Incredible as it may sound, Tamil Nadu appears to be stubbornly refusing to accept the Supreme Court imposed ban on jallikattu or bull fighting. Nobody can deny or ignore the fact that it is a bloody sport which kills both men and the bulls that are provoked and pushed into unimaginable rage. While India’s highest court proscribed the sport (which may well be compared to the once-upon-a-time gladiatorial bouts in Roman arenas that saw men take on wild beasts) in 2014, Catalonia in Spain said goodbye to the game in 2012. In recent weeks, there have been renewed efforts among jallikattu supporters to try and get the judiciary to lift the ban. There is also a sense of urgency here, because bull fights are conducted with a lot of pomp and splendour during Pongal -- Tamil Nadu’s harvest festival which falls in the middle of January.
It is in this context that Julian Prakash’s debut feature, Ilami, assumes enormous significance. The director has been smart enough set his film in the 18th century -- 1715 to be precise -- an era when jallikattu was one important game for men to prove their manliness. Thereby, he has steered clear of any controversy which may rise.
In the movie -- which has a parallel story running, a romance, we see Karuppu (Yuvan, seen in Sattai) courting the daughter of a chieftain, Ilami (Anu Krishna). But in times when men had to prove their masculinity by taming or killing a really wild bull trained specially for such combat, Karuppu, despite being a hunter-gatherer, is afraid of taking on the animal --seems strange because he is bold enough to get wild honey from a beehive to cure his lady-love of smallpox. He is not afraid of the bees that can kill when angered, but bulls no way.
However, fate pushes Yuvan into the arena -- where a bull is tied to a pole and nine men are let into the circular enclosure to try and subdue the animal. There are two important reasons why Yuvan has to do this. One, there is a conflict between his village and a neighbouring one (where Ilami belongs) over the placement of religious deity. The fight between a bull from one village and men from the other will decide where the idol goes. Two, Ilami’s father and village head declares that he will let the victorious man among the nine to marry his daughter -- which is the tradition.
Prakash takes his film to an exciting high that reaches a feverish pitch during the man-animal tussle, but in a strange twist, the plot veers away from the expected.
Prakash told this writer on Wednesday morning that he and his team had “built a huge set in an Andhra Pradesh forest called Talakona. It was very difficult to get the period setting right, given the kind of development that has taken place in India during the past 300 years.” But credit must be given to him for getting it all right to the last detail.
Prakash said that having been born in Madurai (the heart of bull fighting) and lived there, jallikattu “has been in my blood... Like a child whose first drawings are those of its parents, the sport has been so much part of my psyche. So, when I thought of a movie, the subject that first flashed in my mind was jallikattu”.
However, Ilami is not merely about bull fight -- which on a closer analysis forms the backdrop to not just the love story, but also to an inter-village rivalry caused by a religious deity, and to human deceit (which leads to a foul in the game).
Yes, given the budget constraints of a small independent director, Prakash’s effort is laudable, though one felt disappointed with Yuvan’s wooden performance. Krishna was of course expressively engaging.