes. Krishnan Unni attacked Pious when he was involved in the death of Krishnan’s wife Sarah (Reenu Mathews) and it’s for this assault that Krishnan is serving time in jail. Prithviraj has the longest and most detailed backstory here and his character is also the brains behind the operation, but despite this the film doesn’t make him the central hero and Prithviraj doesn’t appear as the ‘star’. For much of the film Krishnan Unni is just a member of the gang, albeit the one who organises the heist and delegates roles to each of the other thieves.

Nobel Ettan (Nedumudi Venu) is in jail after his family owned chit fund collapsed owing a significant amount of money. He lost everything, including his son to suicide, after being conned by Pious who also stole most of the fund money. Nobel’s plight is the reason that the thieves unite against Pious, although the lure of big money is probably the major factor in their decision. The final connection to Pious is through ‘Leaf’ Vasu (Sudheer Karamana), a driver and hit-man for Pious until he sustained a head injury that left him mentally incapacitated. Despite his confused state Vasu remembers where Pious keeps his money and that’s enough information for the rest of the gang to start making plans to rob the crooked businessman on their release from jail.

The final two gang members are Salaam (Salaam Bukhari) and Shabab (Asif Ali). Salaam is a Hindi-speaking magician who has many useful skills and an acrobatic girlfriend Paki (Flower Battsetseg) who is also drawn into the plot. Shabab is mainly shown to be a capable fighter with a strong sense of justice whose finest moment comes when he lures Pious’ brother Christo (Irshad) into a fight with a group of tiger men. There is something very satisfying about watching a group of men with tiger faces on their bellies turn round and suddenly become menacing after having been dancing only moments before.

After their release the thieves set up shop in Nobel Ettan’s house and organise their plan to break into the Charity hospital where Pious and his family keep their ill-gotten loot.  Luckily Noble Ettan’s daughter Annamma (Sanusha) works at the hospital, and with her help and the skills of the seven thieves the intricate robbery starts to take shape.

The first half is relatively slow as the various characters are established, but the film doesn’t drag due to a good mixture of action and comedy in the back stories. Some of the stories are longer than others, and Prithviraj’s does include a song which isn’t entirely necessary but does fit well into the narrative.

The second half has just as much comedy but also increased moments of tension, particularly during the robbery itself where Ammanna’s nervous participation provides a good contrast to the antics of Martin outside the hospital. However there are a few sequences which drag on a little too long, such as repeated shots of the church procession, which break up the momentum and reduce the impact of the heist scenes. It’s the individual performances and characterisation of each of the thieves that make the film so watchable. Each has a reason to be included and all of the actors fit perfectly into their roles. Nedumudi Venu for example is blissfully unaware of his wife and daughters’ displeasure when he brings the released prisoners to his house, making it even more plausible that he was easily fooled by Pious and swindled out of his business while Sudheer Karamana includes repetitive mannerisms and childlike behaviours that make Vasu a more convincing character.

Joy Mathews as the main villain is nicely smug and vindictive with no redeeming features, which makes it easy to enjoy his discomfort and that of his equally nasty brothers at the end, and in true Robin Hood fashion, all the thieves have enough good qualities to ensure that the audience will be on their side. It’s simplistic but works due to the quality of the cast and good writing of their characters.

There are only a few songs in the film penned by Rex Vijayan and they are mainly used as background while the gang scurry around getting everything they need for the heist. Jayesh Nair’s cinematography is excellent and I love his use of bars, windows and other framing effects to heighten the claustrophobic atmosphere and increase tension as the film reaches its conclusion.

There is much to like in Sapthamashree Thaskaraha. The mix of different characters works well to keep the story moving forward as each takes part in the robbery. The set-up gives a clear insight into each character and the final heist is a good mixture of clever plot, heightened tension and a good dash of humour to wash it all down. I loved the final twist – of course there’s a final twist – which reminded me of British films such as Shallow Grave and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which are also comedy/thrillers that end not quite as expected. Highly recommended – 4 stars.