Belling the Bull in the China Shop

I've had to take a brief hiatus from writing due to "personal reasons" ahem, largely ill-health. I shall return soon, in the meantime enjoy this guest post by Papri Sri Raman. - Varna

Director Lijo Jose Pellissery has done just that. The tame Indian buffalo in his film is as vicious as an angry bull. And the remote Kerala village is the China shop setting through which it runs amok. If one got ready to watch a short film on a lot of Alanganallur bulls racing on red mud tracks with thousands on the stands screaming their heads off, Lijo Jose’s film Jallikattu is a surprise. The film is not set-in rural Tamil Nadu, theoretically, there is no Jallikattu in Kerala, it is one of India’s most educated and sane States. However, India’s Oscar entry is one of the most symbolic and representational films in recent times. A buffalo has run amok, and people are frenzied.

Though there have been some exceptional films from young directors recently, for the last ten years, India’s Oscar entries have not been much to talk about and awards have been few though in 2019, more than 2,200 films were made in India.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Satyajit Ray an Honorary Award in 1992; he was posthumously awarded the Akira Kurosawa Award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing at the San Francisco International Film Festival; it was accepted on his behalf by actress Sharmila Tagore. Bhanu Athaiya won the costume design award for Attenborough’s Gandhi, a co-production with the UK, it really wasn’t Indian-Indian that way. A R Rahman for his music, Gulzar for his lyrical writing and Bombay Jayashri too for her music have been awarded. Only three Indian films, Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Lagaan (2001) were  ever nominated, despite its 55 odd entries since 1957.

There are five technical awards, Resul Pookutty won for his sounds, Vanitha Rangaraju for animation in the very popular children’s film, Shrek; Rahul Thakkar won an award for creating the ‘groundbreaking design’ of DreamWorks Animation Media Review System, a scalable digital film review platform; Cottalango Leon, an Indian-American  computer graphics technician won an award for  ‘scientific and technical achievement’ jointly with Sam Richards and J Robert Ray in 2016; and Vikas Sathaye was awarded in  2018 for creating the Shotover K1 Camera System used in films like Spider Man: Homecoming,  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Sully, Captain America: Civil War among many others.

India has talent no doubt and in plenty, however, no Oscars for any of its recent entries. The Film Federation of India, the body that selects the Oscar entry, decided no film made then was good enough to submit for 2003. That year FFI president was the legendary Santosh Singh Jain, a distributor, exporter who had served for 34 years as the Central Circuit Cine Association president and was a known as a  ‘trade expert’ who knew the movie business like the back of his palm.

 So the Oscar entry has always been a little iffy for India. In 2011, the jury of the 58th National Film Awards had  recommended that the Best Film at the annual national awards should be automatically chosen as India’s official Oscars entry, but no one paid any heed to this wisdom. The Oscar entry has always been suspected to be overshadowed by whose film rather than the film, at the same time big names did not make it. Tapan Sinha-made or Utpal Dutta-starrers did not find any place in the Oscars consideration, Malayalam films like G Aravindan’s Esthappan (1980) or any of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s films never found place, nor did Tamil films like Durai’s Pasi or Mani Ratnam’s Roja or Anjali or Bombay.

If one looks at the last one decade, one does not even remember reading many reviews of the entries. In 2010 was Pipli Live, from Amir Khan productions which created some ripples within India. Abu, Son of Adam, a Malyalam entry did not get any mainstream reviews or viewerships. Even the 2013 entry, The Good Road remained more or less unknown, though the 2012 entry Barfi, a Ronnie Screwvala film staring Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra was one of the most popular films that year. Liar’s Dance (Hindi 2014), Court (Marathi 2015) and Visaranai (Tamil 2016) also remained largely unrecognised by the mainstream viewers and reviewers. Court was the only 62nd national award winner that was submitted for the Academy Awards. The 2017 Hindi entry Newton which won accolades at the Berlin Fest and the national award only became popular once the OTT platforms arrived in India. The 2018 entry, an Assamese film, Village Rockstar still remains unknown, though film maker Rima Das created quite a stir in Toronto. Gully Boy was Zoya Akhtar’s film with Alia Bhat and Ranveer Singh in the lead.

