Lijo Jose Pellissery’s latest film, Churuli, tests the boundaries of conventional filmmaking.
Antony and Shajivan are two undercover policemen on the hunt for an escaped convict, in an obscure village high up in the mountains and surrounded by a dense forest.
There is a common misconception that cinema is a means for entertainment, an idea born out of decades of a ‘commercial reconditioning’ of sorts of the medium that tapped into the sense of monotony amongst the masses. Despite global cinema being a byproduct of capitalism, it is in fact rooted in the idea of expressionism from the early 20th-century modernist movement of philosophy through art and literature. Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Churuli occupies this space of exploring themes through artistic expression, staying true to the core idea of what defines cinema.
Pellissery has approached this film with a unique aesthetic, which is unlike some of his previous films such as Angamaly Diaries (2017), Ee. Ee. Ma. Yau (2018)., Amen(2013), and Jallikattu (2019). However, he has retained certain elements in Churuli from these films such as the biblical references, a narrative set in an obscure yet vibrant town, and grounded realism in the screenplay. Pellissery has undoubtedly left his signature style whilst adopting a fresh filmmaking style - one that is more than likely to be examined and analysed in film schools across the country and beyond.
There are several messages Pellissery is trying to convey through this film and Vinay Forrt’s character, Shajivan, is the conduit through which the central theme of the film is conveyed. The opening scenes depict Chemban Vinod Jose’s Antony mentoring his subordinate, Shajivan, and attempting to iron out his naivety. Shajivan, on numerous occasions, puts their mission at risk due to his eagerness and earnestness. But as the story progresses, the roles are reversed, and Shajivan’s character develops into a hardened individual who has become one with the obscure village.
This is a very intriguing facet to the story as the village itself is like an organism that appears to evoke the very worst in human beings. The jeep journey at the start of the film is carefully crafted to paint a picture of how the unassuming and friendly villagers almost turn into the kids from Stephen King’s Children of the Corn (1977). As soon as the jeep laboriously crosses the bridge, the villagers turn hostile and menacing. It is as if the bridge was a portal into another realm. A realm where the roles of power are reversed. It is symbolised through an animated monologue at the very beginning of the film, similar to the Tales of the Black Freighter in Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen (1987).
The film’s use of sound and surreal visual imagery, with psychedelic elements, certainly adds layers of symbolism and allegories. However, several plot points that incorporate them are left ambiguous and offer very little to the overall narrative. A perplexing choice considering certain plotlines promised much more than the ending suggested, whether these were edited out in post-production will probably remain a mystery. The story about the man who doesn’t interact with anyone, Shajivan’s visions, or the hints of extraterrestrial beings is left ambiguous.
The climax of the film opens a hundred different questions but offers very few answers. The sequence does seem to suggest that the man Shajivan has become is eerily similar to the man they are tracking down. However, despite its overall ambiguity, the film deserves immense praise for its mesmerising sound design, breathtaking visuals, a riveting screenplay, and stunning performances by the cast which includes Jaffer Idukki, Joju George, and Soubin Shahir.
Churuli might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly does stand out for its style and execution. The film’s title means swirl, and the narrative constantly reminds the audience of this reference, through imagery and story.. Pellissery deserves immense praise for attempting something as unique and bold as Churuli.