In the recently released One, directed by Santosh Viswanath and written by Bobby-Sanjay, which revolves around a fantastical Chief Minister, Kadakkal Chandran (Mammootty), and his utopian political ideals, Joju George played his childhood friend and Party secretary, Babychan. Their camaraderie, punctuated with respect, understanding and fierce loyalties is one of the warmest sights in the film. In broad strokes, the film also accentuates the actor’s phenomenal growth in Malayalam cinema and also takes us back to a bit of a history between the two actors.
Joju’s first dialogue (in a brief role as a gunman) was in Vinayan’s Dada Saheb (2000) headlined by Mammootty in twin roles. When the same actor shares parallel space and significance with the same Megastar in a film 21 years later, it becomes a rousing cinematic moment. There are scenes that need Babychan to be terse to the quiet Chandran, others where they share friendly banter, or traverse their affection through pregnant silences. But the actor holds his own, not allowing the veteran to lionize him. Through this profile, we attempt to contain the actor’s trajectory in Malayalam cinema.
After making his debut in Mazhavilkoodaram in 1995, it took Joju nearly 25 films to finally bag a character with a name (a fleeting appearance as Anand in Cocktail). Till then he had filled in as a film extra in various capacities. It was an undying passion for cinema that made him toss away his hotel management degree and strive for a space in Malayalam cinema.
“Ever since acting got into my psyche, I haven’t thought of anything else. A huge influence has been the films of Mammootty and Mohanlal—the more I saw, the more I was determined to act,” Joju told this writer in an earlier interview. His orthodox Christian family thought he was out of his mind to persist in cinema. For almost 15 years he regularly made the rounds at offices of directors and producers, worked as an AD and a junior artiste.
Though he had speaking parts in Best Actor (a director) and Pattalam (army man), he somehow got some mileage in Anoop Menon’s films (the unschooled rich businessman in Trivandrum Lodge, the womanising cop in Hotel California), who was also credited for offering him comic roles. “Joju was there in Cocktail and I remember how nervous he was. And then I saw Porinju Mariyam Jose, and I couldn’t believe that he was the same guy. His growth as an actor is unbelievable. One thing about Joju has to be his output—he would perhaps take 25 takes but his 26th would be a brilliant one,” observes Anoop Menon in an interview to online channel The Cue.
It speaks a lot about the actor’s tenacity that he didn’t allow the graph to waver and continued to be part of big and small films from 2012. “Each film is like winning a lottery ticket. It’s like asking whether you are happy after winning a lottery ticket,” he says about the roles that came his way during this period of time.
Joju showed flashes of his talent in Alphonse Puthren’s Neram (2013) as Nivin Pauly’s brother-in-law who is matter of fact about his miserly ways. And then he started getting more screen space, thereby steadily widening his repertoire of films. Perhaps the real break came when he swapped villain roles for comedy—Ayyappan in Ajai Vasudev’s Rajadhi Raja (2014) was a goofy busybody who created problems for his brother-in-law, equally funny was the lewd eyed Bharath Chandran IPS in Aji John’s Hotel California (2013). Similarly, Rafeeq in the underrated Lukka Chuppi (2015) directed by Bash Mohammed underlines his ability to pull off vulnerable roles. In a film headlined by Jayasurya and Murali Gopy, Joju is a bit of a comic, dying to have fun with his friends but wary of angering his disgruntled and suspicious wife. “It has to do with the kind of bonding we picked up off screen. Jayan (Jayasurya) and Murali (Gopy) come with more experience and they made me feel so comfortable. I don’t think it’d have been possible otherwise,” Joju recalls.
The comedy reaped rich dividends. Especially as the absentminded, sluggish cop Minimon in Abrid Shine’s Action Hero Biju (2015), a role he apparently incorporated from observing a police officer in his hometown. Previously he had played a vindictive cricket coach in Abrid’s debut film 1983.
That was the year he co-produced Charlie, directed by Martin Prakatt, which was a critical and commercial hit. 2017 was a momentous year for the actor with two characters that emphasised his gravitas. First was the Ranjith Sankar directed Ramante Edenthottam (2017) in which he played Elvis, a sexist, emotionally abusive partner, a decidedly complex and layered character. “He had the look of the character and importantly he was dying to do it and that was important for me as a director. He could bring so many dimensions to it,” recalls Ranjit Sankar.
