WHAT TICKS OFF THE PSYCHE OF A TO-BE-KILLER?

Hi, readers! Welcome back.

So I had been away for more than a month simply because I had been feeling too lazy to think of a relevant topic. I had got a few ideas but I had discarded them believing them to be a pretentious subject until I watched Dileesh Pothan’s JOJI, a Malayalam crime drama film released on 7th April, 2021. I would like to call it psychological drama instead and it’s one of those films that you come across every once in a while that makes you study it deeply.

 Once again, this is not going to be review as I don’t like to judge people’s work on a public platform that much. I’ll be writing about few things that I was led to think of, after watching Joji. If you’re a fan of Psychology or Criminology, this might interest you. But it contains spoilers, so proceed with caution!

According to Wikipedia, JOJI is said to be an adaptation of Macbeth and also inspired by a real-life incident, the Koodathayi Cyanide Murders which took place in Kerala. It is also said to be inspired by K.G George’s 1985 film, Irakal. It is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and the cast includes Fahadh Faasil, Unnimaya Prasad, Baburaj, and Joji Mundakayam among others.

Brief Summary: Joji, a young unemployed man living with his father, two elder brothers, a sister-in-law, and a nephew not much younger than himself. The patriarch of the family, Kuttappan P.K Panachel is feared by his sons and grandson alike, and he still bosses over his middle-aged children and keeps them under his grip. The eldest son doesn’t feel bothered about the lack of independence in his household and the middle one wants to excuse himself from his father’s grip but doesn’t have the guts required for that while the younger one,Joji is desperate to break free. Joji tried to reason with his father but in vain. He eventually started to tamper with his father’s pills that killed him. But as they say, one murder most often doesn’t end at one but leads to a few more.

Personally, I felt it’s more of an adaptation of Irakal with only a little bit of a Macbeth touch and just the act of poisoning from the real-life Cyanide case.

Irakal and Joji had a similar family structure – a Christian family comprising of a grandfather, father, mother, sister, three brothers, and their wives, one of whom wasn’t yet married. That’s in Irakal. In Joji, there were no women in the family except the sister in law, Bincy who was the second eldest brother, Jaison‘s wife. In Joji’s family, his eldest brother, Jomon’s son, Poppy lives with them after Jomon’s divorce.

Irakal opens with the youngest brother, Baby Mathews playing around with red electrical wires and piercing his fingers with a compass, indicating his suppressed violent desires. He soon ragged a junior and was expelled from his college. Back at home, his father and brother got the wind of it, started preparing to bury the issue using bribes instead of bothering to talk with Baby. It gives you an idea of the environment he grew up in. The family is seen bribing numerous people throughout the entire run of film. For them, money is the solution to every problem and moral values hold no place in their lives.

Koshy, the eldest brother is involved in all kinds of illegal trade and threatens people with a gun when the need arises, supported by his equally corrupt father. The second eldest brother, Sunny is an alcoholic and dreams of living independently with his wife, away from this family. He vocalizes this very desire now and then only to be shut off by his father. The only sister, Annie simply doesn’t care about anybody except engaging in casual relationships with men other than her husband, Andrews. The youngest brother, Baby keeps visualizing himself strangulating people with the red electrical cables that he keeps with himself.  He is seen to be obsessed with blood, so much so that rubber milk oozing from a tree looked red to him, under the influence of marijuana.

After fantasizing about killing somebody for a long time, he finally found a victim in Unnunni, the caretaker of his bedridden grandfather. He chose to kill him only after he noticed Annie spending time with him at night. He made Unnunni’s death looked like suicide and got away with it. Meanwhile, Unnunni’s death though affected Annie but it didn’t stop her from immediately jumping into a casual fling with other men. It makes you wonder what their nerves are made of.

His next victim was a shopkeeper named Balan and made it look like a robbery gone wrong. He also unsuccessfully tried to kill a village belle named Nirmala with whom he had a fling but Nirmala, being the practical girl didn’t resist her mother when she fixed her marriage with Balan, knowing that a rich man like Baby would never marry her. He feels no remorse post any of the murders he committed except maybe felt slightly guilty at the thought of strangulating his bedridden grandfather. He shows some compassion only towards his grandfather who is also the most neglected person besides himself in the whole family. Perhaps, that’s why he was able to empathize with the old man.

