When National award winning director Christo Tomy first heard about the terrifying Koodathayi deaths — six members of the same family were allegedly murdered over a period of 14 years, and a middle-aged woman named Jolly Joseph was arrested as the prime suspect in Kerala — he felt a sense of uneasiness and stopped his friend from explaining the incidents further. He was scared that he would not be able to sleep well at night. Little did Christo know that he would later delve deeper into the Jolly Joseph case, spending months as he put together the many chilling details to helm a documentary.
Backed by India Today Originals, Curry & Cyanide: The Jolly Joseph Case is a true-crime documentary streaming on Netflix. The 95-minute documentary takes the viewers chronologically through the six deaths in the Ponnamattam family that happened between 2002 and 2016. For the uninitiated, Jolly Joseph was arrested in 2019 for allegedly murdering her first husband Roy Thomas, his father, mother and uncle and the first wife and two-year-old daughter of her second husband, Shaju. Director Christo says, “When I was approached to do this documentary, I read more about the events and realised how layered and complex it was. Unlike many stories about serial killers, Jolly Joseph wasn’t lurking in the dark. What made the case scary was the fact that something like this could happen to anyone.”
The wide media coverage in 2019 has branded Jolly Joseph as the heartless killer but the case is sub-judice in front of law. This meant that there were certain conditions and regulations that Christo and his team had to bear in mind. Their first focus, along with writer Shalini Ushadevi, was to ensure they get different takes on the story to present a balanced view. Besides, even though the team discovered many moments and materials that shocked them, they weren’t able to use those as it could affect the case adversely. Christo says, “The documentary is based on publicly available information, along with personal accounts from those who were close to these events. We presented the factual status of the investigation and took proper permissions.”
The documentary features Renji Thomas, sister-in-law of Jolly, (the primary complainant), Jolly’s elder son Remo and her brother-in-law Rojo along with retired cop KG Simon, who headed the investigation. Joseph’s lawyer BA Aloor, journalist Nikhila Henry, toxicologist VV Pillay, a social activist and a psychology expert also shared their perspectives. While their accounts present a fair detail of the events, a major criticism of the documentary was that many important aspects were not covered, including the childhood of Jolly and the perspective of Jolly’s second husband Shaju.
More than anything, we wanted Jolly herself to speak to get a balanced narrative, Christo notes, explaining why it wasn’t possible to include several details. “Some people were not interested in telling their story in front of the camera and it was due to different reasons. For instance, Jolly’s family in Kattapana (her native) were on the receiving end of a witch hunt when the story of her arrest broke out. Jolly’s parents, siblings and the entire family had to suffer a lot over the years. It would be difficult for us to even imagine the pain they had to go through. So, they didn’t want to be a part of the documentary. Her second husband, Shaju also declined to tell his narrative. We have to respect their decisions.” So, the team tried to find a balance by bringing different versions like Jolly’s lawyer BA Aloor, who pointed out the flaws in the investigation.
Christo says, “The subject experts and their insights too helped us. For example, many believe that ingesting cyanide would result in immediate death. However, VV Pillay, the toxicologist points out that death by cyanide might take time depending on the amount ingested. This kind of insight is important in understanding a complex case like this one.”
Convincing others to be a part of the documentary wasn’t easy either, Christo remarks. Several meetings with Renji, Remo and Rojo were necessary to build a relationship of mutual trust and help them understand the intention behind making the documentary. “It helped that my cousin was a dear student of Renji. We have to remember that it was a time when the family was staying away from the media. My cousin introduced me to Renji and I think it helped a lot in her agreeing to meet me. We met a lot of times and built a rapport. Once you have that kind of relationship, people open up without holding back.”
Apart from the case being sub-judice and many people refraining from being part of the documentary, another major hurdle was the lack of related photos or videos before 2019. “This made the process very challenging. All news clips related to the case were from the day of the exhumation onwards in 2019. But Jolly married Roy in 1997 and the first alleged murder happened in 2002.” With only a few family photos from that period, the team went on to recreate a lot of scenes from the past in a dramatic fashion. Christo credits his crew for the visual language of the documentary which made it a page-turner. “I worked closely with my cinematographers Shehnad Jalal and Hari K Vedantam to devise a visual language that adds depth to the narrative and also makes it intriguing.”
Similar to their focus on lighting and staging to reflect the sad, dramatic mood, the team was also very clear that the audience had to get every twist and turn in this case. He adds, “The real-life incidents in itself had so many shocking twists and turns which helped. Our editing team also played a major role in shaping the materials. But it was not easy structuring a story that began in the 1990s and is still progressing.”