A buffalo escapes from a slaughterhouse and goes amok in a village, where the men chasing it are far more dangerous than the animal. In trying to tame the beast, its filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellissery has unleashed a beast through his latest work Jallikattu, based on S Hareesh’s short story Maoist. The movie is allegorical, visceral and a cinematic marvel in terms of filmmaking standards. When it premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film met high critical acclaim and was collectively praised for its cinematography. The man behind its breathtaking visuals is Girish Gangadharan.
Girish is not much of a talker and lets his frames talk instead — a beautiful shot in Jallikattu, featuring the footprints of a buffalo and a man in the same frame, comes to mind. Having read the book, Girish felt there was more fodder for him as a cinematographer and discussed the possibility of adapting it into a movie with Lijo. He was shooting for another film — one that took him almost a year to complete — when Lijo called him for Jallikattu, his second collaboration with the director after Angamaly Diaries. “He [Lijo] didn’t have a specific reason why he wanted me for this one. But he had been discussing it for a long time,” informs Girish Gangadharan over phone from Kerala.
Crafted to perfection
Jallikattu is more of a visual experiment than a narrative — the camera just oscillates on screen and is invariably stationed near its characters, and has very few static shots. “Most of my shots are in motion — when they walk, I need to walk; and when they run, I also need to run. Lijo said that the camera movements needed to be in-sync with the film’s pace,” he says, about how he composed scenes. From pre-visualisation to execution, every step was planned with careful precision, and it was Lijo who determined the film’s tonality. “We discussed a lot about shot compositions and what sort of sequences we should plan and so on. Since it was about the man vs animal conflict, he wanted me to keep the visuals as wild as possible,” he says, adding that they did not resort to storyboarding, “We prefer going to the shooting spot, where we roam around a bit, read scenes with actors and then improvise.”
Girish describes Lijo a “craftsman” went it comes to staging and extracting performances from someone else’s material (Double Barrel is the only film Lijo has written and directed). “We have a writer and it is all his concepts. What is unique about Lijo’s process is that he drives every technician to perfection. You can find him constantly involved in every department. He gives freedom, but is also adamant with what he wants,” he tells me.
Jallikattu, in a way, is the result of that want.
Painting with light
- Jallikattu is deeply philosophical in its approach. It has a meditative shot towards the end where we see an old man and the buffalo locking eyes with each other. About that, Girish says it was the editor’s suggestion. “That was part of another sequence. He [Deepu Joseph] did a fabulous job by putting it together in the end.”
- A couple of reviews from international publications pointed out the Stephen Spielberg references, particularly Jaws in terms of its filmmaking style. But Girish did quite a bit of research and re-watched movies that dealt with animals and had tonnes of camera movements. “Jaws, Apocalypto and Mad Max: Fury Road are a few movies I revisited since Jallikattu had fast sequences,” he says, adding that Emmanuel Lubezki, Christopher Doyle are his favourite cinematographers.
- Girish Gangadharan has been listening to scripts, but has not locked one yet.
Lijo Jose Pellissery can rightly be called a ‘modern-day master’ with regards to how he constructs and executes his scenes. He does not wish to cut short his sequences and employs long takes as a cinematic gadget to capture time. Jallikattu, in fact, has at least six long takes — not as spectacular as the 11-minute sequence in Angamaly Diaries, but definitely arresting. “He is very good when it comes to conceiving scenes and managing people,” says Girish, about Lijo’s fascination for long takes, adding, “We don’t usually rehearse. He explains the scene and goes for the take instead. We go for multiple takes before getting the right output. Most of the scenes in Jallikattu took several takes.” I am reminded of a particular long take that comes right before the title, displaying a fervent atmosphere of the movie. Ask him whether he designs a blueprint of sorts, especially while filming long sequences and he says, “No. By now, I’m used to it. I didn’t face any difficulties shooting long takes for this movie.”
One perfect shot
- Girish’s favourite sequence is the one where Antony (Antony Varghese) and Kuttachan (Sabumon Abdusomad) literally fight like animals. “This too was difficult to pull off because of the lack of lights. We shot the entire sequence with the help of torchlights. They are consumed by revenge and, in fact, roar like animals. That was the intention behind that scene,” he says.
