The elements that work for Churuli make it all the more maddening that director Lijo Jose Pellissery chose to say what he wants to say with such intentional vagueness
Churuli is a modern-day bow to the Book of Revelation from the New Testament, a fascinating fantastical text that remains a subject of multiple, vastly contrasting interpretations even 2,000 years after it was written.
Director Lijo Jose Pellissery has evidently drawn inspiration from this final volume in the Bible for his eerie, frustratingly abstract horror fantasy based on a screenplay by S. Hareesh that in turn was adapted from a story by Vinoy Thomas. Although quotes from the Old Testament’s prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah bookend Pellissery’s narrative, what primarily reverberates through it is the tumultuous, exasperatingly obscure yet never-less-than-intriguing Revelation – both at a philosophical and literal level, with two instances in the film of characters actually reading passages from the book out loud.
Churuli’s opening sets it up as a saga from a mystical, mythical realm. Text on screen informs us that “the inhabitants of Churuli speak a scriptless language known as Shurulmozhi or Shurulalam.” An apocalyptic Biblical extract follows. Then comes a woman’s voice addressing someone called Shajivan as she narrates a fable of a Brahmin and Perumadan – “a phantom who leads everyone astray” – with her words set to animated illustrations. It is a curious tale of an upper-caste man who patronisingly humours his seemingly innocuous, apparently lowly companion, not realising that he has been bested and is being taken for a ride.
Cut to reality in spectacular Kerala, where two policemen are en route to an undercover operation, on a bus winding its way through treacherous terrain in a densely forested, high-altitude region. Calling themselves Antony (Chemban Vinod Jose) and Shajivan (Vinay Forrt), they are on a quest to nab a criminal. The duo encounter a bunch of locals from their destination – a polite, diffident, almost deferential lot, until they cross a bridge into what seems like a netherworld whence they metamorphose into aggressive, abusive creatures, lashing out at the outsiders.
By now the air is thick with foreboding. Soon, the question of whether the law enforcers will catch their outlaw is overshadowed by the mystery over what this place is and who is the Perumadan among the array of characters around. The answer, when it does finally stare us in the face, still leaves too many loose threads hanging.
Churuli is an exacting film that demands every iota of attention. Any shot or word missed could mean a layer perhaps missed, especially since Pellissery is infuriatingly oblique about the point/s he wishes to make. Barring the graphics with the closing credits though, it is hard to dismiss the rest as pretentious because it feels like a sincere game of “guess what I’m trying to say” that the director genuinely hopes will be fun for his viewer. Truth: initially it is; after a while, it is not.
(Minor spoilers in this paragraph) When ‘Antony’ tells his junior that Shajivan is a good alias for him because “Shaji is the official name of scoundrels”, I keeled over with laughter. You will understand why if you follow online political protests by Malayalis and know who they have nicknamed after Malayalam cinema’s famous Alavalathi Shaji. As the plot progresses though, it turns out that no deeper meaning can be attributed to that joke.
(Minor spoilers in this paragraph) But the rechristening exercise does leave a question mark hanging over Shajivan. Unlike Antony, he feels he has been here for a while almost as soon as he lands in Churuli, and one person after another tells him that he looks familiar. It is left to the audience to decide whether Shajivan actually sees what he thinks he sees or is viewing his surroundings through the lens of a folktale long buried in his psyche.
(Minor spoilers in this paragraph) The inhabitants of Churuli are a double-faced lot, one moment vicious and ferocious, the next moment friendly and warm. Pellissery appears to suggest that this may not be what they are as much as it is the interlopers’ image of these people living on the margins of society.
(Minor spoilers in this paragraph) This point is diluted, however, when even the Churulians describe themselves as crooks. Irrespective of their opinion, what Churuli is for sure is a vision of what may lie in store for socially dominant groups of today if power equations were to be reversed – in this story, an individual with clout chatters confidently with an inarticulate group of the rural poor but is later dumbstruck when his listeners suddenly explode into an inexplicable rage; when an otherwise physically strong man is incapacitated, he tells a woman right before a potential sexual encounter, “Please try not to hurt me, Sister”; and a subordinate is transformed into a protector. (Spoiler alert ends)
For the record, like too many films of the otherwise-rightfully-acclaimed Malayalam New New Wave, this one too revolves around men, and features women characters who, while being significant to the proceedings, nevertheless operate on the sidelines.
The spotlight first fell on Pellissery in Kerala a decade back. Since 2017, he has been a darling of pan-India cinephiles after gaining national attention with Angamaly Diaries. He followed up that delightful black comedy with the culturally insightful and wonderfully funny Ee.Ma.Yau (2018), and a wacko interpretation of machoism and socio-political supremacy in Jallikattu (2019).
Churuli’s pluses begin with its packaging. It is exquisitely shot by DoP Madhu Neelakandan and well-acted by everyone, especially Vinay Forrt who has been so lovely in the likes of Premam, Kismath and Thamaasha and is again in top form here. Sreerag Saji’s original score is ghostly and complements the atmospherics of the narrative. And Renganaath Ravee’s sound design is meticulous.
Besides, it is clear that there is a lot Pellissery wishes to say with Churuli. The elements that work make it all the more maddening that he chose to say it with such intentional vagueness.
This review was first published when Churuli had its world premiere at the 25th International Film Festival of Kerala in February 2021. A marginally edited version of the film is now streaming on SonyLIV.