This post first appeared on Totally Filmi on September 4, 2019.
Fans of director Lijo Jose Pellissery (LJP) were delighted to finally see one of his films turn up at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) – and a recent article in the Toronto Star devoted to “buzz picks” for this year’s festival revealed that Pellissery’s film, Jallikattu, was one of only three films (out of forty total) to earn three votes from the twenty-seven panelists asked to give their choices of what to see.
Long-time fans of Malayalam cinema are no stranger to LJP’s films, though he certainly has garnered more acclaim outside his home state of Kerala with more recent films such as Angamaly Diaries and Ee.Ma.Yau. But what is it about his films that make them such compelling viewing, and have assured their place in the critical landscape?
I’ve always meant to write about LJP’s films – I’ve been a fan since the beginning, and have been delighted to see his films spread to wider audiences – but I’ve also felt a little bit daunted at that task. LJP’s films are rich and complex and interesting. Even when he misses the mark (and he has), there’s still something compelling about what he’s tried to do.
So here’s a bit of an attempt to just briefly examine LJP’s filmography, give a little bit of insight, and maybe whet the interest for those folks looking for an interesting film experience at TIFF 2019.
The Game was one of two short films LJP made prior to making his feature film debut. It’s a four-minute short featuring a group of children. There’s one boy on a bicycle facing off against a group of boys, also on bicycles. The boy turns and rides away, and the chase by the other boys begins. The film is most remarkable, I think, because it shows us several things that will become staples of the director’s work. First, the use of cameral work and camera angles to add to the impact of what’s happening on screen. Second, the way sound and background score are used – again, to create an impact, which means that the silences are just as important as the sound. Third, the setting: there is no doubt that the film is set in Kerala, as the boys race past a church with architecture so distinctive to Kerala’s Christian churches. And, finally, the use of the absurd/humour to diffuse a potentially violent situation. We see at the end of the film that the boy has assumed he’s being chased so they can hurt him – he even gets off his bike and raises his fist as if to prepare for a fight. But the boys are there merely to give him a card and some flowers – for his birthday.
LJP’s first feature film was Nayakan (“Hero”), about Varadan (Indrajith, who would act in LJP’s first four films), the son of a Kathakali master, who joins the underworld in order to avenge the death of his father and his sister at the hands of Shankar Das (Siddique) evil magician and underworld don. The fact that I can actually write a phrase like “evil magician and underworld don” in all seriousness is also something that will become a hallmark of LJP’s films: things that seem totally disparate and non-sensical somehow seem to make perfect sense in the context of the story he’s trying to tell.
But Nayakan is also interesting because it sets up yet another thing that is important in LJP’s films: he uses the framework of a Kathakali performance to structure his film. LJP will *always* draw on important features of Malayalam culture as part of his films, one of the ways in which he firmly roots his films in their Kerala setting. In Nayakan, inter-title cards are inserted at various intervals in order to alert us to the parts of the Kathakali performance referenced in the film, from Purappadu right at the beginning (to signal the beginning or preparation for what is to come), through Thodayam (a rite to please the gods), to Kalasam, the actual and most expressive part of a performance, corresponding to the part of the film where Varadan puts his revenge plot fully into action. The ending is magnificent, with Varadan adopting red and black face make-up suggesting the Navasara “roudram” or wrath (Navarasas are the traditional nine ways of expressing emotion in Indian classical dance) as he finally exacts his revenge.
City of God (2011)
For his second feature, LJP turned to a hyperlink or non-linear style in order to tell the stories of several people whose paths will cross and re-cross throughout the film. Writers are usually careful to mention that the film has nothing to do with the Brazilian film with the same title – I like to think that this was LJP way of playing on the fact that the state of Kerala is often referred to as “God’s Own Country”, so setting the film in its capital city, Kochi, would seem to lend itself to seeing that city as the city of God in God’s country. The film follows Tamil migrant workers (one of whom is again played by Indrajith, another by house fave Parvathy), the local land mafia (one of the enforcers is played by Indrajith’s brother, Prithviraj, who would also star with him in LJP’s Double Barrel), the widow of a real estate businessman (Shweta Menon), a Mollywood starlet (Rima Kallingal). There are two things that are generally referenced when people talk about this film: the first, that LJP was at the forefront of the New Generation film movement in Kerala with this film; the second, that the film was a massive flop (apparently pulled from cinemas within a week of opening). As for the former, I’ve got lots of thoughts about the roots of Malayalam New Gen cinema, but this isn’t the place for them. As for the latter, it truly stumps me why the film was well-received critically, but made no impact at the box office. Yes, the hyperlink style requires more attention on the part of the viewer, but Malayalam cinema had already seen one film that utilized that format in 2011, Rajesh Pillai’s popular film Traffic. But City of God is full-on LJP, from a vast cast of characters, stories that are compelling and draw on important themes and Kerala culture, often using humour or a sense of the absurd. Once again, Prashant Pillai (who has been the music director for all of LJP’s films) created a score and songs that were used rather creatively: the songs are used more organically in the film, playing from radios or as part of a wedding celebration. Perhaps my favourite moment is when Marathakam (Parvathy) arrives at Swarnavel (Indrajith)’s room, in the rain, after her short-lived and odd marriage to another man has been interrupted by his arrest. Because of the storm, the power is out. The two of them fight, and then the fight turns to romance as the power suddenly comes on and the radio plays a song:
Two years after City of God, LJP turned his attention to the backwaters of Kerala for this magical realism-infused tale of a church band and the man who would be a musician in it, Solomon (Fahadh Faasil). Solomon suffers from performance anxiety: every time he picks up his clarinet, he’s seized by the thought of his father, a revered local musician in the local church band who drowned on the way home from a band competition. The only time Solomon can produce any sound is when he stands below the window of his beloved Shoshanna (Swathi Reddy), whom he wants to marry. And Shosanna wants to marry him, too, but her family will have none of it, seeing Solomon as a failure and a laughing stock who will never be able to provide for their daughter. At the same time, the church band has fallen on hard times, having lost the rolling trophy eight years in a row, and the local priest – who also, for mysterious reasons, wants to tear down the church – wants to disband them. The arrival of the mysterious Father Vattoli (Indrajith again) comes just in time. Vattoli reminds the parish about the importance of the band, he encourages Solomon and Shoshanna’s marriage, and he supports Solomon in his bid to lead the band to win that year’s competition. Rooted firmly in the Christian community, in the Kerala backwaters, and drawing on the church band culture, LJP combines a terrific story from P.S. Rafeeque, exceptionally fine cinematography from Abinandhan Ramanujam (who would also be the cinematographer for Double Barrel), and a top-notch score and songs from music director Prashant Pillai. Crew on LJP’s films have changed from film to film, but the one constant has been Prashant Pillai, who has been capable of providing interesting and inventive scores for all of the films. And as is fitting for a movie that features church band and musicians at its heart, every bit of music in Amen is exquisite. It’s probably no surprise that Amen rates as one of my favourite Malayalam films ever, and perhaps as my favourite of all of LJP’s films. And while much is made of the eleven minute long tracking shot in LJP’s Angamaly Diaries, we should remember that it had its roots in Amen:
Next up, in Part 2: shifting gears with Double Barrel, Angamaly Diaries, and Ee.Ma.Yau.