His last victim was his friend, Raghavan. This time he had worn a mask to hide his face because he didn’t want Raghavan to know his killer as he was his only friend and source of support. Not only did he fail at this last attempt but also his identity was revealed when his mask was pulled off. He hid inside a storehouse, contemplating killing himself as he realized his time was up. An arrest warrant on his name was already out but he was nowhere to be found. At night, he came home with a gun in his hand firing at anybody who stood in his way, at home. His father escaped a bullet but Koshy got injured. The film ended with his father shooting him with the rifle before he could hurt anyone else. But what struck me was the fact the father showing no signs of weakness before and after killing a son. I bet Baby knew his family was no different from him.

At first, you would think his choice of victims is random but gradually you will realize that is not the case. He punished Unnunni because he couldn’t punish his sister Annie whom he fantasized about killing numerous times for being unfaithful to her husband. He punished his junior roommate as he refused to go out for a walk with him. He punished Balan simply because he couldn’t punish Nirmala for whom he has a romantic interest. He tried to punish Nirmala and his friend Raghavan for agreeing to marry Nirmala. Strangulations are just his idea of punishing people instead of confronting them. His penchant for violence and mental imbalance turned him into a monster.

Pothan’s Joji has shown many aspects that were in Irakal but in its unique way.

Joji opened with a courier agent delivering a package to Poppy who was desperately waiting for it. It turned out to be an air gun. Yes, air gun but let us not discard it as a joke yet. You see him playing around and shooting things with it which looks pretty harmless until he shot at a tree and rubber milk starts oozing out of it. It makes you wonder…right? The bullet shot from an air gun is a metal pellet and it could pierce through a tree? That can’t be a harmless toy….you smell an impending doom yet? I did, more so because it is said to be a Macbeth adaption.

 Okay, he also pointed the gun at the family-owned Horse’s neck to make it stand still for a selfie with him. There you go, he too got a penchant for violence, so much like Baby Mathews. Joji noticed him playing around with the gun and confiscated it from him.

Back at home, Joji is seen to be the most neglected brother who works at his father’s command. His work is nothing but running errands for his dad. His father tends to grab anyone by their neck, to suffocate them, much like strangulation whenever he doesn’t agree with somebody’s opinion or when his opinions are not respected. A real violent man, quite old but extremely fit, and has a stout figure. You see, violence runs in their gene much like it did in Baby’s family.

The family was in dire need of independence from their father.

 Joji tried to reason with his father upon Bincy’s insistence but instead was attacked by his now wheelchair-bound father who tried to strangulate him once again. He has had it enough so he began tampering with his pills regularly, slowly poisoning him, which was noticed by Bincy one day but she chose to turn a blind eye to it. It didn’t take him too long to die. While people were mourning him, Joji stayed in his room lying on a bed and had no remorse. Bincy came up to call him for his father’s final journey, telling him to wear a mask while coming down as it is set during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Bincy’s instruction was not for his safety against covid but to hide his remorseless face which showed no signs of mourning for his dead father.

Meanwhile, Jomon’s alcoholism was getting out of control much like Irakal’s Sunny’s  and he created a ruckus between himself and the priest. His loud behavior irritated the villagers and they soon started to bring up the topic of an autopsy, which got on Joji’s nerves for the very obvious reason.

Joji later dreamt of his father, and it wasn’t because of remorse but because of how strong was their father’s dominance over him. He then shared that with Bincy, who in response told him – “The dead will never return, but beware of the people who are still living.”

Since you know that she is supposed to be the Lady Macbeth of this film, you wonder whether she is hinting at Jomon. Her lady macbethness was really subtle and eerily calm. You wouldn’t guess she was Lady Macbeth unless she hadn’t uttered lines like

“ Your whole youth will be spent in this kitchen slab” indicating that if he doesn’t stand up for himself, he will just rot there.

Or her act of supporting Joji without voicing it as he tampered with his father’s pills.

The irony was that she was carrying a bible that had Christ coming back from the dead. I don’t know if it was a deliberate choice of the makers to keep the bible in the same scene. Anyway, you know dead may never come back literally as Christ did, but what’s gonna stop karma from coming back to bite in the ass?

Jomon started to suspect Joji and he had him eliminated too, this time with the air gun and explosives. This wasn’t a planned murder. He would have gotten away with it had he not forgotten to say about a gunshot in his make-believe narratives to the police. He remembered about the airgun shot only when the autopsy report was out but it was too late by then. The report had Jomon’s son Poppy suspect Joji and he was caught. But he blackmailed the family saying if he goes down, he will name Bincy and Jaison as co-conspirators. Jaison didn’t bow down to his threats which made him attempt to commit suicide in the end. His last SMS to his family says :

“ This is not my suicide note.

