Santhy Balachandran, who previously appeared in Tharangam and Randuper, is at the Toronto International Film Festival for the premiere of her new film Jallikattu, directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery. It is only her third film, and her excitement is palpable. “I feel very fortunate to be part of Jallikattu. The film features a brilliant cast and crew, and it’s been a dream come true,” she says.
Though Jallikattu, where a buffalo runs amok and ruins the peace of a village, is a high-testosterone affair — with a conspicuous absence of women in most frames — Santhy’s Sophie is a pivotal and intriguing role. “Sophie is somebody with her own agenda; she is no pushover. She is rooted in the hetero-normative, gender-segregated world that the film is set in. And, she has found a way to navigate it and survive.”
What are her favourite characteristics of Sophie? “Although the film focusses mostly on the men chasing after the buffalo, and Sophie remains removed from the ensuing chaos, she is very much a catalyst to the action. It was interesting playing a character whose presence can be felt even when she is not on screen.”
Ask her about Lijo’s outline or instructions for such a character and she claims there were close to none. “The way he works, Lijo doesn’t want actors to prepare too much before a scene. He has a clear vision of what he wants from each scene, but prefers to let the scene develop organically. We had the script; we were told what was required of us before each scene, but there was also room to let that evolve through the performance,” she elaborates.
Every moment of Jallikattu underscores the kind of toxic masculinity that forms an integral part of cultural discourse today, and one can’t help but wonder if that aspect of the film will be critiqued and dissected once it has a wider release. “Yes, the film is aggressively masculine, and it is violent, but watching it, I can see that it is not glorified; it is not treated in a typical ‘mass’ style, as something aspirational. The brutality and ugliness of excessive masculinity is presented in a raw, unvarnished form, and the audience can draw their own impression of it,” says Santhy.
There are two Malayalam films in the Toronto International Film Festival. Along with Jallikattu, there is also Geetu Mohandas’s Moothon that is having its world premiere. You may have heard it before, but it bears repeating that Malayalam cinema is thriving, more so in mainstream sections, even removed from the festival circuit of cinema. “I think it is a very exciting time for Malayalam cinema. People are writing interesting scripts and elevating them through fresh approaches to filmmaking,” says Santhy, adding that for an actor, being part of a film is an exercise in faith.
According to her, the only part where an actor has any amount of control is the decision to be part of a film — yes or no. After that it is just the hope that everything will come together. “Cinema is such a collaborative medium that even the best laid plans can go awry.”
Santhy feels that good scripts have kept the foundation of Malayalam cinema strong. Her next release is a social satire called Paapam Cheyyathavar Kalleriyatte written and directed by Shambhu Purushothaman. “It has a wacky, yet clever script!” she says. The actress has also signed Bibin Paul Samuel’s sports drama Aaha with Indrajith, for which she will begin filming soon.
Photos: Hasif Hakeem