There’s a new star in Indian cinema. He doesn’t make movies in Hindi. He's neither flamboyant like Karan Johar or long-haired-and-khadi-kurta-clad like Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Instead, he is a carelessly dressed, portly man of 42 who has made seven films in a decade. And last week, he established himself as a major director on the national scene, with his 2019 movie, Jallikattu, selected as India’s official entry to the Oscars.
It is any director’s moment to shine in the spotlight. Yet, if you ask Lijo Jose Pellissery who he is, he will say you’ll find the answer on the screen. He is not giving any interviews because he is busy with the post-production work of Churuli, his latest about two men who set out to find someone in the woods, lose track of time and miss the last bus to civilisation. It sounds like a retelling of the Sisyphus paradox. But there is no way to be sure, since he is so cagey.
2020 has been a hard year: Pellissery has weathered personal tragedies as well as the fact that the film won’t release in theatres due to covid-19 restrictions. On a particularly anxiety-ridden day, he wrote an email to Christopher Nolan, the British-American director he considers a guru. “From artist to artist, I am writing this letter to address a creative dilemma,” he wrote in the email, a copy of which was posted on his Instagram page. “...an idea of a simple device struck me, which I thought can be a solution to this problem of providing a cinema hall experience,” he said, going on to describe a virtual reality gadget he has in mind.
Pellissery’s first brush with visual storytelling was when he went with his father, Chalakkudy-based drama and movie artist Jose Pellissery, for drama sessions. He was actively dissuaded from following in his father’s footsteps, given the financial hardships of a career in film, according to people close to him who spoke on condition of anonymity. His neighbours remember asking him to go to work instead of watching television non-stop. He did eventually go to Bengaluru to get an MBA in plantation management and, for a brief while, worked as a showroom manager of a tiles company.
In the early 2000s, he decided to pursue his calling. He became an assistant to ad-maker-turned-filmmaker V.K. Prakash, and created short films on the side. In 2007, one of the short films, 3, caught the eye of a prominent Malayalam actor, Indrajith Sukumaran, who, along with his brother, the film industry titan Prithviraj, became one of Pellissery’s early cheerleaders. Indrajith offered to act in a film Pellissery liked, scripted by writer P.S. Rafeeq, about a Kathakali artist moonlighting to rough up bad guys.
It took Pellissery nearly five years to make the film as he struggled with financing. The box-office was not ready for the pulpy revenge drama Nayakan (2010). It bombed. His second film, City Of God (2011), a multi-layered and nonlinear narrative of four interlocked stories, was also not a commercial success. Amen in 2013 was more broad-based—a musical satire, full of romance, dance and colour. It became one of the most talked-about movies of the year, praised for its fantastical themes and visual grammar. The inspiration from western cinema did not go unnoticed by Kerala’s film lovers, who have organised India’s biggest international film festivals by attendance for nearly three decades.
His next, Double Barrel (2015), was a gangster spoof, a tribute to western filmmakers he adored, like Guy Ritchie. Despite the array of unusual characters, the film was criticised for being a mish-mash without a strong thread running through it. Double Barrel bombed, and Pellissery wrote on his Facebook page: “Sorry guys, no plans to change, no plans to impress.”
Since then, he’s had difficulties getting support to make his films. His unpredictability leaves producers wary—he could deliver a huge, critically acclaimed and popular hit or a complete flop.
The critics’ main gripe is that he draws from everybody—American legend Stanley Kubrick to Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica—without working on the content. Malayalam film commentator Roby Kurian argues in his latest YouTube video that Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple, which won two awards at the Venice International Film Festival, and has the backing of Hollywood titan Alfonso Cuarón, would have been a better pick for the Oscars.
It's hard to ignore Pellissery—even superstars like Mohanlal, who chase box-office certainties, have been captivated by his storytelling. A person close to the director, who requested that I do not name him, recounts this anecdote: Soon after the disaster of Double Barrel, Pellissery narrated a script to Mohanlal. The star heard him out and then said no. Pellissery protested: "Why did you spend so much time if you were not interested?" The actor replied, "I wanted to know how you would end this story."
The same Mohanlal would be one of the first to congratulate Pellissery after he won the best director award at the 50th International Film Festival of India last year. He was approached by Malayalam film's other superstar, Mammootty, but covid-19 spoilt those plans.
Pellissery’s 2017 film Angamaly Diaries fared better. The storyline seemed cliched—a young man caught in a world of crime and unable to get out—but broke new ground as an entertainer without a star. The visual treatment and direction got people talking about Pellissery as a master-craftsman, giving rise to the term "LJP style" for films that take risks.
Around this time, he was introduced by a friend to Maoist, a short story about a village going berserk while trying to catch a buffalo that escapes from a butcher’s shop. He got in touch with the author S. Hareesh (who won this year’s JCB Prize for his debut novel in translation, Moustache) and developed a script which became Jallikattu.
Hareesh describes him as boyish, moody, even temperamental, but is willing to forgive it all as he understands Pellissery’s creative streak. “There is a boyishness to him, like someone who has simply spent his life watching movies, and perhaps doesn’t know much about anything else. He is one of the most creative persons I’ve met, the kind who will return a hundred times extra for every word you write in the script. Once you talk to him, you understand that he easily picks up the nuances in a story. He is restless until he gets the exact shot he has conjured up in his mind,” says Hareesh.
“Unlike many other filmmakers of his generation, he does not fancy himself an intellectual. He is not deeply associated with politics. He only has a close circle of friends. Faced with obstacles to his movies, he could be moody or grumpy, like a boy who is asked not to watch television. In fact, this obsession with movies could make life terrible for those around him. He is known for being a terror on the set, and he will keep changing his plans. But once you see the final product, it is all forgotten, as it will be fantastic,” says Hareesh, recounting the two years that went behind making the movie.
Why two years? Because Pellissery wanted it to be as perfect as possible, according to Tinu Pappachan, his chief assistant. Getting the buffalo right for the film took three months. “He didn’t want VFX (visual effects), unless we could afford In the Heart of the Sea kind of VFX, which was financially impossible. Finally, we bought a buffalo, and got craftsmen from Chennai to make three models. They pasted a real buffalo’s skin on the replicas,” says Pappachan.
While he was waiting to get the buffalo right, Pellissery made Ee Ma Yau in 2018. Shot in 17 days, the film was described as “a laugh-out-loud, yet deep, meditation on death and faith that’s a masterclass in writing,” by critic Baradwaj Rangan. The film did well but Pellissery paid the success little attention and went back to making Jallikattu, which came out in 2019.
“It was all very difficult. The idea was to get a person inside the replica and do the live-action sequences. The man who played the buffalo (Tanu Kottiyam) needed a month of Ayurveda treatment for injuries after the shoot,” says Pappachan. “There was no other way. Sir (Pellissery) is very clear on what he wants, and what he doesn’t.”
Pellissery’s spectacular rise is as much the story of inspired, ambitious young artists who are challenging the established guard. Until the last decade, the Kerala film industry was heavily controlled by the superstar brigade of Mammooty and Mohanlal. The newer generation of filmmakers, which includes Aashiq Abu, Dileesh Pothan, Rajeev Ravi and Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, has tried to break out of this mould while delivering box-office hits. A collective for women professionals in movies, Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), a first of its kind in India, was also started in Kerala.
Pellissery’s rise also mirrors changes in audience perceptions. A new generation of viewers is willing to pay to watch a politically conscious yet entertaining film like Angamaly Diaries, while older viewers still want a superhero vehicle like Kasaba, with all its misogyny and machismo. The fight, indeed, is between what constitutes good cinema, politics and art, and Pellissery is at the forefront of it.