Lijo Jose Pellissery’s living room in his apartment in Kochi is dominated by a huge projection screen. It seems appropriate, because the Malayali auteur, who recently won the Kerala state award for best director for his latest flick Ee.Ma.Yau, lives and breathes movies.
I met Lijo on a bright, sunny morning. Wearing a grey-coloured lungi, he ushered me in and asked what I would like to drink. Before I could say anything, he went to the kitchen and came back with two glasses filled with an amber-coloured drink. He offered one to me and said, “Cheers!” One sip, and I realised it was not alcohol, but apple juice. The man does know how to pull off an imaginative twist.
Lijo’s films are also full of such vivid imagination—from Nayakan (2010), to Ee.Ma.Yau (2018). Ee.Ma.Yau, which is about a funeral in a Christian family in a coastal village, has been deemed by critics as a contemporary classic in Malayalam. “He is making an admirable effort to give his signature in each film,” said Aswathy Gopalakrishnan, a film critic.
The conflict between religion and individual is a recurring theme in his films.
Lijo’s father, Jose Pellissery, was a theatre and film actor. So, cinema became his dream at a very young age. P.F. Mathews, who wrote the script of Ee.Ma.Yau, remembers that his first meeting with Lijo was on the set of a telefilm. Lijo was then just a student. “He talked about the title shots, cuts and mannerisms of characters in my telefilms,” said Mathews. “Also, I was surprised by his knowledge of world cinema.”
After completing an MBA from IIPM, Bengaluru, Lijo started his career as a copywriter. He worked for three advertising firms in Bengaluru, and assisted in the making of several ad films. In 2004, after his father’s unexpected death, he shifted to Kerala to take care of his mother and sister. “I tried starting a production house. But, that did not work out since I did not have much to show in my profile,” said Lijo.
In 2007, a short film he made was aired by a private channel. That opened the door to Gateway, a reality show on filmmaking in which contestants formed two-member teams to make short films. “I could not win the show. But, I got a lot of good friends from there,” said Lijo. Prashanth Pillai, the composer who has worked with Lijo in all his films, was one such friend. “Lijo clearly knows what he wants in his films,” said Pillai. “And, that makes my work easy.”
Lijo’s first two feature films—Nayakan and City of God (2011)—were crime thrillers that were acclaimed by critics, but flopped in theatres. They are now counted among the films that heralded a new wave in Malayalam cinema. Popularly called new-generation films, they were noted for their unusual themes and innovative narrative techniques. Lijo’s first hit came in 2013. Amen, a musical satire, narrated the story of a church band that overcomes many odds. It was praised for its artistic brilliance. “In Amen, I did not compromise on the stuffs that I thought to experiment with the subject,” said Lijo. “When that film worked well in theatres, it gave me a lot of confidence and freedom to try new things.” Actor and scriptwriter Chemban Vinod Jose, a close friend of Lijo from his teenage days, said Lijo was excited when Amen became a success. “But, otherwise, he has faced all his highs and lows with composure,” he said.
After Amen’s success, Lijo met Mathews with plans for a trilogy. But, that did not take off. Apparently, another project named Antichrist, for which the script was already completed by Mathews, was scheduled for shooting. “But, five days before the shoot was to start, the project was dropped because of various issues. One, of course, was budget constraints,” said Mathews.
Lijo’s next movie was a comic-book style, big-budget, genre-bending spoof called Double Barrel (2015). Even though it pushed the envelope in terms of technique and story telling, the film bombed. Lijo faced a lot of criticism, especially in social media, for having experimented “a little too much”. “But, it was something I could do only then. And, it was, to an extent, a personal film,” said Lijo.
The lessons from his failures served him well in 2017, when he released a dizzying action thriller called Angamaly Diaries. Scripted by Chemban Vinod, the film was about a group of people who sell pork. The film was screened in Cannes Film Market and earned international acclaim. It became a box-office hit, too. The film had 86 debutant actors. Also, its climax had an exceptionally long take of 11 minutes, with over 1,000 actors in the frame. Ace director Anurag Kashyap lauded it as an extraordinary film and tagged it as his film of the year.
So many had praised Angamaly Diaries as the best film delivered by Lijo. But then came Ee.Ma.Yau, where he outdid himself. Shot over a period of 18 days, the film explored an effective use of dark humour and magical realism in its narrative. Mathews said that Lijo surprised him with his shot pattern selection for the movie. There is a scene in Ee.Ma.Yau, where the corpse falls out of the coffin. “It could have done in a traditional style, with multiple shots, cuts and different angles,” said Mathews. “But, Lijo brought it in a single shot. He is a director with his own vision and visual interpretation of the script.”
Sticking on to established patterns may ensure commercial success of the films. But, Lijo has a different philosophy: “A filmmaker should think what sort of movies would uplift the sensibility of the audience.”