If Fahadh Faasil is the best actor in the country—and any case to the contrary would have to be exceedingly strong—it’s because he repeatedly puts himself in situations which encourage such arguments. Sure, he has abilities, but almost as important is his choice of material. Good parts find good actors only if they want to be found, and Faasil, more than perhaps anyone else, gives the impression of wanting to explore his craft rather than expand his empire. And though he’s done fine work for several directors, Dileesh Pothan in Maheshinte Prathikaaram and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum has been especially successful in unlocking Faasil’s gift for subtle histrionics.
The two have reunited for Joji, which sets Macbeth in a small Kerala town in the present day. Though the source is acknowledged in the opening credits, we quickly realise this isn’t a literal adaptation. For one, Faasil’s Joji—the film’s Macbeth—is the son, not the lieutenant, of the brutish patriarch Kuttappan (Sunny PN). The Banquo figure is his elder brother, Jomon (Baburaj), and Bincy (Unnimaya Prasad)—Lady Macbeth—is not his wife but his brother Jaison’s. Syam Pushkaran, who’s written Pothan’s earlier films as well as Kumbalangi Nights, goes easy on the witches, moving woods and hands that won’t wash clean of blood—elements featured prominently in the great Hindi adaptation of the play, Maqbool.
In Shakespeare’s play, we’re impressed by Macbeth before we even meet him; he’s described as ‘brave’, ‘noble’, ‘valiant cousin, worthy gentleman’. It’s a very Pushkaran/Pothan touch to make their Macbeth entirely unworthy. Though Kuttappan’s bullying of his sons is shocking, Joji is a difficult one to sympathise with, given his own bullying tendencies (towards the one person weaker than him, Jomon’s son, Popy) and his unpleasantness. His one gift is for low cunning —again, not a Macbeth trait—which he puts to use when Kuttappan has a sudden stroke. Faasil plays him with a kind of slouching alertness and a child’s idea of anger; after a physical altercation with his father, he shuts the door and punches the air wildly, a brilliant bit of physical comedy.
Kuttappan’s stroke isn’t what kills him—in this regard the film doesn’t deviate from the play. “My Father never did any harm to me/ Even if he hurts me/ I would happily accept it and sing hallelujah,” the gathered sing at his funeral. Pushkaran also took aim at patriarchy in Kumbalangi Nights; here he adds religion, in the form of a pompous local priest, to his targets. In a state cinema teeming with strong visual artists, Pothan is one of the most incisive, able to infuse everyday activities like a morning jog with unease and portent. Cinematographer Shyju Khalid makes the most of a handful of settings and players; particularly striking are the bird’s-eye-view shots.
All of this is tied together by one of the best background scores in recent memory in an Indian film. Justin Varghese’s mix of plaintive melodies and prodding, insinuating pieces recalls the work of Jo Yeong-wook, Park Chan-wook’s longtime collaborator. The main theme is a wintry violin piece that returns at various points in the film; during the opening credits, it leads into a spiraling Bernard Herrmann-esque arrangement. As Joji drives home at night, thinking his father has a fortnight to live, the unseemly glee he cannot show on his face is instead reflected in the playful arrangement. As the film progresses and Joji descends further into crime, the music becomes unhinged as well—sepulchral plinks, pizzicato strings, skittering percussion.
A significant—and avoidable—drawback is Rajeev Ramachandran’s English subtitling, which ranges from functional to appalling. Leave aside conveying the subtleties of the screenplay, there are errors of spelling and grammar that one wouldn’t expect in a fansub (‘anniversery’, ‘gartitude’, ‘there is an info’).
Joji might be the first memorable Indian film to be visibly set in the covid era. Characters wear masks in public, though these, as in real life, rarely cover their noses. Doctors in PPE kits identify themselves by their nicknames to their colleagues. Caregivers try to figure out how to access OTPs sent to the patient's mobile. Though the pandemic isn’t mentioned, the diseased, uncertain spirit of the times permeates the film. “We will take care of you,” Joji says to his wheelchair-ridden father, his assurance a veiled threat. “That’s what you want, right?” And a moment that’s equal parts 17th century drama and 21st century pandemic: Bincy telling her brother-in-law, who’ll spend the rest of the film lying his face off: “Put on a mask and come.”
Joji is on Amazon Prime Video.
Also read: Kerala diaries