When the first flush of the COVID-19 virus spread, causing breakdown of order and an enforced lockdown, a question many people were asking was, how will this play out at the movies? Right off the bat film-makers started registering 'Corona' in their film titles. Eros International had gone ahead and registered Corona Pyaar Hai.
The absurdity, the violence, and the lack of any coherent answers or explanations made it ripe for film fodder. But who wants to see a film on the virus having lived through the ongoing lockdown? The worry was an overrepresentation of COVID-19 as the primary conflict in movies. The worry on the other extreme was a kind of escapist cinema that has no space for disease or death.
Dileesh Pothan's Macbeth adaptation, Joji starring Fahadh Faasil, which dropped on Amazon Prime Video on April 7th, almost a year after the lockdown, has a ready recipe— by making COVID-19 part of the world where the movie is taking place, using it peripherally to etch side-details, mining some situational humour at the outset, but without bringing too much attention to it.
Faasil plays Joji, the "slothy dude" who kills his father out of resentment, for being treated as second fiddle, unimportant, and unintelligent. Bincy (Unnimaya Prasad), his sister-in-law plays a Lady Macbeth-like figure, but she's passive and merely validates his decisions without pushing or guilting him to commit the crime.
The very first shot shows a woman wearing a mask in an office as a man revs his bike to make a delivery. It's made clear that COVID-19 exists, but it's also made clear that COVID-19 is not the only thing that exists.
We often see scripts cough up the most bizarre excuses to explain how a plot point swerves. But Pothan with his screenwriter and regular collaborator Syam Pushkaran use COVID-19 as subtle narrative excuses that also propel the story forward by giving additional dregs of information.
In the beginning we see Joji's nephew, Popy, secretly leaving the house without anybody noticing, to get a parcel that has been delivered. It's a parcel that has his grandfather, Joji's father's name — Panachel Kuttappan. Popy tells the delivery man that his grandfather is under quarantine because he got the virus and thus won't be able to pick up the package. We had just seen the grandfather out and about as part of the previous scene and so one thing is established — that Popy bought this package without his grandfather's knowledge.
Much later, during Kuttappan's funeral (smaller in size because of crowd restrictions), Bincy, noticing Joji's absence, goes to his room and tells him to come out and mingle in performed sadness. But she notes the slight smile on his face. Instead of telling him to rub it off, she tells him to wear a mask. It could be seen as a mundane public health banter, but the logic underneath it is made clear when Joji stares at his reflection in the mirror, mask over mouth, wondering if his eyes are now a dead giveaway.
Elsewhere the masks are also used to clarify an age-divide, where two young "kids" — Popy and Joji are seated by themselves at the hospital talking with their masks on, while the older men are at the tea table, masks off, speaking, while sipping tea. In different places we see a random assortment of masks and mask-lessness, a true reflection of our world where some believe, some don't, some care, some don't, and often the same person veers between caring and not caring.
While so much of this period is glib, much of its absurdity is also flat-out funny. It's not the kind of humour you hold your stomach with while laughing, but the chuckle-friendly variety — a sharp observation here and there.
The fact that the hazmat suits worn in hospitals makes one so unrecognizable that now, even names won't work to identify one another, only nick-names do. It renders us so alike one another, even labels have to overcompensate with familiarity to be rendered meaningful.
At the very end of the film, when Joji wakes up from his attempted suicide instead of familiar faces (as shown in the lead image), he sees strangers in that white suit peering at him like fresh meat. It's deeply funny but also, if you think of it, deeply unsettling — to be so alone, to be untouched, to be unconsolable by the physicality of love and care. It's the kind of duality that plays off one another — deeply funny, deeply disturbing. To tell a tale in the times of COVID-19, one must be able to embrace both.