With Joji, Dileesh Pothan has found a way, once more, to use everything he has learnt to further push the boundaries of his art, observes Sreehari Nair.
Greed may be good or bad, but what does Greed sound like? In Dileesh Pothan's Joji, a freewheeling adaption of Macbeth, Composer Justin Varghese serves up a clue.
Macbeth's curse is that he has to be careful, above all, of those who encourage him; spurred on to commit regicide by a wife and three witches, he quite literally dies of encouragement.
In Joji, there are no permanent witches. The witch, in fact, turns up by chance and he's a distant relative (Shammi Thilakan plays Dr Felix as a dodger and an inadvertent promoter of bad habits) who -- under a beautiful moonlit sky, with alcohol stirring in his veins -- tells Joji Panachel (Fahadh Faasil) that his well-heeled father, now paralysed, would not survive the fortnight.
Delighted by the news, Joji turns his car away from Felix's bungalow and begins his journey homeward. And this is when the Greed Soundtrack kicks in.
It's an orchestral piece, a spontaneous blast of happiness but with an ominous undercurrent to it, not unlike The Godfather Waltz. It picks up tempo as Joji cruises along the winding roads of Erumely, with the moonlight melting under his headlights.
By the time he gets home, we know that he has arrived at something much more sinister than good old ambition.
This music placement is a primer for the spirit of Joji, which tracks down the most original subtexts from at least half a dozen great works to create a work of art that transcends its sources.
The fact that it's a family crime drama set in the high ranges of Kerala has prompted many to declare, 'It's nothing more than a retelling of K G George's Irakal.' Such inferences are symptomatic of a new form of dodoism -- the kind that is not merely condoned but cheered on in this age of tweet reviews and meme culture.
My ancestral home is located in Ranni, whose ecological weave and biodiversity is comparable to Erumely, and I have always felt that there's something eerie about the natural beauty of such places.
My grandfather, who was a world-class drunk and a prodigious composer of macabre poems, would tell me he couldn't help himself in a land where, if you stare at a pineapple field, it appears to stare back at you; a land where a stroll through a rubber plantation is enough to reprise in your head the sins of generations past; where bedroom conversations are paused to let crickets and litter beetles have their say.
In such geographies, you might find your emotions frequently tipping over into new, unexpected territories, and Varghese's score delicately underscores this truth.
But the music here is just one part of a bigger texture; for the whole film has been structured like a mood piece.
It's the stubbornness implicit in the narrative style that sets the mood.
Pothan and Writer Syam Pushkaran have worked out the back stories of even the walk-in characters. The genius of Joji is that you don't get any of that history simply ladled out.
This is a film completely free of exposition. It unfolds defiantly in the present; so much so that in the 113 minutes of its running time, you are not even shown a family portrait of the Panachels -- and this, you slowly come to realise, is by conscious choice.
With a past that's never made plain and a present that's only made adequate (Shyju Khalid's camera gives us a deft counterpoint every now and again), Joji, on first viewing, left me underwhelmed.
As the end credits rolled by, complete with the names of at least two dozen musicians with Russian-sounding names, I sat convinced that this was Dileesh Pothan's weakest outing yet.
The COVID-19 restrictions had also evidently contributed.
I could sense that he had had to shoot using a relatively small technical crew and make do with associate directors for bit parts (Usually, even the bit players in a Pothan film are selected after a proper audition).
The big sequences, such as a Funeral Scene and an Action Scene, owing to the restrictions, had not received Pothan's fulsome treatment (They could have been more 'vivid' was my prognosis).
In the killings, I did not sense the violation of humanity that I looked forward to feeling. And, at a larger level, I thought that the length and the pacing of the film did not justify its arc.
But a friend -- let us call him Subin Sachidanandan -- was mighty impressed.
And as this Subin began to lay out moment after moment of gliding brilliance, I made up my mind to watch Joji a second time.
The folly of my first viewing (and it must be a folly I share with many admirers of Dileesh Pothan) was that I, despite the best will in the world, was consumed by my love for Pothan's legacy and my eagerness for finding out if this legacy had been well-preserved. Ergo, only on second viewing did I see the film for what it was.
Joji becomes a truly pleasurable experience once you know the exact beats of the story it is trying to tell; it is then that the echoes in the film become clear to you.
As a matter of fact, more than Maheshinte Prathikaram and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, the paradoxes here connect in subliminal ways that might even render the movie a tad incoherent, especially when you get caught up in the everyday-ness punctuating the narrative (In the pump repairing, and in the cylinder replacements; in the pick-up trucks, and in the online delivery scramblers).
Nothing in the film has been goosed with an intention of overwhelming you, and that's precisely what makes it so magnificent.
