Joji is another brilliant, debate-worthy film about oppressed characters from the enviable imagination of Syam Pushkaran and director Dileesh Pothan. It’s the duo’s darkest film yet. Every character has a weakness, and they do stupid things out of fear.
Unlike his elder siblings, Jomon Panachel (Baburaj) and Jaison Panachel (Joji Mundakayam), it’s Joji Panachel (Fahadh Faasil) who seems to be the most oppressed of the children of PK Panachel (Sunny PN). The cold, stifling atmosphere of the Panachel home hasn’t spared Jaison’s better half Bincy (Unnimaya Prasad) either. There is so much toxicity in the air that you might as call it a ‘house of horrors’.
There’s a lot of pleading in the film. You sense this tone whenever someone asks permission to do something, apologises for someone else’s behaviour, or even when blackmailing somebody. We sense the distance not just between the children and the father but also between each other. It is felt even when they are sitting next to each other. The Lady Macbeth of this story is Bincy. An ally of Joji in spirit but not in action, Bincy’s presence has an unsettling quality.
When things get really ugly in the film’s second half, you try to imagine all the terrible things that must have happened to them in the past that led them to despise Panachel, a man who behaves more like a wrestler than a father. How can you not expect his children to fear him? And why is Joji the most affected of the lot? What is it about society, which he blames for all his troubles, that pushed him over the edge?
Maybe it’s all in the blood. We never know because Dileesh and Syam don’t show us any dark backstories. We sense a breaking point in everyone, but it’s Joji who breaks first. He is the most daring, but he makes all the wrong moves. He has so much in common with William Macy’s character in Fargo, Mark Wahlberg’s character in Boogie Nights, or Vincent D’Onofrio’s character in Full Metal Jacket. The constant bullying and humiliation became unbearable to them after a certain point. You feel pity for them at first, but you disagree with what they do later to deal with their inner demons.
For a long time, I’ve been waiting for someone to make a film in Malayalam with the sensibilities of a Coen Brothers film. Thankfully, we have Dileesh Pothan, who has made something on par with a Fargo or Blood Simple. Dileesh and Syam seem to be getting better and better with each film. As with Maheshinte Prathikaram and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, Joji is a brilliant testament to their penchant for infusing every scene with so much life and detail.
Joji is not the same film as Maheshinte Prathikaram or Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. But the latter proved that Dileesh was capable of going in a more serious direction.
Joji is Dileesh’s homage to his favourite play, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But it’s not a direct adaptation either. It’s not trying to be Omkara or Maqbool or Kaliyattam. But Joji also borrows a little from King Lear. Though Jomon Panachel is the eldest child, he is essentially the male version of Cordelia, the youngest and most favourite child of Lear.
However, in Joji, we don’t see the father explicitly displaying any favouritism towards Jomon. Perhaps it’s implicit in uncomfortable silences. The affection and respect come only from Jomon’s side, even though he is fearful of him. He is the only son with a conscience.
Joji is inevitably going to invite comparisons to KG George’s Irakal. I can confidently say Dileesh and Syam have successfully pulled off a worthy successor to that film. I also assume the casting of Shammi Thilakan, who appeared in Irakal, was meant as a nod.
(Shammi is also the son of Thilakan, who played the patriarch in Irakal.) I also expect comparisons between Fahadh’s performance and Ganesh Kumar’s portrayal of Baby, a similarly psychotic character. But the comparison is unnecessary. Fahadh is effectively menacing and haunting as Joji, and so was Ganesh Kumar. The former is not trying to imitate the latter. But if you were to ask me if I found Joji’s character surprising, I would say no. Perhaps my answer would have been the opposite if Joji had come out before Irakal.
You could also see Joji as an argument for why siblings should never share their toys. The ‘toy’ in question is a pellet gun ordered online without the father’s knowledge. It becomes a fatal weapon later. The film opens and ends with it. When Dileesh’s name shows up in the opening credits, a tree is bleeding white sap. We see a different kind of sap when the film ends. The colour, this time, is crimson.
We don’t often find films where the makers’ passion and efforts are visible in every frame. Dileesh and Syam have, along with ace cinematographer Shyju Khalid (Ee. Ma. Yau, Kumbalangi Nights), created a home devoid of colour and life. Also admirable is how Shyju makes a single location film look much larger than it really is. And Justin Varghese’s orchestral score is fitting for a classic tragedy.
Joji is like that exotic, high-priced meal you have only once a year. You don’t feel like watching anything else immediately after because you don’t want to ruin the aftertaste, even if it’s bitter.
Director: Dileesh Pothan
Cast: Fahadh Faasil, Baburaj, Unnimaya Prasad, Joji Mundakkayam, Shammi Thilakan, Basil Joseph
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video