Malayalam Director Lijo Jose Pellissery Talks India's Hallucinatory Oscars Contender 'Jallikattu'

Courtesy of Media Plan PR

The filmmaking veteran opens up about how 'Jaws' and a real-life wild buffalo chase helped inspire his frenetic, horror-tinged action allegory, which tells the story of an Indian village gradually driven mad.

A riotous horror-tinged romp starring a runaway buffalo, there's no other contender for the 2021 best international film Oscar quite like India's submission, Jallikattu, directed by Malayalam cinema maverick Lijo Jose Pellissery.

The 90-minute movie's galloping plot couldn't be simpler: a bull escapes from a slaughterhouse in a remote Indian village and all of the menfolk gather to chase it down. But the escalating bedlam that ensues defies easy summary, as does the blunt but multivalent allegory at the center of the tale. The wild bull indeed lays waste to much of the village, but not before Pellissery has more mercilessly skewered the male ego, small-town social conventions and the crazed savagery lurking in the hearts of humans.

Jallikattu won Pellissery the best director award at the International Film Festival of India, and the movie went on to become a much-discussed audience favorite whenever it screened on the festival circuit, including outings in Toronto, Busan, London, Rotterdam and elsewhere. Still, it came as something of a surprise when the Film Federation of India announced that it had selected Pellissery's riotous picture as the country's official submission to the 2021 Oscars. India has been submitting films to the Oscars since the dawn of the foreign-language film category in 1957, but Jallikattu marks just the third time that a work of Malayalam cinema — India's fourth-largest regional film industry, based in the southern state of Kerala and rooted in the Malayalam language and culture — has gotten the official nod from the country's film authorities. Horror-action flicks have been even rarer picks.

A prolific and widely respected figure of the Malayalam scene, Pellissery has directed seven films since 2010 and has several new projects in the works. Jallikattu undoubtedly showcases an impressive purity of vision, but also the director's resourcefulness. Among just a few of the practical challenges Pellissery and his team overcame during the making of Jallikattu: Creating a convincing animatronic bull on a shoestring budget, evacuating Kerala in the midst of preproduction as the state was hit with the worst floods in over 100 years, and directing thousands of migrant workers as extras during torchlit night scenes for the movie's anarchic climax.

The Hollywood Reporter recently connected with Pellissery by Zoom to discuss the making of Jallikattu. XYZ Films and Drafthouse have acquired North American rights to the film and plan to release it in cinemas in the spring.

I understand that Jallikattu is based on a short story by S. Hareesh, who became one of the film's screenwriters. How did the project come to you and what about it initially interested you?

I had heard about the story a while back but hadn't read it. When it came to me it was already a project proposal. The basic crux of the story was a buffalo on the run and the entire village trying to catch it, and as they do so, the character of the village slowly reveals itself. That was the basic idea, which I found interesting. But the short story was more of a satire than what my film became, and it had a different ending. We worked on the plot over and over and it became more of an allegory — an allegory for a kind of syndrome that we can see all around us today. Human beings losing their sense. There's an animal running and a whole village chasing behind it — and gradually they lose their sense and it becomes animals chasing animal. That's what brought me into the whole idea.

A lot of critics in the west have pointed out how effectively the film lambastes toxic masculinity and the destructive absurdity of male rivalry. India was going through a very powerful MeToo movement around the time you were developing and making this film. Was the film partly a response to some of those issues too?

I never thought about this angle or issue in particular, I must say. I was just trying to tell a very pure story — and the derivation and the interpretations of it all would come later. I personally never like to narrate my own interpretations of my films. To me, film is a visual medium, so I have expressed myself fully on the screen. And then it is up to the audience to get exactly what they want to get out of it. But if critics find that the film is satirizing the male ego in an interesting way, I am totally happy about that. I have been totally happy with everything that people have found in the film so far. But I also don't think I'm very easy on the women either. The main female character, Sophie, is very manipulative and her decisions are questionable. All of the characters are gray — no one is really black and white. There are many men running behind the buffalo because this particular story demands that, since the setting is an Indian village. But if there is a critique of chauvinism in the film, I am happy about it, because we all know this is a very real problem. But when an actual incident of this sort happens in India, it usually is a big crowd mostly of men who gather. I've actually seen something like this happen myself.

Wow, really?

Yes, when I was in fifth [grade] in my hometown of Chalakudy, a buffalo escaped from a slaughterhouse just like this. It was during a vacation period so I was not in school, and I actually joined the crowd of men running after the buffalo. I remember the buffalo finally jumped into a river and the police came to shoot it. The whole situation was really violent. I remember it clearly. So maybe this was in my mind somewhere helping me to visualize things when I did the actual work on the film.

The title of the film, Jallikattu, is the name of a traditional festival in India, where a wild bull is released into a crowd and individuals take turns trying to hold onto its hump as a kind of daring challenge. Can you explain the title's relation to the film?

Yes, you're talking about Jallikattu Festival in Tamil Nadu. They have this very age-old tradition in the state that's like what you described. I believe it's over one thousand years old. It's very emotional for the people there, and it's deeply related to their culture. Our film is completely different and not really related to what that festival is about at all. We just picked the name because it involves an animal and a big crowd — that's the only reason.

When you were developing the project, were there any films you looked to as creative touchstones, in terms of the pacing, imagery and mood you wanted to establish. To me it almost felt like Mad Max but in an Indian village with a buffalo instead of automobiles — just in the relentless kinetic momentum of it all.