Characters' histories have been worked out in great detail but they are revealed to us in razor-thin slices.
It took me some time to figure out that Joji's murderous spree derives its marrow from his symbiosis with the film's only female figure -- the Lady Macbeth parallel, Bincy (played by Unnimaya Prasad), who, if she was a mother to him once, now worms up beside him as a silent admirer.
The contrast between the burning wish to grow up, to be treated as an adult, and the inevitable pressures that come with being a grown-up, is one of the film's sustained themes and it plays out right from the first set of sequences.
A boy (Alister Alex has more glaze in his eyes than his biological age can account for) waits impatiently for a ridiculous piece of weaponry that will eventually kill his father.
He takes receipt of the weaponry and then trains it on one of the many symbols of his family's soiled heritage: A rubber tree.
An older, oppressive generation is being replaced by a younger generation with a liberal, progressive worldview; yet, such evolutions too come at a price -- which price is a subject of exploration in the film.
Syam Pushkaran's interviews do a great job of misrepresenting his artistry. When he fields questions relating to women empowerment and misogyny, what gets swept under the carpet is a rather unglamorous truth: Pushkaran may be a radical, but he makes a determined effort *always* to understand the poetry of conservatism.
(I have a feeling that the day he starts taking his interviewers seriously, Syam Pushkaran would turn into his own Iago).
Joji, too, is being celebrated for its supposed denunciation of 'toxic masculinity' and yet how do such dissections reconcile with the fact that one of the most toxic men in the film, Jomon, is also one of the very few characters here with anything that even resembles a conscience.
And if you believe that the grand patriarch, Panachel Kuttappan, is a toxic character with no redeeming qualities, you might have deliberately failed to notice that his 'will to survive' is a fantastic, life-affirming thing. It took me two viewings to connect the moment of Kuttappan's death with the moment that occurs just before he gets felled by a stroke; he pulls back a little, like a breeding bull being struck by a thunderbolt, and I could feel his exhaustion passing through me.
At any rate, in a Dileesh Pothan-Syam Pushkaran venture, offensive, antisocial behaviour is not meant to be read straight; for the humour in these films comes primarily out of people behaving badly but without their being aware of it. (Babychayan, Crispin, Jimsy, Mahesh, Prasad, A S I Chandran -- the Comedy of Unknowing is what binds them all.)
In this film, Baburaj's Jomon is a grizzly bear steeped in brandy, as much 'a man of action' as Kuttappan, a man who reaches down to his very roots to organise a religious service for his paralysed papa, but who flees the service when confronted with the barbarity of organised religion.
Jomon is a natural evolution of his father, in that he has mastered the art of phrasing his threats like legal briefs.
He is the son Kuttappan feels closest to and when the old man takes off in one swift motion the son's head-scarf before diving into a pool of filth, you get a facsimile of the bond they share; the offhand informality is something that's not readily extended to his other children.
It's not extended to the second one, Jaison, whose infertility has begun to creep into his every move; he walks, for instance, as if cradling the world between his legs.
And his youngest, Joji, Kuttappan holds at an arm's length, because he sees him as the son who, when he's winded, cannot even tell a lie properly.
Joji's garnishing of his Malayalam sentences with random emissions of English are the man-boy's minor revolts, his attempts to extricate himself from the blood bonds that he believes are keeping him from enjoying his just desserts.
These connections are so intricately woven, and the pleasures of untying them so indisputable, that they have the effect of making one of the most applauded scenes in the movie seem like a fraudulent item on second viewing.
I am talking about the scene after Panachel Kuttappan's death when Bincy comes looking for Joji, who is gloating away in his upstairs bedroom.
She asks him not to keep the funeral party waiting, and, in the spirit of the season, adds: 'Please come down wearing your mask.'
The dialogue is meant to be a metaphor for what Joji has become, but the irony there is put under such sharp spotlight that it measures up poorly against the other velvety bits.
The mask, those who have been paying close attention would know, is Fahadh's constant companion as an actor. In many of his best performances (say, as the photographer who decides to be an avenging angel; or, as the petty thief whose craftsmanship obscures a million unhappy childhoods; or, as the weasely conman, Sibi, of Carbon) a tacit understanding is reached between Fahadh and the viewer -- that his character is in the midst of play-acting, of being someone he is inherently not.
Part of the tension and the comedy for the viewer, then, is trying to see for how long this high-wire act can be sustained, how far the character can push himself without dropping his mask.
In this regard, much has been made about Fahadh's eyes and not enough material devoted to the idea of what an odd set they are (all interesting artistes have something about them that strike the public as odd at first, and which later become their trademark).
Looking into Fahadh's eyes, one gets the same sensation every time: of someone else peeking out through him.
