Joji: A Macabre Tale On Life In The Shadows

Indian households often disguise control as protection and shadow as shade. Joji explores the avenues of violence in a normalised scenario of life.
Joji: A Macabre Tale On Life In The Shadows

Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power's disappearance. —Hannah Arendt

Violence is like a virus. It needs a body to settle. It spreads fast and furiously. However, violence cannot be distanced socially. It exasperates social distance in ways one cannot predict.

When the first wave of the pandemic broke out in India leading to a nationwide lockdown and containment zones, domestic violence was one of the major concerns. Was it because the public space was giving outlets to vent it in harmless ways? Unlikely. Before the pandemic, India had often been the scene of mob lynchings and other forms of protracted violence. The public display of violence, often highlighted in headlines, is merely a complex and organised form of the violence that we witness  everyday at home.

The #MeToo movement brought the point home to us, when public icons were shown to be predators in intimate, private spaces. Home and office spaces are where violence is invisibly enacted in the maintenance of power: say, between spouses and staffers, of a parent over children, and so on.  Absolute power not only displaces violence, as Arendt says, but scatters it in invisible forms and expressions. And because of a crisis, when the public space is suspended for the time being, it percolates into the private realm.

In 2021, Malayalam movie fans welcomed Joji, a Fahadh Faasil-starring, Macbeth-inspired drama, which helps us think of violence in the context of life after the pandemic. The location of the film is not a larger public space: the family house is where the whole drama unfolds. The film shows how an innocuous-looking family could be a potential stage for the enactment of scenes of tragic proportions. Interestingly, Critics have compared Joji to Irakal (Victims; 1985), a psychological thriller made by KG George.

Irakal, which was released one year after the murder of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, addressed a particular category of audience, who were still reeling under the unusual political situation after the Emergency, with custodial tortures and killings and the murder of its proponent. Critics tend to highlight the virtue of the other film over Joji. This essay argues that beyond an analogical reading, both the films should be understood in the context of their reception and audience. They both present public and private forms of violence as interbreeding means of power. Their receptions match with unique political and social situations, and help us weigh the phenomenon of violence in its public and intimate spheres.

OTT Platforms: A Theatre for Intimate Emotions

Do big screens in a cinema give an aesthetically different experience from the mini screens of an OTT platform? By and large, the latter divests us of relishing a movie as a shared experience, in which we mingle our likes and dislikes for persons and narratives on the screen with multifarious tastes of people in the theatre. Combined with this is the lack of technology on small screens to reflect the special effects, which, too, tell the story. That is something because of which a doyen of the art like Christopher Nolan was initially ill-disposed to air his films on OTT platforms. However, for the last year-and-a-half, barring a hiatus, all Indians have been watching films, including Nolan's Tenet, on these platforms, thanks to the pandemic.

But film-watching in a non-communal ambience would make us watch some films more intimately than the rest. In other words, certain films address the cloistered state of the audience through their themes, narration and treatment. They do not feature a gala public dance in which the whole village takes part, as in Vaathi Coming in the Tamil action thriller Master (2021). And there would be far fewer helicopter shots in them, too. We often see characters and their inner world through close-ups.  Joji can be considered one of them.

Fahadh, the versatile Malayalam actor, has turned out to be a consummate lockdown entertainer in film. Though he had never ceased to draw critical attention before the outbreak of the pandemic, COVID-19 has opened the way for watching him up close, using our mini screens. His moves appear to be capturing our private moments in their nuances. He is hiding what we are trying to hide; only letting suppressed emotions surface through his body language (in this case, shadow fencing and muffled monologues).

Shakespeare: The Wellspring of Gory Tales?

Joji is set in a hillside locality of Kerala, which Malayalam filmmakers mostly use to portray Christian characters and themes, often disapprovingly. Understandably, critics have run the filmmakers down for retaining prejudice against the settled Christian communities as being corrupted by wealth. Despite the validity of such criticism, the film has overcome, to a great extent, those encumbrances placed by the locale by focusing on its central characters. Their tensions are described as militating against the communal ethos and virtues of the local Church, their greed fenced off within the expansive acreage of a family without percolating to the larger community.

Shakespeare's plays have been adapted to Malayalam movies at least seven times, including Joji, which is the second film inspired by Macbeth, the other being Jayaraj's Veeram (2016). This is the third time Fahadh Faasil plays the central role in an adaptation or inspiration, the first and second being Annayum Rasoolum (based on Romeo and Juliet) and Iyobinte Pusthakam (King Lear). It is interesting to note in passing that all Shakespeare adaptations in Malayalam have been tragedies.