- The eerie post credits scene with ape-like creatures was shot in Idukki. Girish says that they created a cave on a road leading to a small village. “We didn’t use any VFX for this. The Neanderthals that you see are the main cast, comprising Antony Varghese, Chemban Vinod Jose and Sabumon Abdusomad.”
The plot unfolds in a matter of 24 hours. Girish hit a roadblock when it came to depicting the different time frames at which the events take place. He applied his expertise by setting up four establishing shots — the crack of dawn, sunset and the phases of the full moon. “I had used different lenses for these shots. I like to capture the Moon in general. It is a recurring motif in all my movies,” he laughs.
About his love for track shots, he says, “It was difficult to shoot those scenes because it was a sloping terrain. Most of it was shot using hand-held cameras and we also used equipment like gimbal.” There is a belief that cinematography is a good marriage between the cinematographer and lightman. Given the nature of the film, Girish wanted to maximise the use of natural lights for the most part — except for the night portions, which was shot with balloon lights. “I usually like to shoot in broad daylight. Remember the scene where Kuttachan gets arrested? You can see the sunlight surfacing from inside his house. That is because we patched holes, to provide a visual effect.”
Girish Gangadharan was not kicked or surprised when he saw the final product. “We were simultaneously editing it. So, I knew what scenes would make it to the final cut. In fact, we have not wasted a single footage in Jallikattu.” I ask Girish to break down five critical scenes from the film:
Jallikattu was on the verge of completion when Lijo Jose Pellissery felt that the opening sequence, which initially had generic footages of nature, was not working. He wanted the visuals to be intriguing and eye-popping at the same time, and that resulted in a few staccato images. In the movie, all we see are extreme close-ups of its main characters waking up from their slumbers. “He thought of introducing the characters this way, with a clock-ticking sound effect in the background,” says Girish. The opening scene is swiftly-cut with images of people and their routine life. This is followed by an elaborate three-minute stretch, showing the dawn of a new day. “It was a drone shot. We wanted to communicate the fact that these people are rising to a momentous occasion,” he adds.
Girish says that the portions featuring the buffalo was quite challenging to shoot and involved animatronics, a technique used to create a replica of animals. His athletic prowess came in handy when he shot a single, unbroken stretch that follows the animal escaping into the forest, with the men driving it away. “The camera was placed on the buffalo’s horn, just to show the animal’s perspective. We shot a tracking shot with a real buffalo before this scene. But the one that you see on screen is a dummy.”
One of the stunning scenes in Jallikattu is the interval sequence, where we see a low-angle shot of the buffalo trapped inside a borewell, with a sea of lights coming from above. It is a significant sequence, for this is where we see the animal in its true form for the first time. Lijo thought of placing the camera in a close range with the buffalo — everything was impromptu and decided on the set. Shooting this sequence was nothing short of chaotic, says Girish, “This was particularly hard to execute because it was a very big sequence, with hordes of men. Which is why we shot individual portions of the scenes and stitched them together,” he says, adding that the entire stretch took about three nights.
There is a masterfully staged God’s eye shot right after the interval, where a swarm of men holding fire sticks branch out into three groups, taking three different paths with one common purpose: to carry out a manhunt for the animal. The montage created waves on social media and was picked up by cinephiles, when the trailer was out. Girish says that it was a “simple shot” when compared to other complicated ones. “It was Lijo’s idea to shoot it this way. He wanted to show these three groups of men. We found a place that had three connecting lanes, after which, we decided the time.”
The mood before the final showdown is spooky. There is a pensive wide shot that has a post-apocalyptic imagery, with a mix of mist and fog — reminding one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Asked whether he was inspired by the Russian filmmaker, Girish says, “I have watched Stalker. Actually, I haven’t thought about it. Now that you mentioned it, I am reminded of that movie,” he says with a laugh. Girish speaks in great detail about that gorgeous sequence in the climax, where a human pyramid-like structure is formed. Over 1,000 extras were brought in for that sequence. “The crowd had to be managed and it was freezing that day. It was a difficult area to shoot, so we built a path using plywood,” says Girish. The team used metal frames of different sizes and shapes for the pyramid formation — none of it was artificially created or enhanced via computer graphics. “Those were real men,” he says, adding, “We tested with small shapes. But it got bigger and bigger when the crowd came in.”