In theatre circles, Shakespeare's Macbeth is known as 'the cursed play'. It is tradition not to call the play by its original name and refer to it instead with names like 'The Scottish Play'. Legend has it that the incantations of the witches that trigger Macbeth's ambition, were so powerful that the first ever performance of Macbeth was full of accidents, including the death of the actor who played Lady Macbeth.
Superstition or not, it is still a tradition that is practised by many theatre groups. Dileesh Pothan's Joji, inspired by Macbeth and written by Syam Pushkaran, is set in what we can call a cursed time. A pandemic that has forced people to wear masks, stay inside the house, with the threat of death looming over us. It is a perfect setting for the staging of Macbeth, a play that requires its actors to be two-faced and live with suffocating guilt.
Though not acknowledged, Joji also appears to be a tribute to KG George's chilling film Irakal, which was about a similar dysfunctional Syrian Christian household with a patriarch lording over it. From the oozing rubber trees to the Panachel love for strangulation and the wastrel son who discovers a frightening outlet for his frustrations, Joji is an unholy marriage of Macbeth and Irakal that results in a thriller where we already know the outcome but the unraveling is still exciting.
Sunny PN plays Panachel Kuttappan â€” we see the rippling muscles of his back before we see his face. He's an elderly man but nowhere close to death. He rules over his estates and home with an iron hand. His three sons, Jomon (Baburaj), Jaison (Joji Mundakayam), Joji (Fahadh Faasil), Jaison's wife Bincy (Unnimaya) and Jomon's son Popy (Alister Alex) are the other members of the household. The eldest, Jomon, is most faithful to him (quite like Sukumaran's character in Irakal and Banquo/Macduff in Macbeth), Jaison is resentful but too afraid to show it.
It is the adults with the least power in the setup â€” the youngest son Joji and the daughter-in-law of the house Bincy who form an unsaid alliance to put an end to Kuttappan's reign when the opportunity presents itself. Bincy is relegated to the kitchen and Joji dines out of a slab in the same space. He isn't important enough to eat by himself at the dining table. Fittingly, that's where they hatch the conspiracy, too. Simply through a casual remark and glances exchanged.
Fahadh and Unnimaya are wonderful in this scene, conveying what is going on with just their eyes and minimal dialogue. It is an 'understanding' we see repeated throughout the film, Joji spiralling into violence as it becomes the most attractive solution to his problems, and Bincy observing but not saying a word because she wants what Joji wants, too. She thinks it; he acts it out.
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Unnimaya's Lady Macbeth isn't wracked with repentance. There is only one line to explain her motives, but it provides enough detail to humanise her. While the Shakespearean play pretty much uses the 'thalayanamanthram' stereotype to show how the woman poisons the mind of the man, Syam Pushkaran, known for his sensitive writing, takes a deviation while keeping the character in place. Unlike Lady Macbeth, Bincy does not wring her hands in despair, she is eerily calm and practical. Going about housework after she has witnessed an attempt to murder.
As in Irakal, the family may have shameful secrets but they are outwardly pious, adhering to the norms of the church. Their faith is a performance, even as they have allowed the devil to take over their minds. Perhaps the best illustration of this, is Bincy holding up the Bible (which has a hero who is killed and is then resurrected) and telling a nervous Joji that the dead never return. In fact, Jomon, who is least respectful to the priest and church traditions, is also the only one among the family who seems to genuinely care about his father. Baburaj delivers a brilliant performance, holding his own in the talented cast. Joji Mundayakam is perfect for the role of Jaison, with his shuffling body language and hesitant expressions that try to hide his avarice.
And of course, there is Fahadh, with his crazy eyes and frenzied gestures, posing pathetically on top of a white horse and struggling to exert his masculinity in a house where he has no place. It is in the frames when he is alone that our skin prickles, as Joji sheds his 'genial' young man skin and we see what lies underneath. He's not fishing in an empty pond; the bait is for the audience to bite.
Though there is only one way the film can end, and the inspirations are clearly on display, the screenplay doesn't let us relax at any point. Shyju Khalid's camera is interrogative, focusing on each character's face and letting us read their minds and not just listen to their dialogues. There is a particular scene with Joji and Jomon in the latter half of the film where the suspense is built just with how the camera tracks Joji and even if we can't see his face properly, we are struck with terror. Justin Varghese's background score and the sound design of the film lend darker underpinnings to what's happening on screen.
If I have a quibble, it is with the final scene that offers what seems to be an incomplete explanation for Joji's actions. Is it the character's hubris or the director/writer's justification for what happens to him? Whatever be it, it interferes with the subtle texture of the rest of the film.
Knowing Shakespeare is often considered to be a mark of a cultured person, someone who understands poetry and difficult sentence constructions. But the reason he continues to be read and celebrated is because he was never afraid of putting the basest of human emotions onstage. Even if separated by centuries and geography, his characters always make sense in an adaptation, if done well, because there is a certain universality to the human experience that he was able to capture.
There aren't many laugh-out-loud moments in Joji, which is uncharacteristic of a Dileesh Pothan film (Maheshinte Prathikaram and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, both with Fahadh, were uproariously funny) though there are a few scenes that offer chuckles. There's only a hyena, and the others around him watching like vultures but unwilling to make the kill themselves. But this adaptation, that strips Macbeth of the grand setting of royalty, subsequently interpreted by others as stories of gangsters or other men of power, is all the more effective. Because Joji is just a weakling, someone you can easily place in your drawing room. And that's what makes the film darker still.
The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.