There are a few familiar sights in urban Kerala. As one wanders through the streets in the evening, people take cover from the lashing rain, meats are roasted in large tureens, and men in mundus bend over their drinks at neighbourhood toddy spots. The films of Lijo Jose Pellissery are a cinematic walk through such local sights, with dialogues and camera angles that take you right into the micro-histories of people.
Born and brought up in Chalakudy in Thrissur district, Pellissery was introduced to the world of drama from a young age. His father, the late theatre and film actor Jose Pellissery, would take him along for tours of his drama company, in which junior would watch the background scenes and performances every day. “We would be travelling from one temple or church to another,” says Pellissery. “It was kind of my life only.” His two most recent films, Ee.Ma.Yau. (2018) and Angamaly Diaries (2017), have been critical and commercial hits. However, his career has been varied, with soaring highs and searing lows. His first two films, Nayakan (2010) and City of God (2011), were received well, but it was the satire Amen (2013) that received considerable attention. In 2015, he released Double Barrel, an expensive and experimental film with a large star cast, which did not meet audience expectations. However, it was with Angamaly Diaries that Pellissery suddenly changed gear.
“I’m still connected to most of the friends from different paths of life, and I get stories from my evening gatherings. The bar tables have definitely offered me lots of stories”
The story may appear to revolve around the character of Pepe (the charming debut of Antony Varghese), but is actually about the place, Angamaly, a northern suburb of Kochi, and its unique cultural connections. The film’s cast comprised entirely fresh faces, mostly those who belonged to Angamaly, and an intensive engagement with the location. The unpredictable characters led to fascinating results. “I wanted all actors to be freshers because I did not want predictability. We wanted to go all out with the film, and make it as candid as it can get,” Pellissery says. The film served as a kind of cultural survey by combining the uniqueness of the place with boldness — the project seethed with a “daring energy and spirit.”
In Ee.Ma.Yau, Pellissery delved into more emotional and personal realms. Set against the backdrop of a father’s funeral, the film has allusions to his own father’s funeral and the different rites and rituals he experienced. Its scriptwriter, PF Mathews, has written a number of films that revolve around the event of death, and Pellissery wanted to bring the “hard realities” onscreen. Having been raised in a joint Christian family, the film-maker is able to show us the little details that make up the community’s daily interactions. While his films are lauded for their almost ethnographic explorations, he claims he gets his plots, characters and ideas from the stories that his friends tell him. “I’m still connected to most of the friends from different paths of life, and I get stories from my evening gatherings.” Then, Pellissery chortles. “The bar tables have definitely offered me lots of stories.” This is why his films appear authentic, real, stark and raw: it’s because they’re all around him.
On the set of Ea.Ma.Yau.
His cinematic gaze does not come from professional training. In fact, he studied management at IIPM Bangalore, and then worked as a copywriter before he began to make films. He states that not being as technically sound gives him a different kind of advantage, at least artistically, because he “doesn’t need
“It’s all about finding the middle ground between good cinema and the ones people watch in theatres. I’m trying to find a balance between both”
to know why something won’t happen.” While working with technicians, they “figure out a way.” Thus, the process becomes one of learning and unlearning. Without formal training, there is a passion to create an image that is imagined: “I try to get an image as close as possible to how I imagine it.”
While his influences have been cited as ranging from Akira Kurosawa to Quentin Tarantino, Pellissery emphasises his inspirations are too far-ranging to narrow down.“I don’t have a favourite director. We are in the mysterious phase of art, and you cannot gauge or lightly analyse anyone’s art, basically because every single piece of art has a perception. And, so, I’m attracted to anybody who has a cool and interesting thought.” With his wide-ranging experiences within a short career, Pellissery understands that “it’s all about finding the middle ground between good cinema and the ones people watch in theatres. I’m trying to find a balance between both.” As someone who came from nowhere, he believes there are a lot more visual artists in our backyards. “Everyone is a film-maker in themselves,” he says. “Because when you read a story, when you go through something, you visualise it. Anybody can make a film if they really try.”