Who is there? One of the subjects of your kingdom. This exchange takes place in Joji, the third film by one of Malayalam cinema's dream teams – director Dileesh Pothan, writer Syam Pushkaran and actor Fahadh Faasil. Joji is a reworking of Macbeth and while these words might suggest a period setting, Shakespeare's tragedy has been reimagined in contemporary times, on a sprawling rubber plantation in Kerala. But Joji, the youngest of three brothers, is very much a subject of his father's kingdom.
Kuttappan P K, played by a superb PN Sunny, is a formidable patriarch who controls his domain with an iron fist. Our first visual of him is doing pull-ups, suspending his sturdy body in mid-air. A little later, he extricates a valve stuck in mud in a pond – a job that three men before him tried to do together and failed. Kuttappan, like Shammi in Kumbalangi Nights, also written by Syam, is a poster boy for toxic masculinity. He equates manhood with physical strength and is horrifically abusive to his sons. The eldest Jomon – a terrific performance by Baburaj – is a divorced alcoholic. The middle Jaison camouflages his rage and claustrophobia and dutifully handles the accounting of their vast estate. And Joji, an engineering drop out, concocts fanciful plots to get rich but spends most of the day lolling around. Early in the film, Kuttappan presses down hard on his chest and calls him a second-rate loser. He instructs Joji to, 'eat, shit and never complain.'
The script faithfully follows the dramatic principle of 'Chekov's Gun' that if a gun is introduced in the first act, it must go off in the third. The film begins with a courier boy carrying a package to the estate. As the opening titles roll, we see how far he has to travel to deliver his order. We also see Jomon's son Poppy, waiting eagerly to receive it. Within a few minutes, Dileesh expertly establishes the spaces of their house and an understated dread. We instinctively understand that this home, literally and metaphorically, lies outside the purview of civilization. Anything is possible here.
It's telling that like in Kumbalangi Nights, this is also a home teeming with men. Jaison's wife Bincy is the lone woman in the mix. She is largely confined to the kitchen but she plays a pivotal role in furthering the bitter tale that unfolds. Bincy, played superbly by Unnimaya Prasad, quietly furthers her agenda. However, she seems to be driven not so much by greed as a desire for freedom from the tyranny of Kuttappan. You get the feeling that Bincy, who is smarter than the men around her, simply wants an opportunity to breathe.
Joji's motives are more complex. With every film, Dileesh and Syam seem to be reimagining Fahadh in more twisted and darker ways. In their first, Maheshinte Prathikaram, he played an ordinary man seeking revenge after he is publicly humiliated. In their second, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, for which Syam wrote the dialogues, Fahadh played a thief and liar who still retains an essential decency and humanity. But in Joji, he becomes something else – an unstable misfit frustrated by failure and haunted by his own inadequacy. A man capable of unnerving duplicity, who discovers as Noah Cross so memorably said in Chinatown, that at the right time and right place, people are capable of anything.
At one point in the film, Bincy tells Joji to put on a mask and come. The film was made during the pandemic and characters wear masks in public spaces as a matter of course. But that seemingly ordinary line takes on a deeper meaning because it encapsulates Joji's life – his real feelings are usually buried underneath a mask of servility and familial concern. Fahadh delivers a performance within a performance. It's stunning.
Joji doesn't adhere to Macbeth's plot as faithfully Vishal Baradwaj's Maqbool, which I consider the gold standard of Shakespeare in Indian cinema. It's a much looser adaptation. The character of Joji doesn't exude the doomed nobility of Maqbool. In fact, Joji is a coward. Dileesh also does away with frills – there are no songs, the humour is dark – there is a terrific tragi-comic thread with the local priest – and the visuals are stark. DOP Shyju Khalid, who created those shimmering frames in Kumbalangi Nights, goes for unvarnished textures. Their house, where much of the film is set, doesn't exude the warmth or intimacy of a home. Justin Varghese's background score, Kiran Das' editing and Ganesh Marar's sound design skillfully intensifies our anxiety.
Dileesh's great talent is his ability to humanize his characters and find drama and comedy in slice-of-life narratives. In Joji, he steps out of this comfort zone and creates a film that is haunting and deeply unsettling. Toward the end, the plot gets too blunt but this tale of greed and guilt, crime and punishment will stay with you.
You can watch Joji on Amazon Prime Video.