The Film Federation of India  that controls the Oscars entry is a Mumbai-based industry body of 18,000 Indian film producers, 20,000 distributors, 12,000 exhibitors  and studio owners, according to information in the public domain. Firdausul Hasan, a Kolkata film producer, has headed FFI in 2019 and 2020. And he is credited with organising the first Global Cinema Festival and also Bharat-Bangladesh Film Awards. His production house Friends Communication won the  best feature film in Bengali in the 65th national awards for his stunning film Mayurakshi, a  film on the delta border, again made available to the mainstream viewer only on OTT platforms.

The selection panel, chaired by Rahul Rawail of Jo Bole So Nihaal fame, is said to have comprised directors Satarupa Sanyal and Atanu Ghosh, music director Prabuddha Banerjee, singer Iman Chakraborty and costume designer Sabarni Das. No Bengali film was among the 27 films competing. Among them were Big B starrer Gulabo Sitabo, two Marathi entries, The Disciple and Bittersweet and the Odia film, Yesterday’s Past, along with the two Malyalam contestants Jallikattu and Moothon. The Hindi competition was nothing if not stiff, among them Deepika starrer Chhapak, Vidya Balan starrer Shakuntala Devi, Nawazuddin-starrer Serious Men, Gunjan Saxena, Sir and Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Shikara. Nevertheless, the selectors showed sensitivity to a reality that is India today.

Jallikattu that was finally chosen had no  one single protagonist and starred Chemban Vinod Jose as Kaalan Varkey, a slaughterhouse and meat shop owner, Antony Varghese as Antony, a butcher in the shop  and Sabumon Abdusamad as Kuttachan, a sandalwood thief vying for attention of a tea-seller woman with Antony. A fourth character, Kuriachan, played by Jaffar Idukki plans a feast for his daughter’s wedding which includes buff dishes but as luck would have it, the tame buffalo destined for slaughter manages to eascap. So far, so good. The story runs on a fixed theme, there are several side stories and many minor characters including priests and the police.

From here, the plot turns. What seems to be a very focussed regional film, becomes a narrative in symbolism. Film buff Bengalis will recall the 1970s and ’80s when anyone suspected of petty theft or picking pockets in crowded transportations were subject to merciless public beating; and this mob reaction at times killed the suspect, the question of benefit of doubt did not arise. This ‘mob mentality’ successfully spread to the rest of the country in the later decades, such that a report in The Print in 2017 quotes the Ministry of Home Affairs to say,   ‘the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) did collect data on… lynchings for its 2017 report, but found it too “unreliable” for inclusion’. 

However, a report by Europe Soldaire Sans Frontieres on February 2020 quotes the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism to say, ‘mob lynching is taking place in India with alarming impunity. As compared to 84 incidents of mob lynching in 2018, in 2019, there were a total of 107 incidents of mob lynching in India… These incidents claimed 68 lives and injured 120….’ The report says, the numbers are arrived from the monitoring of CSSS studies and the Mumbai editions of three newspapers, The Indian Express, The Times of India and The Hindu.’

The report also says, ‘the north zone of the country reported highest number of mob lynching incidents- a total of 40. Out of these 20 took place in Uttar Pradesh alone…. UP was followed by West Bengal (14), Jharkhand (12), Bihar (12) and Maharashtra (11).’

‘Seldom has a month passed in last five years when we didn’t get to read the news of any individual being lynched and whether it’s the Whatsapp and social media videos spreading rumours about child lifting or cow vigilantes giving justice on the spot’, out of either religious frenzy or blind fear…’, says an IndiaTimes report on 25 June 2019. It adds, ‘the mob frenzy had gone berserk last year when 22 people were killed between May 10 and July 2 last in 16 different cases’. It quotes an India Today report to say, ‘The ferocity of the public can be fathomed by a single incident in Assam that took place on 1 July, where a mentally disturbed woman was tied to a pole and tortured by a mob in suspicion of being a child lifter’.

This film perhaps is representational of a community’s mindset. A peoples’ mindlessness, driven by hearsay. The victim buffalo in the film is a domesticated animal. Any animal, destined for slaughter, will be afraid and given the opportunity, will make a run for its life. Instead of tackling the situation in a sensible manner, letting the animal calm down, the film Jallikattu demonstrates mindless mob fury in all its starkness and paints a horrific picture of how mobs get out of control, how rumour fuels the fire of frenzy, such that even a police jeep is set on fire. If nothing else, the film provides a stellar definition of mindlessness in a community of people. It could happen anywhere.

Cat lover. Peaceful bibliophile unless confronted by a fascist.