Dileesh Pothan’s Joji, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is “inspired from Shakespeare’s Macbeth”. The cool highlands of Scotland have been transposed to the rubber plantation of steamy Kottayam, but greed is a universal vice. It’s this greed that has been adapted to the Mumbai underworld in Maqbool (2003), to a Tulu fishing town in the National Award-winning film Paddayi (2019), and even, to a certain extent, a Tamil temple town in Marmayogi (1951).
Also Read: Paddayi Review
Macbeth, written around 1606-07, is the last of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, following Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, each disguising one disturbing aspect of human reality in poetic performance. But Macbeth is his most distressing tragedy, one that acutely reflects the human capacity for evil in the face of rationality. It’s this aspect of the play that many considered “bad luck”, so much so that theater people refuse to say the name, referring to Macbeth superstitiously as “The Scottish Play”.
It’s a story of betrayal — where Macbeth, the valiant Thane of Glamis, betrays the kind and nurturing King of Scotland, and kills him in order to get his throne. It’s also a story of sexuality — where his wife, Lady Macbeth, employs all her sexual prowess and capacity to provoke shame at his cowardice to get him to finally perform the murder. But most importantly, it’s a story of guilt — where Macbeth, and even Lady Macbeth, are racked with hallucinations of blood spots and sleepless nights. Ultimately then, it’s a story of self-sacrifice at the altar of unchecked ambition.
Joji (Fahadh Faasil) is supposed to mirror Macbeth, but is only preoccupied with the first theme — of betrayal. There’s little guilt or sexuality in the movie. Joji is unmarried but his sister-in-law Bincy (Unnimaya Prasad) shoulders some of Lady Macbeth’s displaced qualities. The King of Scotland here is his own ruthless father. The murder thus isn’t a regicide, but a patricide. The film and specifically Joji’s character have some stark deviations from the text that are worth examining to see how Pothan, with his screenwriter and regular collaborator Syam Pushkaran, adapted an evergreen story to present prevalent social relations.
Also Read: Joji Review
Joji As A Wastrel, Macbeth As Valiant
When Macbeth is first introduced to us in the play, he has just won a war for the King of Scotland, and is described as a man who possesses “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself”. We first hear of his valiant strikes in the battlefield before we see him, almost like a voice-over parading his greatness. It is in this ambition and greatness that we find the seed of greed which sprouts to fruition through the play. It makes sense that he is greedy, because he feels that he is deserving of the crown of Scotland. The tragedy is, he perhaps is deserving of the crown because of his good qualities, but that doesn’t, shouldn’t, validate an assassination.
Joji on the other hand, an engineering dropout who listens to IELTS tutorials as background music — to give him the illusion of learning — is described in the subtitles as a “slothy dude”. Even his random use of English doesn’t give a sense that one day, he will speak entirely in that language. It’s a loose tether to a wishy-washy future.
He doesn’t have any ambition, and so his greed for his father’s property is entirely underserved and comes from a space of entitlement. We don’t even know what he specifically wants to do with the inheritance he will get from his father. It is as if money is enough, and what he does with the money is immaterial, much like for Macbeth how it was power, and not what he would do with the power that was important. But in Joji, the murder is a way to get at his father for constantly undermining him; the impulse for muder thus rings a tad extreme i.e. if we didn’t know this was a Macbeth adaptation, the murder would have perhaps seemed narratively underserving.
Joji isn’t particularly brave either; Fahadh Faasil plays him as a lanky, scrawny, hunched man. In a moment of confrontation, he gets so scared by the counter-assault of words he trips over himself and falls down. The radical departure from Macbeth is that greed here assails the “undeserved”. Differently put, if greed can come out of ambition in Macbeth, ambition can come out of greed in Joji. Which came first doesn’t matter.
Where Are The Three Witches?
It is this difference between Macbeth and Joji that might explain why there was no need for the three witches in the adaptation. They served a specific narrative function — to first massage his pride of victory, and to then sting his ambition with greed.
But if there is no ambition, there is no victory, what would a witch-like figure do with Joji? Instead, we get his uncle, Dr. Felix, who in a drunken stupor tells him passingly that he will become a “kodeeswaran”, a crorepati. This is not supposed to move him in the way the three witches moved Macbeth, but merely caption his entitled greed that was already brimming.
By axing the witches Pothan answers a central unanswered question of Macbeth, of whether he would have still pursued murder if the witches didn’t show up, with a shirk-of-the-shoulder yes.
The King of Scotland is a nurturing figure, almost maternal. He tells Macbeth, “I have begun to plant thee, and will labour/ To make thee full of growing.” The patriarch of Joji, Panachel Kuttappan (Sunny PN), however has a brutal iron fist over his property, and the nurturing instinct is instead displaced to his relationship with the land — here is literally nurturing a rubber plantation.
