Joji and Baby share a history of neglect and live in a house plagued with patriarchy.

Fahaadh Faasil and Ganesh Kumar
Flix Film Commentary Saturday, April 10, 2021 - 12:47

Ever since Dileesh Pothan’s Joji was released, a lot of discussions have been going on regarding its uncanny resemblance to a KG George classic made 36 years ago, Irakal (Victims). Though the filmmakers have credited Macbeth as their inspiration, it’s hard to unsee the similarity in milieu, template, characterisations, and fundamentals of Irakal in Joji.  

So here we are, bringing together these fascinatingly riveting films to see how comparable they are. Paradoxically, they are absolutely two different films made by filmmakers who have shown incredible honesty to their craft.

Joji (Fahad Faasil) is almost comical when you first meet him. In that large expansive bungalow which seems alienated from the rest of the world, Joji is battling to find his space. His father is formidably masculine, with flexing muscles, and can still pull off massive bicep workouts. The eldest brother Jomon is equally burly, and the second brother is certainly no weakling either. It’s hardly surprising that the frail and pint-sized Joji feels dwarfed and shortchanged in that household bursting with hyper (and toxic)-masculinity. 

And it’s easier to understand why he allies himself with the 'soft' figures in the family—his sister-in-law and nephew. When he needs to, he asserts his “power” in the most comical way. Joji enjoys those brief flickers of powerplay—driving their expensive Jeep Compass, owning a horse, or molly-coddling his nephew. He seems to have lost his mother at a young age and is almost sycophantic towards his father. There is neglect, over expectations, and overemphasis on money.

Both films share a milieu and template—central characters are Jacobite Syrian Christians settled in Central Kerala who live in large double-storied bungalows at the heart of a sprawling rubber estate. A merciless patriarch has his iron grip on the family and he is followed by his roguish, servile sons who negotiate deals with muscle and money power. If Joji is framed like a found space in the theatre, Irakal is obviously cinematic.

Through Irakal, KG George created his own version of the ‘Angry Young Man,’ a Bollywood prototype of the '70s and '80s created in reaction against the Emergency. Irakal's Baby (brilliant debut by Ganesh Kumar) is a more realistic depiction of what the Emergency created in the psyche of the youth, their anger against corruption and large-scale unemployment; a time when Naxalism emerged.

Baby and Joji are similar and dissimilar in many ways. Baby, unlike Joji, appears to be aloof and a loner but that’s only a veneer. Over time he has internalised his anger and loathing against the venality and depravity in his family. From accompanying his brother to buy illegal drugs to witnessing his married sister’s fling with the Man Friday of the house to his father’s various nefarious deals, Baby has seen it all. He is already undergoing severe depression, is into drugs, stays awake at night, and has already transitioned into a hardened criminal.  

Baby talks about seeing blood dripping from the rubber trees. Baby confides to his uncle, who is a priest (Bharath Gopy) that he doesn’t love his parents and thinks no one loves each other in his house. If Baby’s motives are clearly defined, Joji’s seem ambiguous. There isn’t enough backstory for us to buy his turnaround as a criminal. Even the humour is more cute than dark. When the father shoves Joji’s chest in anger, Joji shivers in pain, but not before adding— “You have really put on weight! I will die if you keep doing this.” There is also less clarity as to what led him to a world of crime—greed for money or power? Or anger against his despotic father who treated him with contempt?

If Baby pores over books and posters to visualise his insane plans, Joji relies on Google to fuel his plan of action. It’s commendable as to how contemporary Pothan keeps his film, never missing the details.

Joji and Baby share a history of neglect and live in a house plagued with patriarchy. Ironically, unlike Joji, Baby has a mother. She is practically invisible, largely ignored by her husband and children. Even her daughter has a strained relationship with her mother. Baby's relationship with his girlfriend seems to be more proprietorial, and that's evident in his anger when she discards him for a better suitor. It's the rejection he can't take, perhaps a trigger for being abandoned all his life, and also shows how he views women through an ethical lens. 

In Joji, there is only one woman in the frame—his sister-in-law Bincy (Unnimaya Prasad). Like Joji, she is a casualty, her voice muted by a tyrannical patriarch who left her languishing in the kitchen.  In a twisted way, they find solace in each other, the woman silently endorsing the crime he commits. But in Irakal you see various kinds of women, in various stages of oppression and regression. A mother who cooks, prays, and weeps for her children, a sister (brilliant Sreevidya) who is as manipulative and immoral as her father and brothers, a sister-in-law (another version of Bincy) who tolerates her alcoholic husband, and a girlfriend who calmly drops her boyfriend for greener pastures. But characteristic of KG George’s female characters, the film at no point judges anyone. In a narrative filled with wicked characters, the sister becomes one of them.

If the priest (Bharath Gopy) in Irakal is a symbol of reformation and compassion, Joji’s priest (Basil Joseph) is more a caricature, a sly statement against religious orthodoxy.

The resemblance between the brothers is uncanny. In Joji, the eldest brother Jomon (Baburaj) is an alcoholic divorcee with a teenage son, while in Irakal, his description is more echoed on the second brother (Sukumaran), an alcoholic with a neglected wife. But Jomon gets a more compassionate sketch in Joji—the flawed, impulsive, quick-tempered alcoholic who loves his father deeply and never clamored for money, unlike his siblings. As they say, the devil is in the details in a Dileesh Pothan film and that’s evident in the brothers' characterisation. 

While the second brother Jason is mild-as-milk, he has lived his life under his father's subjugation and feels humiliated at his own inability to challenge it. Pothan has carefully caught the nuances of a community and its people, be it their body language, habits, costumes, or responses. In Irakal, the elder brother is his father’s stooge, while the second one is more perceptive about the people in his family despite his inebriated state.

The patriarchs Mathew and Kuttappan P.K. Panachel are also similar in their greed for money, power, and their domination over their children. If Mathachan’s father hints at his son’s dodgy history of killing animals and felling trees to plant rubber, Kuttappan's past is obscure.

Irakal (Venu) is also a chillingly shot film, especially the scene where Baby is killing his sister’s paramour. The style is unlike the '80s and he has used a steady camera which lends a very voyeuristic feel to it. As if we were committing the crime with him. In Joji, Shyju Khalid captures the essence of the theme, his frames are aesthetically pleasing and contribute to the film's distinctive character and identity. 

Though the makers have credited Joji’s inspiration to Macbeth, anyone who has watched Irakal will find it difficult to unsee it in Joji. If KG George creates a visceral pitch-dark world of humans in all their primal instincts, fears, and flaws, Dileesh Pothan begs you to take a break in between and snicker at the absurdity of human existence.

Watch Irakal here:

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

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