Cast: Fahadh Faasil, Unnimaya Prasad, Baburaj
Director: Dileesh Pothan
The king has fallen. But the kingdom is not weeping. The strongman patriarch of the Panachel family PK Kuttappan (PN Sunny) has suffered a stroke, but his relatives are far from grief stricken. As they struggle to find the words they’re expected to say to appear affected, we overhear them discussing the mundane. The youngest son Joji (Fahadh Faasil) informs his sister-in-law Bincy (Unnimaya Prasad is brilliant) that he hasn’t eaten a thing all day when he returns home from the hospital. When he settles down for his first meal (he usually eats alone), he asks Bincy if there’s any leftover fish. For his older brother Jaison (Joji Mundakkayam), his concern seems more urgent. Kuttappan has to sign cheques for their businesses to keep running. “If there’s a break, he will kill me,” says Jaison as his father remains in a vegetative state. And when Jaison returns home from the hospital, he asks Bincy, his wife, to heat up a bucket of hot water. Her answer reveals more than it would have in a functional family. “There is a heater in dad’s room,” she says, lowering her voice.
Set within a large estate bungalow surrounded by rubber trees, we feel like Kuttappan’s subjects have long been waiting for this moment. It’s not just the geyser in his bedroom. His children have already started calling dibs on everything, starting from the bottles of booze in his drawer to his bigger bedroom; his big red car and of course his debit card. But Joji seems the least ambitious among Kuttappan’s three sons. When he thinks his father will not return, Joji’s loots are limited to things as juvenile as a smart watch and a drone, even when his brothers plan on dividing the kingdom.
Smaller in frame than his much bigger, older brothers, Joji seems content with the little things he can steal from his father. He admits he’s both a disappointment to his father and himself, but you sense the effect decades of humiliation has had on his confidence. He’s constantly called ‘second piece’ by Kuttappan and his lack of ambition too is perhaps a result of him being treated like he’s worthless for not being like one of them.
It is also a house that has no place for a woman. Their mother is not discussed at all and Joji’s oldest brother Jomon (Baburaj) is a divorcee. You can also sense the lifelessness, living there has brought onto Bincy, who has nothing to do but cook and serve. So it’s only natural, as the two least valued there, that Joji finds a partner in Bincy.
Like in any version of a Shakespearean play, the point is in how the writers interpret the source text and in Joji, writer Syam Pushkaran unites Macbeth with Lady Macbeth, but not through marriage or secret desires. They’re both victims of patriarchy and the king’s fall is needed for Joji and Bincy to break free. Unlike in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool or the more recent Macbeth (2015), their plans don’t emerge from their need to stand taller. They probably just want to stand straight. So when it looks like Kuttappan’s getting better you sense their lives slipping away…again.
It’s a fascinating take to these characters, who appear hurt and helpless even as they’re scheming. Their rebellion does not arise from bruised egos. In Bincy’s case, the film even hints at how Kuttappan’s stinginess may have left her childless. So when we witness their descent into guilt and the impending madness, you get a feeling that they were good people at some point.
The dialogues are minimal and Dileesh Pothan’s staging is precise when this duo silently become conspirators who have to simultaneously face their new realities as they see each other on the mirror. In another brilliant mirror scene, we get the humble Covid face mask take the form of a new identity for Joji. He’s not the same anymore and the mask is there to shield his smile, even as his father lie lifeless just a room away.
Shyju Khalid’s camerawork captures the cold distance of the Kanjirappally estate, constantly singling out this ‘kingdom’ by using drone shots. Even the wide shots of the rubber trees as they sway in the wind, appear to give them life, as though they’re the very Birnam woods in motion.
This minimalism is present everywhere in Dileesh Pothan’s collaboration with Syam Pushkaran. The effect of an entire soliloquy is created using minimal dialogues and Fahadh’s expressions alone. Even the complexity of making Joji appear silly early on is only understood at Fahadh’s brilliant smiling performance at the end as things start to crumble.
He doesn’t get intense brooding close ups or dramatic breakdowns but expressionistic ideas like the pond catching fire are brilliant at showing us what’s happening in Joji’s mind. Yet even in all this minimalism, Justin Varghese’s rousing score works perfectly as a counterpoint to keeping matters simple. That’s where Pothan keeps reminding us that we’re watching an intense Shakespearean tragedy, even if it is set within the limitations of a small Mallu family.
With brilliant writing choices to adapt the play, we quickly go beyond the game of ‘match the following’ to place one character on to the template of the play. We forget the ghosts and we forget the prophecies, because we’re engrossed at the sheer inventiveness of this retelling. Joji doesn’t require you to know Macbeth but as the first post-Covid film to tell this story, it’s surely worth the double double toil and trouble.