Earlier this week, there was jubilation on the sets of Lijo Jose Pellissery’s film when his last film ‘Jallikattu’ was announced as India’s official entry at the Oscars.
The Malayalam film, chosen from 27 in the race from Hindi, Malayalam, Odia and Marathi, is contending for the ‘Best International Feature Film’.
It is about a bull meant for slaughter running amok. “I am happy for the entire team, especially those who ran after the bull. The scene was a challenge to shoot,” Lijo told Showtime.
The screenplay of ‘Jallikattu,’ by S Hareesh and R Jayakumar, is based on the former’s short story ‘Maoist’. The film's gripping nature comes from the story, Pellissery believes.
Not everyone is convinced it was India’s best choice. N Manu Chakravarthy, National Award-winning film critic, says the spectacle of chasing a buffalo “demands no understanding of culture, history and the politics of this land”.
“The film is amazingly made, but I wonder what we are trying to give to the West. Are we telling them that we too can make films of their scale and quality? The great tradition of cinema stems from specific cultural, historical and political contexts,” says Manu.
He believes the film leaves many loose ends. “A buffalo runs amok and people chase after it. A bystander wonders why animals are denied the right to live. This character raises an important ethical, ecological question about nature being trampled upon and its spirit being distorted, but the filmmaker does not address it,” he says.
Manu also detects an ‘unconscious civilisational arrogance’ when the filmmaker compares the modern man to primitives, barbarians and savages. “The primitive man hunted for food, how can we come down on that?” he says.
M K Raghavendra, well-known film critic and author of books on Indian cinema, says every year an Indian film is nominated for the Oscars and it makes big news in India, but after that, what happens is best described by a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The rest is silence.”
“After 'Lagaan', no Indian film has actually made the grade to be in competition. Perhaps the best Indian film to be nominated was Chaitanya Tamhane's 'Court' (2015) but it fared no better. 'Jallikattu' is an unusual film about a buffalo becoming an object of fear, but one doesn’t know how to take it since it is done in dead earnestness,” he says.
He suspects that the film will go the same way as its predecessors. “The buffalo is digitally created and enhanced but how much terror can a buffalo summon?” he says.
Pradeep Kenchanuru, whose doctoral thesis is on Kannada films, believes ‘Jallikattu’ is the right choice. “This film does well to break the format that only big-budget films make a difference. ‘Jallikattu’ represents the hardcore spirit of independent cinema,” says Pradeep, who teaches at the Government College in Baindur.
The film’s relevance comes from its questioning of “male dominance, patriarchy and the idea of masculinity” in some households in Kerala. “The arrogance and inhuman behaviour is what is highlighted.” What Lijo offers, feels Pradeep, is an insight into the human condition.
“The film makes for a great viewing experience and haunts the viewer much after it is watched,” he sums up.