Well, I have to confess that I'm a big fan of Mad Max, so I'm happy to hear you say that. But if you ask me what I looked to for reference points, it was actually Jaws, or even parts of Jurassic Park, for that matter. We didn't have a lot of money to use VFX to create our animal, so I was looking at films that used animatronics really well. Jaws, especially, was so educational for me, because Spielberg uses animatronics and editing so beautifully and effectively in that film. I also looked at films that have huge crowds of extras, because by the end of our film, we would be shooting several thousand people. I wanted references for interesting ways to capture the movements of large crowds.

I would love to hear a little bit more about how you created the buffalo because I'm sure that's an element that many viewers wonder about. Was it a real buffalo in some sequences? Did you also use some digital VFX?

Yeah, the initial idea was to use a complete VFX animal. We tried to connect with two VFX companies in India, and we contacted some companies abroad, but all that mattered was the budget. Because when we got down to the costs, we realized we couldn't even afford even two minutes with the budget we would be working with. So this became a big obstacle. We have a film where the central character is an animal and how are we going to do it? I would say that we needed almost two more years after the script was done to get everyone on board, because we still were not sure how to create the animal on screen. At some point, after I rewatched Jaws, I threw out the idea that we just go back to basics and try the classic moviemaking method of just creating a dummy. We eventually made at least three full dummies, which could be moved in different ways by an operator inside. One had wheels so that it could go faster. One that was more stationary. At the same time, we were all really skeptical about how it would look on screen. So I have to give so much credit to my art director, stunt coordinator, cinematographer, editor and so many others who worked together to pull this off. They're the ones who made it work. We also did have a real buffalo that we shot for some up closeups that would be too hard to fake with the dummy. The happiest part is that the buffalo is still with us. We named it Jallikattu and he's being well looked after.

That's great. It's all very effective and never feels false.

It took us at least six months to get all of it right, which is a huge amount of time to spend on one prop for an industry like ours, even though it's like the central character of the film. It was during the time that we were working on the dummies that Kerala was flooded. You may have read about it; it was the biggest disaster in our state's history. The entire state was basically flooded at that point, so our team literally had to grab all of the material they were working on and evacuate. But that was part of the whole process. When I look back on it now, it seems kind of exciting, but at the time it was extremely difficult.

How did the film bounce back from that?

Well, then we had to take some time to decide whether this was the right film to make when we were all recovering from a huge disaster. Like will people find a film like this entertaining in that moment? We would also have to gather huge crowds of extras and there were many uncertainties. But our producers had already invested a lot of money and our teams had put in so much time and energy. In the end, we all agreed to go ahead with it.

Can you share a little about how you executed those huge, teeming crowd scenes. Were all of those extras amateurs?

For the climax, especially, we required a huge crowd — thousands of people for the entire sequence. The location where we were shooting was located near a large tea farm that employs a huge number of laborers. Each person who works in the tea garden is paid 400 rupees or 500 rupees per day ($5.60-$6.80). So our team would just go talk to them after they finished work, and offer them another buck each if they came to participate in some sequences for our night shoot. I just gave them very simple instructions. If you try to explain to an enormous crowd what's going on in the film and your various intentions, you just get everyone doing something different. So I would say things like, "Scream, run and act like you've become an animal." Really simple stuff —"be serious or angry as you run, but do not laugh." Everyone was very helpful and had a good time, I would say. That's how we managed to do it.

And how about your approach and intentions with the score and the sound design? It's quite original and striking throughout.

Well, Prashant Pillai who's the composer of the whole film, he has done the scores for all of my films. So we have a great rapport at this point. When I'm looking for a sound, he just gets it. All I gave him for instructions was that it should all be earthy and muddy, and there should not be any technical or digital sounds. We were trying to keep the sound library to a minimum. It should be more thumb taps, pounding and human vocal sounds — acapella. Sounds that would naturally take us back to those stone-age times when people screamed to express themselves. That was the basic idea behind it.

The people who actually performed the sounds for the score were the same guys who played the group of drunkards chasing the buffalo. They're not professionals or anything, they're just guys from near my hometown. We called them to the studio and Prashant had them make various rhythms by hitting things and asked them to scream in different ways. He compiled it all and then processed it in various ways for the score. He has a very interesting way of using sounds.

The sound seemed to build steadily throughout the film, too.

Yes, I wanted it to be too loud, basically [laughs]. So that people feel jittery and agitated when they sit inside the theater. You'll notice that it starts with silence and a ticking sound, and then it slowly builds and develops through various cues until there is screaming and crying — where you just want to get out of the theater. We designed it as a kind of graph — for the sound, the music and the action — where it begins with the simplest action of eyes opening and ends with people screaming and trying to kill each other. So you have this structure of the action and sound traveling up this pyramid and then dropping suddenly back into silence. You can see that in all aspects of the delivery.

The film's allegory is straightforward in a way that seems very intentional. But I also wondered if there were any elements I might not be picking up on because of my ignorance of Malayalam culture. Are there any aspects of the film that require some local understanding to grasp?

Not at all. You just need to be a human. As long as you are not an animal, you will understand what Jallikattu is all about. It's a very simple, universal story. When there is peace, you are in a good place; when there is chaos, we're in a bad place. That's all there is. And with the way the world has been going lately, I think Jallikattu will make some sense to a lot of people.