Review: Jallikattu

Though India has always flourished as a prime source of original films, most of the world still only thinks of Bollywood. In fact, there are myriad subdivisions of Indian cinema depending on region and language that have achieved their own industry-level importance and which are finally being exposed to the rest of the world. Jallikattu is the seventh feature by director Lijo Jose Pellissery, whose work is predominantly done in the Malayalam language and set in the state of Kerala. Though his films cover a wide range of genres, they almost always contain violence in a way that not only provides a visceral thrill but comments on the basic primitive nature of man, and by “man” he means male human beings.

Jallikattu may not necessarily be his most characteristic work, but given the reception it received at the Toronto International Film Festival, it is certainly his most well-known outside of India. Unabashedly an action film, Jallikattu (the word describes a local sport involving bull-riding) almost demands a certain amount of knowledge of the cultural mores of the milieu in which it is set for the movie to make sense even as a thriller, but it’s so relentlessly forward-moving that the viewer gets caught up in the kinetic energy and basically absorbs Pellissery’s notion of how male violence intensifies under a specific set of circumstances. The action is set off by a bull that is being prepared for slaughter by a village butcher. The bull escapes into the jungle and reports from outside the village soon indicate that the bull is destroying crops and even structures. The men of the village decide to hunt the bull in order to capture or kill it, which sets off a series of competitive rivalries that, on the surface, represent macho posing but reveal deep-set antagonisms related to class and position within the village. 

The men thus become the thing they are hunting, i.e., single-minded beings whose frustrations feed on themselves, turning them all into raging beasts. The action of chasing the bull as it rampages through homes and markets, destroying everything in its path, is mirrored by a dozen subplots showing how the men of the village destroy the lives of their women with their unchecked privilege, poison the well of community with selfish ambition, and generally have no control over their emotions because everything to them is a game for power. It gets to the point where the hunters’ zeal in capturing the bull is channeled into destroying those for whom they have always harbored resentments. 

Along the way, the uneducated viewer realizes some interesting things if they hadn’t known them already: that butchering cattle is illegal here and done in the shadows (it’s why the police won’t get involved in the hunt); that alcohol is as much of a social scourge in this nominally religious community as it is anywhere else; that arranged marriage is a tool of the patriarchy. But even with the pointed social critiques, the operative concept here is action, and the movie never lets up in its incessant rush to an apocalyptic climax that is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. 

In Malayalam. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum, Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Jallikattu home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Jallikattu

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