How India Whipped Up the Year’s Wildest, Craziest Oscar Entry With ‘Jallikattu’

TheWrap magazine: ”I wanted you to compare the film to what the world actually is,“ says director Lijo Jose Pellisserry of his film that descends in rampaging chaos


Last Updated: January 22, 2021 @ 11:57 AM

A version of this story about “Jallikattu” first appeared in the International Film Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

In a field of Best International Feature Film submissions that includes a handful of horror movies, some excruciatingly drawn-out art films and at least one severed hand bobbing in a cooking pot, India probably has the wildest, craziest film of all in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s “Jallikattu.”

With an approach that is at times reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s divisive “Mother!” from 2017, “Jallikattu” takes the story of a water buffalo that escapes from the butcher’s shop in a small mountain village and turns it into an exercise in rampaging testosterone and over-the-top chaos. The last half of the film is one long, crazed action sequence that runs on blood and mud and ends with a huge, grotesque pyramid of men clawing to be king of the hill.

And did we mention it’s bookended with quotes from the Book of Revelations? And it’s an allegory for human society in the 21st century? Well, it is, though Pellissery didn’t want to get too detailed about the precise message to his madness in a conversation with TheWrap.

The film is based on a short story. How much did you change?
The short story was more of a satire, with much more of the humor element. When we all discussed the possibility of a film, it definitely struck me as more of a thriller. We did not lose the idea of humor in the film, but at the same time I didn’t want to close the film on a lighter note. I wanted you to compare the film to what the world actually is.

How difficult was it to create the realistic water buffalo that spends most of the movie rampaging through the village?
The biggest challenge was definitely the animal. The film would have been much easier if there wasn’t an animal in it. It appears in a lot of places, including broad daylight in the center of the town, so it made us think a lot about how to make it. I would say thanks to Steven Spielberg in a big way, because I have learned from (“Jaws”) how to use bits and pieces of the animatronic bull and where to use a distant wide shot to convince the audience that the animal is real.

The last half of the film feels like utter chaos. To create something so seemingly out of control, does the shooting have to be very controlled?
All I’m saying is I have a great number of amazing human beings working behind me to get all this in place. In a place like ours, we don’t have too strong VFX support, we don’t have budgets for a huge film. So we have to figure out a way to make it look like that.

Did your idea of the film change much as you were making it?
The ending did. Originally, we were just going to have them catch the bull. But we knew that would have been a disappointing ending, and we needed more than that. We added the idea of the human pyramid, which we had to do by using lots of extras on a framework that we’d built.

The film is clearly a dark and disturbing allegory of sorts–does it reflect your view of the world?
I definitely have a perspective in the film, but I am someone who doesn’t want to push my idea too much to the audience. I would love for them to figure out what is the subtext. It has never gone unread wherever it has played.

Read more from the International Films Issue here.

OscarWrap international issue 2021