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“Joji,” Reviewed: The First Major Film of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Film production drastically slowed during the pandemic, but it didn’t come to a halt. Already, movies made under the constraints of the past year have begun to emerge as a peculiar subgenre. I’ve been unimpressed by the examples I’ve seen so far—the absurdly on-the-nose caper “Locked Down,” the spatially and imaginatively limited romantic drama “Malcolm & Marie.” But, with “Joji,” a new Indian film directed by Dileesh Pothan, there’s finally a movie that integrates the pandemic gracefully and intelligently into its story. It was filmed at the end of 2020 and the beginning of this year, in the state of Kerala, and it’s an adaptation of “Macbeth”—a very loose one, so much the better.

The film, which is streaming on Amazon Prime, is set in the present day, in and around the sprawling compound of a wealthy and domineering landowner, Kuttapan Panachel (PN Sunny). Kuttapan is in his early seventies and runs his family with an iron fist. His three grown sons tremble and grovel in his presence, none more than his youngest son, Joji (Fahadh Faasil), who seems to be around thirty and is bitterly frustrated—including with himself. While Joji’s brothers, Jaison (Joji Mundakayam) and Jomon (Baburaj), keep busy with the family business, Joji, a college dropout and something of a ne’er-do-well, has big dreams of (literal) horse trading but needs money to fuel his risky venture. Jaison’s wife, Bincy (Unnimaya Prasad), who is treated like a servant by all the men in the family, endures her servitude in anticipation of a grand inheritance.

The mighty Kuttapan is muscular and violent, physically abusive to Joji and physically active on his estate. One day he enters a pond where workmen are failing to fix a clogged valve. He finishes the heavy labor himself and suffers a massive stroke. He’s taken to the hospital in grave condition and is considered likely to die; for Joji and Bincy, the prospect of inherited wealth is tantalizingly close. Yet Kuttapan survives, and Joji decides—with hints and winks of guidance and encouragement from Bincy—to do something about it. Then Kuttapan’s death becomes a matter of suspicion, and Joji expands his killing spree to cover up his filial betrayal.

The movie borrows no Shakespearean language, no royal or martial context. It is less “Macbeth” than a current-day film noir about the stifled passion and terrifying rage beneath familial decorum. Those tensions burst forth in “Joji” in a wide range of expressive flourishes, including finely nuanced dialogue and hair-trigger violence, tensely poised images and fiercely frozen gazes. Pothan’s eye for symbolic detail starts with an air gun, which Jomon’s teen-age son, Popy (Alex Alister)—having bought the weapon with money stolen from Kuttapan—fires at a tree that oozes sap like blood. There’s sharp dramatic precision in images of Kuttapan nearly choking the dozing Joji with a distinctively brutal gesture; in the extended and bitterly ironic exertion with which family and attendants bear the paralyzed Kuttapan from an ambulance to his bedroom; in the immobile elder’s deadly glower at his greed-driven sons. There’s also the sheer pressure of time in quiet, contemplative sequences—walking, driving, fishing—that seethe with latent violence. Such details infuse the movie with a gloriously eloquent and intricate visual texture that conjures the rhetoric of tragedy in spare language.

The script, by Syam Pushkaran, is both practical and fiercely expressive, as when, at a religious service for the ailing Kuttapan (the family is Christian), the priest, Kevin (Basil Joseph), dismisses with empty homilies Kuttapan’s evident physical discomfort, or the family shares its sotto-voce complaints about the old man’s miserliness. (There’s vast eloquence in the dialogue’s brevity, as when the family doctor, a relative, takes leave of Joji, calling him “you millionaire.”) There are no witches or war on the horizon in “Joji.” Rather, there’s the impinging power of civil and religious authorities, and the menacing gossip of neighbors. Their opinions and evil rumors intermingle potently with the judgment of the police and weigh heavily in the family’s action, as if their private lives endured a sort of supernatural surveillance. Mirrors, slats, drones, and the commanding perches of high ground convey a sense of public menace in private life, a prying both from without and from within, by the inner force of conscience.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus rages, and Pothan finds ways to fuse the practicalities of the pandemic with the film’s dramatic themes. Death is in the air, as at Kuttapan’s funeral, where the presence of mourners with masks and the presence of even more without them evokes both the deadly menace at home and a civic life in dangerous disorder. When Joji tries to avoid the funeral, Bincy urges him, for the sake of appearances, to “put on a mask and come.” In a shot of Joji looking at his masked face in the mirror, the covering bypasses its medical function to embody his amoral and criminal self-concealment.

Ultimately, “Joji” runs up against a Shakespearean paradox: the external forces of public life, though embodied in brilliant cinematic symbols, nonetheless never quite weigh as heavily in the action as the family drama does. Lacking grand-scale politics and matters of the throne, “Joji” spins out, close to the end, into an altogether more conventional crime story—albeit one that Pothan and Pushkaran cap with wild cleverness. But the disappointment of the dénouement matters only slightly. Long before the plot is resolved, “Joji” offers a sardonic vision of patriarchal tyranny and the pathologies it spawns—and the obvious artifice of the ending declares, with bitter irony, that there’s no end in sight.

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