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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Unda (2019)

Unda

Unda is an understated police drama set in the northern regions of India during an election. Reportedly based on a true story, the film follows a group of policemen from Kerala who are sent to safeguard voting in a remote rural area of Chhattisgarh supposedly under attack by Maoists. Mammootty sheds his star persona in the role of a police sub-inspector and is joined by an excellent support cast of assorted police, local villagers and Indo-Tibetan Border Police. With an under-prepared and inexperienced group of men facing challenges far beyond their previous experience, the film explores the differences that divide India as well as exploring the similarities that should provide unity.

The film starts in Kerala with the police team led by C.I. Mathews Anthony (Ranjith) packing up their equipment and heading north by train. But their problems start when they arrive and find their transport to the camp has been delayed. When it does turn up, instead of buses the men are put into open trucks and taken to the local ITBP camp. But here they find that there isn’t room for all of them, and SI Manikandan (Mammootty) is sent off with his small group of men to a cabin in the woods near to a small village. Once there, the men are confused by the situation and totally oblivious to the differences between their own state and the area they find themselves. Local ITBP officer Kapil Dev (Bhagwan Tiwari) does his best to explain, while his Commandant (Chien Ho Liao) is simply frustrated by their lack of knowledge. To add insult to injury, the team have no supplies. Expecting to pick up ammunition and weapons on site, Mathews and his team are dismayed to learn that all they will have is the equipment they brought. Although they send an emergency request home, it seems unlikely that anything will reach them in time, and there are rumours of Maoists throughout the area.

The police are a disparate group and argue amongst themselves as they are frightened, far from home and disadvantaged by their inability to speak the language. Despite having been a police officer for many years, Manikandan has never had to fire his gun or deal with the kind of sustained tension he has to endure in the camp. His men have their own issues too. One of the police officers has a young wife who is about to have their first baby, while another is constantly on the phone to his new fiancée. Jojo (Shine Tom Chacko) is going through an acrimonious divorce caused by his infidelity. Although he keeps calling his wife, it’s not until he is faced with death that he manages to apologise for his treatment of her, and of course by that time it is far too late. Biju (Lukman) is dealing with prejudice from his colleagues because he comes from a lower caste. Although it’s passed off as ‘joking’, the hurt and alienation that the abuse causes is well portrayed and hopefully will raise some awareness that prejudice is never a ‘joking’ matter.

While Kapil Dev tries to teach the men how to survive in Chhattisgarh by turning off the lights late at night, avoiding mines in the area and keeping a low profile, the local villagers also prove a point of contention. After using up all their water by washing, the police seem totally oblivious to the hardship they have caused. When the local headman Kunalchand (Omkar Das Manikpuri) comes to explain their situation, the police are suspicious and suspect him and his family of being Maoists. But as Kunalchand later complains after his son is taken away by the ITPB and he himself is beaten by masked men, the authorities accuse the villagers of being Maoists, and the Maosits accuse them of collusion with the security forces. Whatever happens, Kunalchand and the villagers will never win and the harsh reality is that they are gradually being forced out of their homes.

When trouble comes, it isn’t Maoists who bring death and destruction – for all the talk, no Maoists are ever seen. Instead it’s corrupt politicians and their thugs who cause the biggest problem and who almost succeed in overcoming the badly outnumbered police force. The lack of support from their own leaders, corruption in the local government and lack of experience of the men themselves all conspire to put the police team in a very precarious position indeed. But it’s their own personal demons that are the biggest barriers they need to overcome.

Unda is a slow burn of a film. Most of the action consists of normal everyday activity such as patrolling the area, getting the camp ready for election day and Mankikandan’s trips back to the ITPB base to follow up on his desperate request for more bullets. Even when there are explosions or gunshots in the night, it’s the reactions of the men that are the focus of the film, rather than the activity in the woods surrounding the camp. In many ways this is more a film about India, but one contained within a tale about a group of Keralan police in a more Northern state. The big issues of language, caste, tribal rights, corruption and terrorism are all brought in to the screenplay as the small group of displaced policemen try to carry out their duties in the most hostile circumstances they have ever faced. The breakdown within the members of the group as they are subject to the constant threat of death from the Maoists and to the contempt of the ITBP is a key point, as is the camaraderie that develops between them as a result of their circumstances. This intermingling of personal issues with the weightier ones of politics and social justice is well done and although there are a few missteps, for the most part the screenplay by Khalid Rahman and Harshad works well. There are well-written moments of comedy and a good blend of personal and group-related drama. Overall, Unda is a good solid drama, well written with excellent performances and directed with a steady hand by Khalid Rahman. Well worth watching and highly rcommended.

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.