It is strange and yet not uncommon that while watching a movie you feel that it strangely resembles the essence of another. I am not referring to the remakes or unapologetic rip-offs which present a cringe worthy experience unto themselves. But there are movies which provide contrasting visual experiences and yet slowly reveal deeper connections as superficial elements peel away.
Jallikattu had created quite a frenzy when it was released and I watched it around the same time in 2017. Okja on the other hand though released earlier in 2017 found me through Netflix recommendations in 2021.
The creators are among the most talented and famous as they come. Bong Joon-ho won the academy awards for the best director, picture and screenplay in 2019 for Parasite. Lijo Jose Pellisery’s Jallikattu was India’s entry at the Academy awards in 2020. That way when Bong Joon-ho is famous internationally, Lijo has gained appreciation for his work across the subcontinent.
The screenplay for Okja was written by the Director Bong Joon-ho himself along with Jon Ronson. Jallikattu on the other hand was developed from a short story named Maoist, written by S Hareesh. The script was later written by Hareesh himself along with R Jayakumar.
Jallikattu is about a remote village in Thrissur (Kerala, India) which is obsessed with buffalo meat. Every day, a buffalo is slaughtered to satisfy the lust for meat. One fine morning, the buffalo gets away from the shed in which it was about to be slaughtered. It runs amok in the village creating havoc. The butcher, his assistant and later an estranged butcher (now with a rifle) all try to catch the buffalo as the villagers join in the frenzy. What happens in the next two days may give a lot of insight into how the human animal behaves, but is also a journey into the human mind which is passionately wild, inconsistently savage and outright ruthless.
Okja talks about a business conglomerate which is trying to create a new species of pig as a solution for the world food crisis. As part of this project, they send out genetically modified piglets all over the world to study the animal’s growth in different geographies and climatic conditions. The one that is assigned to a farmer in Korea is the titular Okja. The Korean family comprising Mija and her grandfather raise Okja on their farm and become quite attached to the pig. Ten years on, all pigs around the world are evaluated to identify the best outcome from the experiment. Okja is chosen as the winner and taken to New York for the honors. An animal rights group is fighting to release such pigs and they are gathering evidence against the corporation to expose their cruel methods. The young girl follows Okja to New York and gets help from the animal rights activists to free the pig. The theme of saving just one animal deepens and goes on to explore the plight of a genetically engineered species created purely for human consumption.
Man’s obsession with food is at the core of both movies and they have been able to establish that taste trumps all other senses. The animal is a meat producing commodity and any other facet for this living entity other than being of use to humans is unimaginable. Okja has the animal enthusiast Dr Jimmy Wicox played by Jake Gyllenhaal brought in to evaluate the pigs and choose a winner. In Jallikattu, hunter Kuttachan played by Sabumon Abdusamad is engaged to kill the escaped buffalo. Dr Jimmy starts off as a caricature and slowly discloses his evil side. Hunter Kuttachan does not have much of variation and symbolizes hate from the word go. There is this modern version of a hunt that comes alive. While in Jallikattu it is a hamlet in the hills that turns into a hunting ground for the villagers, Okja takes the hunt to the metropolis of Seoul. The scripts give emphasis to humor. Jallikattu reacts at the apathy of the situation and Okja does the same at the passionate activists who go against a formidable adversary. Good cinematography has been key to the convincing narrative. In Okja, nature is abundant in the first half and the city with its pretentious hustle and bustle is captured well in the second. What distinguishes Jallikattu is the night photography. The helplessness of the buffalo is accentuated against the fire from the torches held by all who chase it into the night. The animal itself was central to the films. Technology has been used to make it come alive without overpowering rest of the ingredients. Animatronics was used so well in Jallikattu to create the life-size buffalo, so much so that the real animal was never missed. CGI which created Okja was also light on the eyes and truly sensational across natural, closed and urban settings. And that in turn leads to yet another similarity. No animal was harmed while making either of them.
In my quest for similarities, I did come across some stark contrasts too. The young Mija’s liking for the animal is the hook in Okja and it makes one feel sorry for the pig and keeps the fight alive. But Jallikattu banks on the unnatural craze for meat. The ending of Okja is hope, but the ending of Jallikattu brings the real human to the front. Jallikattu is completely set in a village. Okja moves to and fro between America and South Korea. This is established with a multi-racial cast in Okja whereas Jallikattu does not go beyond the cast that looks anything but those from a hamlet. Okja has more commercial elements and thus seems to be accepted by the palette of a wider spectrum of audience. Though in my opinion, the animal activism was an ingredient which paled in comparison to the rest. Jallikattu was more of an independent movie and created reactions which are normally ascribed to their tribe. Some viewers were enthralled by what they saw on screen and others slept through the whole thing. Jallikattu explored a global phenomenon by delving into the impacts of gluttony on a hamlet. Okja in turn showed it as a global crisis spanning across continents which it actually is. Jallikattu is more personal as it starts with a butcher chasing an escaped buffalo as part of his livelihood, though pulls in an entire village later into the proceedings. Okja is more of a PR stunt in how a conglomerate uses a genetically modified pig in its campaign to promote a new product.
There may be a lot more to be added on both sides. But what I could see was that Jallikattu can be considered as the microcosm within the macrocosm that is a global Okja. Alternatively, by naming the pig Okja it becomes a personal story, whereas the buffalo without a name shoulders the agony of an entire species and in turn has global appeal. The contrasting styles used by the directors working on the theme is what makes the experience unique and, in my opinion, it is Jallikattu which steals the show.
Food has been core to man’s existence and thousands of years of evolution has not made the frenzy any less. Sadly, the safest place for an animal on the planet is on a plate. When Jallikattu reiterates this with proof consistent with human evolution, Okja manages to show us what is to come and yet is brave enough to leave us with a glimmer of hope.