It is a long and hectic run and those who can survive it for 60 nights can stay: this was the blaring announcement that location manager Sudhi Kattappana made through his microphone. Scores of people had turned up at the parish hall of Lourde Matha Church, Meppara, near Kattappana in Kerala's Idukki district, for the audition of the film ‘Jallikattu’ in 2018.
Now, as ‘Jallikattu’ begins its Oscar journey as India's entry, hundreds of people in and around Kattappana are proud that they were part of the landmark movie despite all the physical hardships they had to endure. Getting together and directing over 1,700 junior artistes was a mammoth task, which later won recognition for director Lijo Jose Pellissery as ‘master of chaos and crowd choreography’ at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I asked them to act like animals and that did the job,” the director said during the premiere at The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
Apart from lead actors like Antony Varghese, Chemban Vinod, Santhy Balachandran, Sabumon, and Jafar Idukki, all artistes were recruited from Kattappana and nearby areas. “First, we contacted all drama artistes in the area and conducted an audition at the church parish hall. For around 2,000 junior artistes which the director sought, we contacted every youth organisations in the area such as the DYFI, Youth Congress, ABVP, and the students of the Government College, Kattappana. We managed to get around 1,700. Then, it was the beginning of 43 sleepless nights,” said Sudhi, who also acted as a member of the ‘Poomala’ gang in the film.
Junior artist co-ordinator Jayesh Balakrishnan said that the shooting was in November-December when the night was chilling cold.
“Many got injured during the run. The human formation in the climax scene happened at Vellilamkandam (part of Idukki reservoir) at night and it was highly challenging. Crowd voice was recorded on separate occasions,” said Jayesh, who too acted in the movie. The scenes where the crowd chase the rogue buffalo were shot between 5 pm and 5 am.
G K Pannamkuzhy, a theatre actor for around 30 years, entered Jallikattu as ‘an organic farmer’ quite accidentally. The film crew reached out to Pannamkuzhy in the last minute after the actor they initially roped in could not perform well during the audition. “They said that I was look-wise fine because they wanted a lean person. After I enacted some scenes, the director made changes to the role to make it more significant,” said Pannamkuzhy. His role in Jallikettu paved way for around five more films for him, including Janamaitree and Sajan Bakery.
It was Pannamkuzhy who informed his friend R Muraleedharan about a minor role in the film. Muraleedharan, a government employee, took only an hour to enact the role of a person narrating a story. However, when the trailer was released, the ‘minor’ role stole the show.
“The narration was the crux of the movie. I was surprised to see that I was throughout the trailer,” Muraleedharan said.
Actor Anil K Sivaram remembers the shooting as ‘highly risky'. He fondly remembers the support of the people.
“From running through the hanging bridge at Ayyapankovil to chasing the buffalo, everything was dangerous. Even lead actor Antony got injured and got admitted to a hospital between the shoot. Getting junior artistes from nearby areas such as Nariyampara, Nedumkandam, Ayyappankovil etc helped as they were physically fit and could climb trees, jump and run along the cardamom plantations,” said Anil, who along with his wife, Anu Anil, played an on-screen couple in the film.
The film’s Kattappana connection began when Lijo’s brother Anson Antony contacted Sudhi while returning from Munnar after a location hunt. After understanding the requirement, Sudhi sent a picture of Meppara junction. “Lijo liked it and soon he started sending other requirements. Later, he came to see the location and was satisfied. His next demand was 2,000 junior artistes for the shoot from the locality,” Sudhi said. He said that finding two buffaloes too was not easy. “We searched throughout Idukki, but couldn’t find one with curved horns. Finally, two were brought from Pattambi. Among those, one was better in ‘acting’ than most of us. While we took 10 takes, the buffalo would finish in two takes,” Sudhi quipped.
Sudhi said that there were people who criticized him for showcasing people in Idukki as rogue and beast-like. “Many didn’t realize the concept of the movie and took it in the literal sense. But we knew that this film will go places even at the time of the shoot,” he said.
(Jisha Surya is an independent journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram. Read her past works for Onmanorama here.)