What is so special about regional cinema? Why has Mollywood Nights replaced Bollywood Nights? We can answer that by paying paeans to what is so special about Lijo Jose Pellissery's cinema.
Last year, many had sneered when Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy was named as India’s official Oscar entry in the Best International Feature Film category. The Ranveer Singh-Alia Bhatt combo about an aspiring rapper from Mumbai’s neecha nagar was a staggering success all right, and the makers and its god-tier cast couldn’t conceal their jubilation. But did it have the right recipe to cut it at the most coveted awards shindig in the movie world? Predictably, the film was out of the race in no time. That year rightly belonged to Bong Joon-ho, who was already a rockstar back in his home country South Korea but not so widely known in the West except by film junkies, like Quentin Tarantino, who were tripping on Planet BJH since forever. In other words, a highly entertaining yet creepily dystopian world that Joon-ho had created to belt out his vision of all that’s wrong with our society was finally receiving much-needed attention abroad. In other, other words: Parasite ka time aagaya. This year, India is gunning for some blood. Buffalo blood, if you will. India’s official selection as Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu is a groundbreaking Malayalam hit that belies a strong statement against human violence.
The film follows a buffalo that has run amok in a Kerala village, escaping butcher Varkey’s (Chemban Vinod Jose) knife and landing straight into hot fire. The rough and sweaty village men and their hair-trigger machismo (note the opening scene and staccato shots of male eyes) could belong to a Sergio Leone Spaghetti, but here they revel in black humour (discussing food in sexual detail, stalking women or chasing the animal in a primitive way) and are aided by hair-raising visuals and dazzling sound design that have become Lijo Jose Pellissery’s hallmark. Through the metaphor of a primal animal, something that Bong Joon-ho did with the engrossing Okja or Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni did with 2008 Marathi film Valu, albeit in a lighter vein, Pellissery seems to be blurring the line between man and beast, between violence and innocence and what, ultimately, our kind cruelty says about being human. The animal, one can safely say, swaggers out looking like the better one. Explaining the film’s germ, Pellissery told Film Companion, “The idea of the space between the animal and the man disappearing excited me.”
Pellissery, 42, has been called a trailblazer for introducing a new voice and creative vigour into the Malayalam film industry. Pellissery’s own breakout Angamaly Diaries tore a page out of the diary of a youthful small town, and it became unduly famous for a single-take coda earning it comparisons with Hollywood gangster epic Goodfellas. What explains Pellissery’s passion for utterly fantastical climaxes? His last, Ea. Ma. Yau, featured a surreal, Bergman-esque ending with the protagonist slipping into the afterlife whereas Jallikattu’s final shots take you head first into the dark cave of human depravity.
Lately, Malayalam cinema has enjoyed a bit of renaissance. Ea. Ma. Yau is a key part of this cultural moment. As are titles like Ustaad Hotel, Kumbalangi Nights, Bangalore Days, Premam, Sudani From Nigeria and Oolu that have helped break the language barrier and succeeded in migrating to the Hindi-speaking parts of India, thanks to OTT platforms, film fests and word-of-mouth. Before that, there was the unconventional Kammatti Paadam that breathed fresh life into the fading gangster genre and the thrilling Drishyam, headlined by a superstar (Mohanlal) who plays the most uncommon common man willing to go to unimaginable lengths to protect his daughter from ending up behind bars. In Kerala itself, these films boasted big names (Fahadh Faasil, Prithviraj, Nivin Pauly, Sai Pallavi, Dulquer Salmaan, Mohanlal). Few know them and their little gems outside their state and regional boundaries, but their meaningful content and out-of-the-box approach to filmmaking is tapping new audiences even as the monolithic Bollywood is increasingly losing its plot. Would it be wrong to suggest that Hindi films are stuck in the impossible cycle of summer blockbusters, mindless sequels and crippling star system — tangled into and shackled by its own myth? While Bollywood is unapologetically make-believe, Mollywood is more real and relatable, putting its focus on the plot and its possibilities and on stars who are versatile and ready and willing to smash the mould. They may have feets of clay, but unlike their Bollywood counterparts, they reserve it to sculpt and sharpen their acts.
What else is so special about regional cinema? Why has Mollywood Nights replaced Bollywood Nights? We can answer that by paying paeans to what is so special about Pellissery’s cinema. Pellissery is a cheerleader of the Mollywood New Wave, which also includes such influencers as Rajeev Ravi, Aashiq Abu, Dulquer Salmaan, Anjali Menon, Sachy, Fahadh Faasil, Prithviraj, Nivin Pauly and many others. In his seven films so far, starting with 2010’s Nayakan, Pellissery has forged an aesthetics that blends art film cred with mainstream outreach. On screen, he nonchalantly fuses his Christian upbringing and imagery with a feel for local idiom and human behaviour filled with wry humour, fantastical situations and extraordinary visuals. In his previous film, the excellent death farce Ea.Ma.Yau, he gave new meaning and grandeur to the Latin Catholic funeral while Angamaly Diaries wowed critics with its raw beauty, tough-guy swag and gangland bravura. It was about time Pellissery would transcend borders to become better known outside Kerala. Jallikattu’s Oscar fame might help, even more so if it wins. In broad daylight and in cold blood, amen.
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