One of my favourite films from the past couple of years is one which, while eventually a commercial and critical success, came without much hype and expectations. Probably initially intended for a bigger star, it eventually settled for a lesser known face in the lead role and paid intricate attention to its details. And how great was that for the unsuspecting viewer?
Joseph is a masterful exercise in restrained pathos, the kind that you know is always simmering underneath a stoic surface but which can erupt into stunning grief at some point. As we watch proceedings unfold through the weary protagonist's eyes, there is an enveloping sense of underlying gloom that he exudes which makes us reach out to him even before events and characters have been properly laid out. The movie is one of those rare occasions when a perfect symphony is achieved in commercial film making. The actors, screenplay, direction and even the song sequences are so in tune with the general tone of the film that it's impossible not to be gripped by this world.
The gloom and doom is not the destination but a part of the process here. The film is essentially about a couple of murders which happen years apart but which uncannily seem to bear a connection. Joseph is the titular ex-cop who whiles away his days in a drunken stupor but whose skills are still sharp enough for him to be summoned by his former colleagues in the force to provide vital clues in various murder cases. There have been plenty of alcoholic cops in cinema, but here the alcoholism doesn't seem like a gimmick added on to make the movie undeservingly interesting or to make the protagonist appear languidly stylish. Here it seems completely believable. We see his house as he gets up from his slumber. There are bottles and other litter lying around as if they are a part of the furniture now. There are fragments of memories, a pointer to erstwhile good times. We really do want to know how this former police officer ended up the way he is now. He has a group of friends with whom he passes his time. It's obvious these guys care for him, and yet they know his pain is beyond their help.
An accident involving his ex-wife brings Joseph back into the investigative fold. There is something fishy about the whole thing and he intends to get to the bottom of it. Another lovely aspect of the film is the uniquely touching relationship between Joseph and his ex-wife's current husband (a wonderfully restrained Dileesh Pothan). There is no one-upmanship or insecurities here. Just two men who love the same woman and yet know that neither fully has her anymore. As Joseph digs deeper into the mire he realizes there maybe connections to an earlier tragedy in his life. Alternatively, the intermittent flashbacks to his previous life bring us fragments of his erstwhile life. The first love who he had to let go of. The loving and happy marriage with his wife before it all went downhill. When the reason for his perpetual melancholy and subsequent estrangement from his wife becomes clear, it is so uniquely believable and portrayed with such tender care that our hearts reach out to him. Such is life. One unimaginable instance can turn it all around. The culmination of the mystery and Joseph's role in it is a sucker punch, but aimed with a precision that tempers the impact in a prolonged way and makes us take it back with us long after the credits roll.
This could have been a superstar vehicle. In recent times I had mostly lost faith in M. Padmakumar retaining that thrilling edge and focus he showed early on in a couple of movies that starred Prithviraj, Vasthavam and the hugely underrated Vargam. His movies hence had seemed variations on those same themes except with a bigger star and lesser gravitas. But, whether by chance or by design, here he hits it out of the ball park with his casting choice. Joju George has been building up his resume in recent years as a solid supporting foil with some interesting turns. But here it's all about him and how he carries it off. His eyes and demeanour speak more than words ever could and make us empathize with him from the start. All the other supporting roles are solid and provide ample backup, but this is his movie. And through him, one that we can all cherish as another milestone in the recent spate of great Malayalam cinema.