Lijo Jose Pellissery decodes the animal spirits

Lijo Jose Pellissery talks about the creative vision behind 'Jallikattu', his unique visual style, and the singular use of soundscapes and dialogues in his films.

Updated - November 21, 2019 04:48 pm IST

Published - November 21, 2019 02:58 pm IST

Chasing the beast within: A scene from “Jallikattu”

Chasing the beast within: A scene from “Jallikattu”

Noted Malayalam filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellissery’s critically acclaimed film Jallikattu was recently screened to a packed audience at the 8th Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) in the presence of the director. Jallikattu , which had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, is set in a remote village where a buffalo escapes slaughter and triggers an orgy of violence involving the beast and the villagers.

With the man vs animal conflict as its central theme, Jallikattu serves as a powerful reminder of man’s insatiable lust for power and supremacy over everyone else. The film also explores themes of envy, jealousy, machismo, and chaos and mob behaviour.

 Lijo Jose Pellissery

Lijo Jose Pellissery

Edited excerpts:

"Jallikattu" is primarily a male-driven film. Tell us about the vision behind the film. How did you achieve the scenes with the buffalo?

The film is based on a short story written by S. Hareesh. We took the crux of the story and expanded on that. According to me, the film just has two characters. One is the buffalo and the second one is the crowd. There is nothing gender-based according to me. The situation demanded a male crowd following the buffalo. That’s all.

Now, the script for ‘Jallikattu’ was ready even before I made ‘Angamaly Diaries’. But the only thing that was stopping us was our inability to crack the buffalo, the animal on the screen. I didn't want the buffalo to look like a cartoon. I wanted it to look exactly how an animal would look alive. So after two-three years when we were fully confident that we have cracked the animal part, we started thinking of going on board with the project. I must thank our art director Gokul Das for how he spent a lot of time creating an animatronic animal that looked exactly how an animal would look. For Jallikattu, we mostly relied on the animatronic animal with a little bit of VFX to support the look of the animal and of course the real animal to model it.

Lord of Flies” seems to have a great influence on “Jallikattu”. How do you see the similarities between the novel and your film?

As I said earlier, “Jallikattu” is based on a short story by S. Hareesh. The film was actually not in this shape earlier. Initially, we had a climax with Anthony winning over the buffalo. It was just that. Then slowly at some point, we just wondered what if instead of Anthony, the entire crowd goes and kills the beast. Then suddenly the idea of making it larger than life and surreal struck me. So we just turned that into that. It was then that Hareesh reminded me that there was a novel called “Lord of Flies” with central thought similar to our film. Somebody asked me the same question in Toronto also but actually I haven't read the book yet but I do plan to read it sometime soon.

In your recent films like “Angamaly Diaries”, “Ea.Ma.Yau”, and “Jallikattu” you seem to demonstrate a sort of visual and aural mastery over the cinematic medium in your films?

It's actually an evolving process for me. From the moment I read the script the imagery and soundscape slowly begin to take shape in my mind. And it slowly keeps evolving based on the kind of instincts I get over a period i.e. from the script stage to filming to post-production. So it's an ongoing process for me. It's always there and never really gets over at any stage, even after the final cut is out. So even while watching my films at premieres I get a feeling that I could have done certain things differently and so it is always like unfinished business for me.

There is a certain way you do your dialogues for scenes set in crowded spaces that bears an uncanny similarity to the style of Robert Altman. Is it something that you do consciously?

I don't remember consciously watching any films of Robert Altman but I will definitely start watching them now. However, in my films, I make conscious efforts to layer the dialogues unfolding in crowded spaces in such a manner that so we are able to communicate the individual pieces separately. So we mark them out distinctly. Then during the dubbing process, we have these people in the backdrop. Now, during the shoot, I give them a topic which they have to discuss. There would be different pieces of conversation like something that happened in the immediate backdrop, something that happened in the distant backdrop. It's not that they are there randomly and it's all very intentional. They all are discussing topics related to what's happening there. The instructions are clearly laid out to them.

The same thing is repeated during the dubbing process. We then do the leveling of each of these groups of people. So, basically, we have a lot of layers of sound in the backdrop.

As the visual level in your films there is chaos and it all looks random and yet there is an order to this randomness. How do you manage to keeps control when there is so much going on at the same time?

It's like when you keep doing it over and over again it gets easier as things slowly begin to take shape. Over a period you slowly get a hang of it. You start exercising a certain control over what you want and don't want to highlight.

You see, till ‘Double Barrel’, I used to follow a very different approach to filmmaking. Basically, I was very formal in my approach. Everything was very planned and structured. But after that I slowly started getting the hang of how to be more candid with my filmmaking approach.

But I feel that I am still getting there as I am getting to understand new things but I am nowhere near where I want to be as a filmmaker.

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