Joju apparently even brought his own costumes to play Elvis. When his tummy trimming attempt didn’t really bear fruit, he seemingly tried to camouflage it by tying a belt around his waist. Ranjith describes Joju as someone who “acts with the awareness that he has the backup of various technicalities of the medium which helps in the final output of his performance”. It is said that not only was he nervous throughout the shoot, he even avoided promotions as he wasn’t confident about himself. “Now his confidence has grown. He has evolved as a person and that helps the actor in him,” notes Ranjith.
But when it came to Udhaharanam Sujatha (2017), directed by Phantom Praveen, a remake of the Hindi film Nil Battey Sannata in which he gave his own spin to Pankaj Tripathi’s role as a schoolteacher, Joju was at his deadpan comical best. “I don’t know whether I have a process as an actor as I’m rather lazy and I love to eat. So whatever roles I get has to come within the strictures of my size. Once I hear the story, I start thinking about the role for sure, but I don’t do any homework,” Joju says. Ranjith admits it was after he saw the actor’s malicious cop act in Njan Marykutty (2018) that he felt Joju was slated for bigger things.
Joseph (2018), his first solo hero film, was also his ticket to the big league. Directed by M Padma Kumar, Joju played a retired cop who is haunted by the memories of his past. It was the first time he was carrying a film on his shoulders. And there were various sides to his character—a heartbroken lover, a loving husband who eventually becomes emotionally absent in that marriage after he stumbles upon his former lover’s unnatural death and someone who never quite recovers from his failed marriage. Joju brilliantly conveys the emotional complexities of the cop, though he occasionally flounders during the dialogue delivery. Joseph was his first solo hit. “Joju gives the vibes of a carefree man who is vaguely aware that death has caught up with him. The man’s smile, as if he had subconsciously felt the imminent doom, is soaked in sadness,” observes R Ayyappan, Manorama journalist.
Another interesting portrayal was as the heroine’s father in Ahammed Kabeer’s June (2019). Joy Kalarickal is a typical Achayan, who dotes on his only daughter and even offers her a drink but knows where to draw the line. Joju was effortless, bringing in his characteristic warmth and understated humour into Joy. Then came the real deal—Porinju Mariyam Jose (2019), directed by Joshiy where he played the beefy Kattalan Porinju. A school dropout who is also the right-hand man/ thug of Iype (Vijayaraghavan), the village’s most influential planter, Porinju is also the village superman/saviour, who is often the go-to person to solve personal feuds. It’s an archetypal alpha-male hero who fights and romances with equal abandon. A role expected to be handed out to a Mohanlal or Mammootty but Joju rather unexpectedly aces it. “I think that has to be the most challenging role he has done. It’s not easy to pull off such a mainstream larger-than-life character and Joju stunned the wits out of me,” admits Ranjith Sankar.
In Sanal Kumar Shashidaran’s Chola (2019), he stepped into a dark zone, playing Ashan who, after offering to help his man Friday elope with his teenage girlfriend, ends up sexually abusing her. Though he has very few dialogues, Joju with his hawk-like scrutiny unleashes unmitigated terror with his very presence.
But perhaps his most sensitive performance has to be Siraj in Zachariah’s Halal Love Story (2020), set in the backdrop of Malappuram’s home video production. He plays a film director who is divorced, short-tempered and yearns to be with his daughter. Ayyappan thinks “tragedy is his birthmark”. “Possibly why he is so effective in roles where he plays the wronged man, be it Joseph, Halal Love Story or Nayattu – no one’s pain, except perhaps Mammootty’s, feels as believable as Joju’s.”
And then there is SI Maniyan in Nayattu (2021), a cop who is framed for a murder he hasn’t committed and is on the run with two of his colleagues. Maniyan has been in the service long enough to comply with the wrongdoings in the system. And he knows he has been made a pawn by his superiors for a larger political gain. The only sight that keeps him sane is his daughter, whom he loves unconditionally. Joju seeps Maniyan (a well-written character) into his being, transforming truthfully and emotionally into the character.
Next month, his Tamil film debut Jagame Thandhiram, directed by Karthik Subbaraj and starring Dhanush, will release on Netflix, in which he reportedly plays a gangster. He is also producing Alli, the remake of Chola in Tamil. In Malayalam there is the much-awaited Mallik and Thuramugham.
More than the exterior props, you know it is something he has mined from deep inside that make his performances so soulful. And most importantly, it is how he continues to surprise and tease the viewer with each performance. More to uncover, more to explore, more to marvel. Joju the actor has only begun his odyssey.
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.