The reason for taking Shakespeare only as a wellspring of tragic tales is not the preoccupation with heightened drama. Comedies that include dramatic sequences have been adapted to the language, though not from Shakespeare plays. Perhaps the reason could be that the best template for featuring the eventual downfall of the central character is Shakespearean. South Indian audiences hardly let the filmmakers kill their heroes. If at all they do it, it should be for a genuine reason. The narrative device of hamartia could be brought to extremes in such films to justify the disposal of the hero.

The makers of Joji, the director-screenwriter duo of Dileesh Pothan and Syam Pushkaran, are not famous for their tragic stories. Much of the expectation among the fans for this film came from their laughter-inducing skills in their earlier two works, Maheshinte Prathikaram (2016) and Thondimuthalum Driksashiyum (2017), which were low-budget box office successes. The narrations in these films move on expected lines, without much convolutions in the plot, but are spiced up with skits and comical moments throughout. Joji does not follow this pattern as its central plot – the parent-son conflict and tension – absorbs many of the comical interludes. That explains a colder reception to the film than the previous ones. Even when Joji veers into the comical, the grisly central episode eventually comes to the foreground.

The challenge in Shakespeare adaptions is chiefly that of the screenwriters. Not only were they adapting one of the greatest storytellers ever, but they were also finding situations and plot developments that could do justice to that adaptation, without making it a mockery or a mimicry. Usually they do this by placing the great English playwright in the shade of storytelling, like a street lamp which sometimes goes off on its own. Eventually, Shakespeare's works do not end up as adaptations, but inspirations for loosely basing the plot on. Joji's scriptwriter Syam Pushkaran follows this pattern.

Perpetrators of Violence or its Victims?

The big difference in Joji from Shakespeare's play is that the eponymous central character, played by Fahadh, is not a heroic figure reeling under a tragic flaw. He is one among some of us, without any heroic laurels to claim in the life he lived so far. His heroism is stunted by the control system of a large household and its larger-than-life patriarch. He oozes the confidence and acumen of an entrepreneur and shows inventiveness, but lacks any outlet or encouragement from his elders to express it. The film is all about Joji venting the suppressed frustrations through macabre incidents that he chances to plot. The themes of parental control and desperate resistance have been brilliantly expressed through the metaphors of a gymnastics ring and air pistol respectively. The pistol is a toy, like the children for the patriarch. But no toy is harmless to be kept aside.

When critics compared Joji to Irakal, they highlighted the latter's depth and making over the former's singularity of focus and narration. Certain critical reactions tend to suggest that the central character's greed is not amplified enough to fan the violence. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is an instigator of the desire for power. In the film, the female character, the only one at that, does not connive with Joji to unleash violence, but merely connives at the events as they unfold. The attribution of motif squarely to one person is not convincing enough in relation to the tragic sequences.

Because it was made in the post-Emergency scenario and after the murder of Indira Gandhi in 1984, Irakal immediately brought home to us what the metaphors actually stood for: violence in the political condition of India. In many interviews, KG George has explained the role of the Emergency and Indira Gandhi in making him conceive the film. Also, the narration of violence in the film was so poignant that it did not keep the audience guessing. As such, the film was rather a political allegory on how violence is spawned. Moreover, the film has brilliantly bridged the violence as it occurs in both the public and the private spheres. By connecting patriarchy to elitism, the film explores the psychology of violence in multifarious social manifestations. Compared to it, Joji has a shorter canvas. The narrative and plot hardly transcend the walled farmhouse. Other locations like the hospital and the vicar's residence are merely incidental to the central arena of action.

Though the absence of allegory is conspicuous in Joji, the film should not be merely judged as an entertainer with only a primary level of signification. Joji is a drama on cloistered living, which is relevant to the life after the breakout of the pandemic. Joji, who represents the attitude of his own brothers, is rather a life in the shadow. Indian households often disguise control as protection and shadow as shade. In this way the patriarchal structure of power appears as a normal social condition. Joji explores the avenues of violence in a normalised scenario of life. After a patriarch with a past of freakish control dies in most families, we see streaks of relief in the brooding sorrow of the survivors. And there lies the element that helps us realise Joji as an allegory of life in the shadows.

The idea of "ira" (victim) in KG George's title playfully makes us ponder who the real victims are: those who are killed, or the killer himself? The fact is that Joji offers us grounds to arrive at some sort of a conclusion to this philosophical question. Both the perpetrator and the victim are enmeshed in the social condition that spawns violence. One's public personas hide the potentiality of violence, whose immediate potential victims are one's family members or colleagues. There remains the question of whether retributive justice – as in the Nuremberg trials or capital punishment – is really a solution to the violence. Sometimes, one has to look inwardly at one's own house. This is much like looking in the mirror to see what one truly is. Watching Joji using our small screens replicates this inward looking. The mode of reception for the film thus perfectly matches with its theme.

Though it has dampened the audience's expectations for another riveting comedy, Joji has much to offer in thinking of violence.

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