Another central conceit of Macbeth, that of guilt shown through blood is inched out of this story; neither does Joji hallucinate blood on his hands nor does Bincy see spots of blood. When Joji hallucinates his father’s body reaching out of the pond, it isn’t guilt as much as fear of being caught that is referenced.
Thus the difference between Kuttappan and Joji is far more than the difference between Macbeth and the King of Scotland. Thus the murder is all the more far-flung as an idea. This could have been plotted for greater drama but Pothan instead makes the murder almost passive. Unlike Macbeth, there is no blood involved in either of the murders — of his father, and then, his elder brother. For crying out loud, there’s not even a real gun — Joji uses an airgun to pierce the neck of his brother. The deaths have an “off-screen” quality — Joji’s father’s death is announced as a voiceover, and his brother’s death is assumed after seeing a blast. In neither cases do we see them seething in close-ups, there is no blood. And thus, another central conceit of Macbeth, that of guilt shown through blood is inched out of this story; neither does Joji hallucinate blood on his hands that “all great Nuptune’s ocean” can’t wash away, nor does Bincy see spots of blood that “all the perfumes of Arabia cannot sweeten.” (The only time we see blood is when Joji shoots himself at the end.) When Joji hallucinates his father’s body reaching out of the pond, it isn’t guilt as much as fear of being caught that is referenced.
It is thus fitting that instead of the specific interior monologues that Macbeth is given, explaining his jostling with his morality, we have Fahadh Faasil behind closed doors, wordlessly flailing his arms, stomping his feet, unwatched. Modern privacy is our soliloquies.
A Displaced Lady Macbeth
It is often noted that Lady Macbeth plays Eve to Macbeth’s Adam, where it is the female principle that snowballs the sin, and the man merely goes with it, padding it with rationality. But here, Lady Macbeth is so peripheral to the story, almost as an indictment of Kerala’s society, riven with caste and gender prejudices, that women are not important enough to even be considered evil.
Bincy plays a silent spectator to Joji’s machinations. At best, she prods him subtly, validating his moves, massaging out any post-murder creases. The cunning of Lady Macbeth that moves Macbeth to murder, Joji thus finds within himself. The lack of remorse that Lady Macbeth shows post murder, the pretense of fainting, again, Joji must find within himself — using the COVID mask to cover his sly smile underneath. Even Lady Macbeth’s final suicide, Joji finds within himself, attempting suicide with an airgun.
However, where Bincy and Lady Macbeth coalesce is in taunting Joji’s masculinity. It’s very subtle, almost unconsciously done. When Bincy is mad, she chides him saying he’s going to spend the best years of his life on the kitchen counter, eating, alone. This direct assault on his lack of masculinity gives him the courage to finally confront his father about their inheritance. Though of course, even though paralyzed, his father is able to literally strangle Joji into submission. This second added layer of humiliation pushes him to pursue murder as the only logical next step. The seed for patricide is thus sown, unknowingly, by Bincy. In fact, the first time we see Joji assert himself as a man capable of making decisions, by bringing the horse into the yard, it is Bincy who gave him that needed nudge.
In Joji relatability that is an important aspect of Macbeth is swapped for likability, both serving as pads to make murder seem less like murder.
This is important because in Macbeth, right before he is about to abandon the mission of murder, Lady Macbeth shows up, undermining his manhood, calling him a coward. The murder thus becomes not just as a mode to access the throne, but also to assert his masculinity.
Is Joji A “Good” Adaption Of Macbeth?
Joji hollows out the central moral conceit of Macbeth. Macbeth is aspirational, and rational, and even though he’s committed a murder, he’s deeply repentant. After the murder, he tells his wife, “To know my deed, ‘twere best not know myself” — to be able to accept the murder he has committed, he has to deny who he is.
Macbeth understands the temptation of evil, and even understands value in resisting evil, and yet, he commits it once, and then to cover it up, once more. (“We have scorched the snake, not killed it.”)
Part of the allure of Macbeth is this humanity, his peek of conscience amidst the bloodbath, and thus the horror of watching Macbeth is the horror of watching what someone with a conscience is capable of doing, what we humans are capable of doing. Macbeth truly grieves, while Joji doesn’t; his perfunctory expressions of sympathy, like that towards his nephew Popy, is all a farce. The film thus excessively rests on Fahadh Faasil to make this character likeable, a little silly, a little funny, a little innocent. Thus, here, relatability is swapped for likability, both serving as pads to make murder seem less like murder.
In the end, Macbeth is stripped of “honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,” all the good things of life that we expect to “accompany old age”. There is a kind of sympathy you feel for him, even as you know he is wrong. But Joji wants to make another point entirely. In the end, he is vegetative, in a hospital bed, able to respond only with blinks of an eye. The DSP notes, “You didn’t die. So it’s trouble for you and us as well.” The exact sentiments Joji felt for his own father when he was vegetative, paralyzed. How the murderer begins to look like the murdered; a cruel twist of fate.