Jallikattu, a Malayalam film directed by the now-famous filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellissery, has outraced 26 other Indian films in the race to enter into the “Foreign Films Section” to find a place at the Oscars to be held in April 2021. Keeping aside this “honour” dominated entirely by the mindset of American Awards committees, this 2019 film which has been bagging accolades across the globe, stands independently as one of the most outstanding examples of cinema as an example of the maker’s mastery over the technique and the aesthetics of cinema irrespective of culture, language, geography and cinema per se. It is the third Malayalam film after Guru and Adaminte Makan Abu to be chosen as India's official entry to the Oscars.

The title of the film Jallikattu, however, has little to do with the traditional event in Kerala that is annually held in which a bull is released among a crowd of people and dozens among the crows try to grab the large hump on the bull’s back with both arms and hang on to it while the bull attempts to escape.

The film may have drawn the title from the sport but its socio-political dimensions are different from the sport though there is a bull at the centre of this human versus animal controversy the film fleshes out so brilliantly. At the philosophical and ethical level, the film focusses on the conflict between an entire village of men and a single buffalo which manages to escape its trap the evening before it is to be butchered. This draws our attention to an animal’s desire to break free from the shackles human beings have caged it in as against an entire village gathered to bring it back, butcher it and have a grand feast at its expense.

Pellissery who has honed his cinematic skills in crowd choreography, crowd control and direction in his earlier films, has taken his command over cinema one step closer to near-perfection in shaping a single-line story into an amazing cinematic experience that runs its mile for an hour and a half. The screenplay by S. Hareesh and R. Jayakumar, based on the short story Maoist by Hareesh uses this man versus animal concept into a modern-day fable that raises questions about which one between the two – the bull at one end and an entire village on the other, is truly an animal. In fact, one character in the film actually raises this doubt and confirms it with his belief that man is perhaps the two-legged animal a four-legged being is not.

The menfolk of almost the entire village begin their own hunt to capture the buffalo which gives these groups a big fight in trying not to get captured. This brings across the vulnerability of humans against the strength and willingness to survive in a single animal when it is determined to escape the clutches of human captivity.

The film also harps on the tremendous ego tussles between the heads of different groups who already harbour areas of personal conflict that come to the fore during their race to capture the buffalo. There are tiny sub-plots that peep in from behind this tremendous race to catch the buffalo such as a young couple trying to make its escape but get caught when the boy’s two-wheeler gets grounded and her father orders her back home. An old man lies dying in his bed being guarded by a weary middle-aged man; a family has thrown a party for thirty with a promised treat of buffalo meat which now stands threatened leading to a terrible rise in the demand for chickens and assembled crowds boiling live chickens on an improvised fire as an emergency substitute.

Anthony, the young man who is in charge of the buffalo which is in the control of Kalan Varkey. Anthony is eager to win the race against his foe, Kuttachan, a hunter and this “race” turns into a act of personal vendetta which slowly builds up into tremendous collective violence that reaches incredible proportions of inhumanity which even the police cannot control. The film also points out the solidarity in caste-class and community when it comes to collective violence just to capture a buffalo wanting to run free. But their internal conflicts reach killing proportions till the buffalo is finally capture. But by then, the crowd has gone completely crazy and there is no hope of quiet at the end of this violent tunnel. The aim to capture the buffalo is firstly, to display it as a trophy for the one who captures it, secondly, to make it a proof of a strange kind of masochistic medal and last, but never the least, to enjoy its meat as a wonderful feast!

But more than the context, it is the telling of the story that makes Jallikattu an exceptional cinematic masterpiece. Let us take this one by one. Take the brilliant sound design (Renganath Ravee) for example. The soundtrack appears live filled with several tracks running into each other – the shouts of different groups of crowds, the trees and leaves of the forests organic in their symphonies, dotted with the loud grunts of the running buffalo without any loud background music to spoil the naturalness of the environment, the sound of marching crowds moving towards the chase, giving it the texture of a documentary and the richness of a fiction film slowly and steadily escalating into veritable chaos incredibly recreated for the screen. The music by Prateek Pillai is in ideal synthesis with the sound design never dominating the scenario but complementing it as if trying to synchronise with a beautiful poem. This is truly commendable in a film that brings to the fore the basic bestiality in the nature of men. The film spills over with violence, climaxing in that dreadful scene when the crowds, covered in slush and wet mud from head to feet, climb one on top of another to build a human pyramid in their attempt to kill each other. Yet, you cannot take your eyes away from the screen. They are no longer humans but an anonymous wall of slush built solely through extreme violence against human beings.

The cinematography by Gireesh Gangadharan offers a model lesson in cinematography in his way of lighting up the dark forests with live and battery-charged torches held by the chasing crowds running towards where they think the buffalo has rushed to lighting up the darkness with flickers of light. The looking down into the deep well the buffalo has fallen into through top angle shots in the dark; then, there are the flames of the earthen stoves set up to cook the meat in, the camera closing in on the frames and guards g built by the crowds, Anthony rushing back home to collect a thick rope to capture the buffalo and trying to get cosy with his wife Sophie who promises a hearty feast if he can bring back the ribs of the buffalo! This is one of the most brilliant cinematography one has seen in recent times. Even the interiors of different homes are as if shot in natural light, subtle and controlled. His framing of the scenes and shots are seamless and beautiful which is incredible in a film that is sans glamour, chutzpah and colour. The editing keeps in perfect rhythm with the others creating a series of beautiful paintings painted in dark colours of the violence human beings are capable of.

This brings us to the acting scenario. Pellisery is known to introduce new faces and here, one of his discoveries for an earlier film, Antony Varghese who brings Antony in the film to life. Others in equally outstanding performances are - Chemban Vinod Jose, Sabumon Abdusamad and Santhy Balachandran among others. Pelissery is perhaps the sole Indian filmmaker today who has acquired both skill and expertise as also the way to choreograph huge crowds to run through the entire footage of any film.

Jallikattu premiered on 6 September 2019 at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. It was also showcased at the 24th Busan International Film Festival under the “Window on Asian Cinema” section. It was released in Kerala on 4 October 2019. Pellisery received the Best Director trophy at the 50th International film festival of India. Its selection for the Academy Awards is undoubtedly, a choice that should raise no questions at all.