There's an unknowability about them. Contrary to being the window, Fahadh's eyes are the curtains to his inner world.
In this film, which is permeated with the spirit of stagecraft, Fahadh has been handed a character who animates the actor's process, who lets us in on moments when those odd eyes lose their appeal.
Joji's inner world, his bedroom (which he has self-anointed as his 'palace'), is also his wing space.
It's here that Joji prepares to be the person he wants the world to view him as.
In a scene toward the end, when his preparations go awfully wrong, he tries to improvise, changing postures and tones on the fly, and though 'his process' is now out on the stage and hence liable to be critiqued and criticised, he keeps at it because he can still sense the thread that connects him to his most loyal audience member. And then, that thread snaps!
It's when Bincy gives up on him that Joji drops his mask.
And it's here that *her strength* becomes evident to us. Pushkaran need not write 'bold' female characters interested in defying societal norms; he has too much affection for the women around him to go down the easy route.
Bincy has been carved out of those chechis we meet in life, ones who carry within them years of disregard, ones who aren't atheists but approach sarcastically the Gods they worship every day, ones who never miss anything going on in a room and who, one fine morning, can bring it all crashing down through a stinging punchline delivered from the side of the mouth.
Yes, these women don't need rickety armchairs, or papier-mache thrones, to flaunt; they fashion their own power centres which they silently occupy and whose authority they constantly strive to expand.
Bincy is too intuitive to overlook the fact that, despite Joji's best efforts, he does wind up like his father.
And though Pothan and Pushkaran don't stress the father-son links, we can catch them in the little details.
The tail-end of the movie sees Joji turn into a version of his father's bed-ridden avatar (and checked for responsiveness just like his old man). But even before that, when managing people around him becomes a messy affair, you can discern the liberal-minded son inheriting Kuttappan's tongue spit by spit.
And what cuss words! They contain references to rubber milk and pineapple and all things Erumely -- a wonderful exhibition of how the geographical peculiarities of a place create the language of that place.
There were times when I thought Fahadh's performance did not carry enough urgency.
However, the actor achieves something very difficult here: He portrays a person who has both surging ambition and an inside that's emptying out with every passing frame.
This is why, notwithstanding his crimes, his regurgitations of his father's vocabulary and the many public personae he designs, a tense, flaccid face remains Joji's standout countenance.
Kuttappan, by contrast, has a face formed from judiciously mixing compassion and cruelty; it's a face that speaks of horrors seen and passed over, of judgments that will be merciless.
And to go with this face is his voice, full of derogatory rustlings, a voice to knock Erumely on its ear.
Placing father and son next to each other, you come to understand that Joji fails, ultimately, because he doesn't quite have the stuff of demagogues.
Demagogues and Usurpers. Cocks and Bulls. Characters with serious inner rifts.
Is Dileesh Pothan turning darker with this film? Is he turning colder? Most importantly, is the coldness here earned?
If Joji had been more one-dimensional, the above questions would have been easier to answer and the film itself easier to appreciate.
Many, then, might have even praised Pothan for attempting a new genre and triumphing at it (The sort of praise that's usually accorded to somebody like Gautham Menon when he follows up a 'romantic drama' with, say, a 'serial killer drama').
But what Pothan has done here is treat the dark material as minor excursions from his characteristic love for life and life's surprising, intertwining rhythms.
The silent presence of a housemaid becomes a shorthand for Bincy's changing fortunes.
The rooms, as well as their location, occupied by different members of the Panachel household, tell us a lot about the status of the occupants and how each one of them is perceived by the others.
It's an irreligious household that eventually grows so religious that a new role is thought up for the priest to play: As a frontman for the family, to reason with the law.
The middle brother, Jaison, has more of his mother than his father in him (the way he bends at the hip when arguing) and when he comes barging at Jomon (who wears his chest like an honorary shield), you get some idea of how Kuttappan Panachel and his wife must have sparred with gnashed teeth over matters inconsequential.
Shyju Khalid's cinematography outwardly gives us the perception of time passing and at a deeper level, of fates changing.
The three-dimensionality of Pothan's storytelling, ironically enough, is what might throw you off in Joji.
What will bring you back is the understanding that this film isn't a simple meditation on the Crime genre; rather, it's about the mundane being disarranged by a heart of darkness.
And I wasn't ready for that: A depiction of psychosis where the behavioral aspects are as important as the psychological, in which blood is spilled but life spills out too.
Pothan's big achievement is that he has found a way, once more, to use everything he has learnt to further push the boundaries of his art.
This is a work that combines the expertness of a master with the curiosity of a fresh talent.
By the end of my second viewing, I knew that the term 'hat-trick' wouldn't do, it just wouldn't suffice. With Joji, Dileesh Pothan has made his first great film, yet again.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com