Dear Fellow Critics,
We all know putting a film at the top of your personal list has more to do with activism than criticism.
You might claim it’s deductive reasoning to say a gangster epic, made with an uncompromising runtime, cutting edge technology, and the best actors of a generation (directed by a master of the medium), is the year’s unrivalled achievement. Or that the tonal tightrope being walked in recontextualizing a famous Hollywood murder provides irrefutable proof that cinema’s enfant terrible has matured into an auteur whose work demands the highest respect. Or that a South Korean film that has already won the triple crown of the Palme d’Or, near universal love, and foreign film box-office records, succeeded on so many levels that naming it anything other than the best of 2019 would be blatantly irresponsible.
Well, screw it. I’m still calling Jallikattu the best film of 2019. (Parasite will have to settle for #2.)
In truth, Jallikattu might have been my favourite film even before I saw it. But hear me out. I loathe knee-jerk, fan-boy, uncritical, blind devotion reviews that award five stars to any film that tickles teenage pleasure receptors. I’m also highly skeptical of the virtue signaling that comes from elevating woke films with inventive storytelling but mediocre execution. And I feel embarrassed for contrarian picks that, at least in retrospect, just seem like a ploy for attention (even if it wasn’t - I swear).
Yet here I am, going to bat for an obscure low-budget Indian film, with a title I can barely pronounce, acting like its shit doesn’t stink.
Maybe I was an easy mark. After once again being overwhelmed by the annual TIFF catalogue of 350+ feature films, I found myself unnaturally attracted to a two-line recommendation by the festival’s artistic director Camera Bailey. A bull breaks loose in a village… Jaws in South India… SOLD! The film quickly raced to the top of my must-see list, and I managed to get a ticket to opening night.
But then I missed the screening. Actually, more like (agonizingly) skipped the screening in favour of a party, because free alcohol is a powerful thing and I’m a terrible critic. I resigned myself to the idea that Jallikuttu might be better remembered as “the one that got away”- a weird foreign genre film I would never see. One that couldn’t possibly live up to my own personal hype, anyway.
Two months later, out of nowhere, it’s on Amazon Prime. Available to watch from the comfort of my home, on a big TV screen, whenever I want. I had to decide - do I treat this like a Woody Allen film (none of which I’ve ever seen, for much less noble reasons than you’d assume), or do I tempt fate, risk disappointment, and just, you know, watch the film?
After a week of inexplicable contemplation, I chose the inevitable. And from the moment I pushed play, until the absolute bananas ending, I couldn’t wipe the stupid smile off my face. But for very different reasons from start to finish.
At first, I was amused by a regional certificate that’s stamped, scanned, and tacked onto the first few frames of the film. Then I was intrigued, more than re-assured, by a disclaimer stating that “all actions were performed on dummy animals, not live animals”, instead of getting the standard “no animals were harmed during production” clause we get in North America. And I was positively delighted by the title card drawn in mud, featuring a charging bull, dozens of people rushing up a hill, and the film’s untranslated Malayaman language title (which just looks like beautiful scribbles to someone like me, unfamiliar with the Vatteluttu alphabet).
But then the credits start. First with an “in memoriam” card, then a list of sincere thanks. A long list of names occupying frames, from churches, to banks, to police, to individuals. Evidence that the filmmakers, too, are grateful for the film’s unlikely existence.
And then finally, sounds of a clock. Each tick and tock timed to the close-up of a new individual, dozens of them, asleep or waking up. The sound is coupled with heavy breathing, inhaling and exhaling, until we get busy shots of nature over a chanting soundtrack. It’s a spellbinding start, with an energy and pace that doesn’t relent for the next 90 minutes.
The only brief reprieve is a floating shot of a beautiful sunrise, punctuated with egalitarian opening credits that seem to arbitrarily alternate between above-the-line talent (producers, directors, department heads), and random parts of the production team (location sound, stills photography, assistant cameramen) all getting individual frames to themselves. And then it’s back to the tick-tock intro of lights being turned on, the village awakening, and the movie kicking into action.
Based on this description, and Bailey’s quick plot synopsis, it’s easy to expect a genre exercise where a rampaging bull murders villagers like a possessed shark. But this is where the film took a big turn for me. First, it’s a buffalo that’s on the loose, not a bull, and it’s running scared more than running wild. After escaping a sacrificial (and illegal) butchering for a wedding, the buffalo manages to evade villagers who are going crazy trying to catch it. No one owns a gun, and there are religious implications that seem to complicate the pursuit further.
A hunter is brought in, leading to every man within miles chaotically crowding around trying to catch a glimpse of the glory about to unfold. But as jealousies rage over who should get to make the kill, and who will get to claim the precious meat, the film (and characters) descend into a madness that made for one of the most thrilling, unexpected, and pointed climaxes I’ve ever seen. Enough so that I needed to show my wife at least the last five minutes of the film (a clear indicator, I realized last year, that a film will probably make the top of my year end list).
This is the kind of filmmaking that still gets me excited about movies. Directed with unbridled can-do craftsmanship, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s restless camera lets you believe anything can happen and then proves it can with arresting, unforgettable visuals. The film is also as political as it is thrilling, not content to just make you feel something, but also to think about what happens in a world of growing needs and dwindling resources. It’s Mad Max without a hero, but it does, ultimately, have a sincere message. And so do I.
Jallikattu is the best film of 2019.