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By Jake Watt
3rd March 2020

Jallikattu is a controversial bull-taming "sport" that involves aggressive confrontation between cattle and humans that is popular in Tamil Nadu in India. Its genesis can be traced back to the Tamil classical period (400-100 BC) and for farmers, jallikattu holds enormous cultural significance. It's a moment to exhibit their own strength and those of their bulls, whom they claim to revere.

Lijo Jose Pellissery's 'Jallikattu' opens with an ambient score by Prashant Pillai and a rapid-fire assembly of visuals (the ebb and flow of the human breath, the flaming red of the title, the activity at a crowded meat shop, random banter) via cinematographer Girish Gangadharan and editor Deepu Joseph. We are introduced to the morning routines of a remote Kerala village and the drama that exists behind closed doors.

Kaalan Varkey (Chemban Vinod Jose) is a buffalo butcher, whom the entire village relies on for fresh meat. Through a freakish accident, the butcher's latest buffalo escapes and runs amok through fields, plantations and human habitations. This happens in the aftermath of a young man exacting revenge on another in a seething rivalry over a woman they both lust after, a local policeman getting violent with his wife, and other conflicts. An immense hunt ensues.


The buffalo, a rampaging metaphor, clearly has no prejudice as it tramples across the property of farmers, business owners and the poor alike, infuriating everyone in its wake. These feelings turn into a raging bloodlust when a heralded hunter, Kuttachan (Sabumon Abdusamad), who'd been exiled from the community, is enlisted to kill the bull.

Fuelled by old grudges and petty squabbles, the villagers become obsessed with catching the errant animal. Pellissery's film relishes the nerve-racking chaos that ensues when hundreds of men begin to act like beasts, shouting, screaming and growling words out at each other, many of them simultaneously using this battle as an outlet to vent other simmering internal struggles. The mob is led by the brutal Kuttachan and his nemesis, the sly Antony (Antony Varghese). What begins as a normal day turns into a near-apocalyptic war zone that lays bare the town's stifling patriarchy and the folly of man's destructive ego.

The screenplay by S. Hareesh and R. Jayakumar (based on Hareesh's short story 'Maoist') walks us through a series of absurdly funny vignettes scattered throughout the village: the father planning a daughter's wedding with a lot of thought given to the cooking of the beef, the old man who speaks for the environment (he forbids cursing in front of the crops) and animal welfare but forgets all of it later, the gangs challenging each other on who will get the lost buffalo, and the problematic love life of Varkey's sister, Sophie (Santhy Balachandran). Also, everyone loves tapioca!

What begins as a normal day turns into a near-apocalyptic war zone that lays bare the town's stifling patriarchy and the folly of man's destructive ego.

Pellissery creates set pieces out of the most unremarkable events, illustrated with a series of stunningly expressionistic images, like the single-take scene of a man planning a feast for his daughter's engagement; three groups of men walking away in three different directions, filmed from a bird's-eye point of view; and a spectacular chase over a bridge that leads into the film's monumental climax, involving a tower of writhing human flesh.

In one key scene, an old man sitting in the warmth of a night fire observes, "this land had once been full of animals, and it is still so, look at those two-legged creatures." Are humans still basically Neanderthal hunter-gatherers, scooping up everything within reach - even women - while battling to the death for primacy and first dibs on the biggest slab of meat? 'Jallikattu' is a clever, handsomely shot and frequently laugh-aloud sociopolitical critique that asks whether humanity has really evolved that far from its crude beginnings.

RUN TIME: 01h 35m
CAST: Antony Varghese
Chemban Vinod Jose
Sabumon Abdusamad
Santhy Balachandran
Jaffer Idukki
Vinod Kozhikode
Tinu Pappachan
DIRECTOR: Lijo Jose Pellissery
WRITERS: S. Hareesh
R. Jayakumar
PRODUCER: Thomas Panicker
SCORE: Prashant Pillai
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