Not one to throw in the towel and make creative compromises despite failures, Lijo Jose Pellissery is rightfully hailed as an exceptionally skilled director who vividly captures social and inter-personal dynamics within and around communities By Saibal Chatterjee
Director Lijo Jose Pellissery, whose fifth and sixth films (Angamaly Diaries, 2017 and Ee Ma Yau, 2018) have catapulted him into national prominence, is easily one of the most exciting filmmakers to have emerged in India in the course of the current decade. His films have a distinct style and pace and are underpinned by a keen sense of time and place.
Angamaly Diaries is a pulsating gangster saga with 86 first-timers in the cast, while Ee Ma Yau is a black comedy built around a Roman Catholic funeral in a parish near Kochi. But neither of the two is a routine genre film. Lijo informs them with heady energy derived from the dazzling nature of the handheld camera techniques that he employs as well as from the precise choreography of the actors within long, uninterrupted sequences.
Lijo made his first film, Nayakan, in 2010. Eight years and five films later, he is being rightfully hailed as an exceptionally skilled director who vividly captures social and inter-personal dynamics within and around communities. His interest as a storyteller is focused on specific groups of people who are at odds with each other, with society at large, with the religious establishment, and with other groups that exist in the same geographical location.
Nayakan and his second venture, City of God (2011), both crime dramas, earned critical hosannas but failed at the box office. The two films are now regarded as key points in the evolution of a new kind of Malayalam cinema that has since gained ground in Kerala. Lijo had to wait until 2013, the year he made Amen, a musical satire about a church band caught in a crossfire between the clergy and the Syrian Christian community, to taste commercial success.
The box-office success of Amen, in which Lijo made no creative compromises despite the failure of his first two films, bolstered his confidence. In fact, Amen could be seen as a sort of precursor to Ee Ma Yau, which is his definitive masterpiece, a film so full of vitality and innovation that it is impossible not to be swept up in its dizzying momentum.
Emboldened, Lijo next made the genre-defying, big-budget Double Barrel (2015). He upped his technical ante several notches in the film but the experimentation did not find takers. Any other young filmmaker would have thrown in the towel and settled for something safer moving forward. He did not. He turned once again towards all-out action all right, but he invested the genre with amazing flair in terms of camerawork, editing and soundtrack. The outcome was the incredibly infectious Angamaly Diaries.
The drama in Ee Ma Yau is triggered after a drunk man drops dead in his house, sending his family, including his son and daughter-in-law scurrying for help from the neighbourhood. While the bereaved family receives unstinted support from many friends and well-wishers as they prepare for the funeral, malcontents in the parish play the local priest off against the dead man’s temperamental son. The fascinating gallery of characters, the swirling camera, the demonstrative nature of the expression of grief and the social tensions rife in the community come together to deliver a tale of rousing proportions.
In an ideal situation, Ee Ma Yau would have caught the attention of international festival spotters. It is one of three Indian films in the International Competition section of the 49th International Film Festival of India. It deserved much, much more – on the global circuit, it could have touched instant chords with a little bit of luck. Lijo Jose Pellissery is a craftsman and storyteller of the highest calibre – a breakthrough on the world stage is round the corner.