This is my MARANA MOZHI ( Dying Declaration ).

The society has fucked me.

The society has killed me.

Arrest them. “

But something about that ending had me wonder if Joji really meant to die or just made it look like a suicide by shooting himself with an air gun on a seemingly safe spot.

What I liked was that the signs of Paranoia wasn’t dramatized in Joji as much as it had been done in other Macbeth adaptations but it was hinted at. There was a brief scene in which Jaison came to inform Joji that a rumor of him murdering Jomon is doing the rounds. He was also going to say something else but was leaving without saying, which upon noticing, Joji asked him if he too suspected him. Jaison was rather taken aback as he only meant to ask him to lend some money. Joji realizing that he was losing his mind, closed the door and muttered to himself, “THINK STRAIGHT, YOU ASSHOLE. THINK STRAIGHT.

Both the films had tons of things in common but what connects them both, to the core is the dysfunctional family with a penchant for violence, and what sets them apart is the killer’s motives. At one point, you were able to empathize with Joji’s motives because he was not just a neglected brother at home but he was also a victim at the hand of the first man he killed. That couldn’t be said about Baby who was a neglected brother but not a victim per se; he committed crimes only as a means to punish people instead of confronting them. Unlike Baby, Joji wasn’t suffering from any undiagnosed mental illness but had been affected psychologically, enough to commit a heinous crime as killing another human. The half of the plot in Joji is about how he deals with the outcomes of the first murder whereas in Irakal, it’s about how Baby deals with his growing urge to commit more murders.

The psychological changes and build-up of a character being shown is not a new concept in Malayalam cinema. It had also been explored before by none other than the lead actor, Fahadh Faasil’s father, Fazil in the early 1990s in his film, Manichithrazu. Also, Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Anantaram (1987 ) had shown the development of schizophrenia in the film’s central character, Ajayan through a monologue where he was narrating the story of his entire life in the way he perceived it. Even though we saw it from his perspective, we could still make out what went wrong in his life that he himself was not aware of. Anantaram and Irakal had a similar pace- constant. In both the film, Anantaram, and Irakal, it wasn’t mentioned that the character was suffering from psychological issues but it was depicted. Hence they sort of had the same vibes.

These maker’s main objective was to show how dysfunctional families are often responsible for creating mentally imbalanced people, who may or may not end up with impaired cognitive functions. That being said, if they have violence in their gene along with impaired cognitive function, they will end up becoming a danger to either themselves or other people around them, once something or someone triggers them.

Be it Joji from Joji who was neglected to a point where he eats alone on a kitchen slab away from his family like a servant. And often faced physical attacks from his father.

Or,

 Baby from Irakal was neglected to a point where no one bothers to check where he had been the whole day or bothers to correct him if he is wrong.

Or,

 Ajayan from Anantaram who was abandoned by his mother at birth, neglected by his adoptive father, and caregivers who emotionally tortured him at night telling horror stories and making scary voices to keep him confined in a room and cover up their illegal activities that he as a kid had witnessed.

All three of them ended up in the same place. Killing others or getting aggressive towards others.

We have seen similar concepts in Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019 ) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho (1960).

We know that it is ultimately the circumstances that drive them to commit a fallacy but how and why is what these films are about.

It was a good watch and had roused my mind from the deep slumber it was in for a while. Even though it was predictable because well everybody knows where Macbeth ends but some classics are worth a watch no matter how many times it gets remade. Because almost always it’s the slow revelation of the plot that we like. Moreover, a film with Fahadh Faasil rarely ever goes wrong. 😉

PADMARAJAN , who ?

Today, I am writing about Padmarajan and his film Innale, which is a Malayalam film released in the year 1990. Before I write about that, let’s talk about why I picked Innale and begin my first blog with it.

To answer this, I need to tell you something about me. I am an avid cinephile , so I often travel around the world through cinemas. Yes, you read that right. Funny? Not a problem. But it’s true that cinemas can take you anywhere you want , not physically, but you’ll be mentally transported. Through cinemas, I have visited  a lot of regional places of India and abroad. I have learnt about cultures, traditions, fashion, food, literature, dance, music, art and society of various places through this medium. You name it and it’s there. So, every once in a while, I get into a phase when I am always talking about cinemas of particular state or country. Presently, I’m into malayalam cinema for the past three months, for the third time in my life.

This year, my malayalam phase started with a recent film, Varane Avashyamund which rekindled my passion about everything malayalam , once again. This film made me focus on Shobana, whose charm then transported me to her 1990’s film , Innale , directed by the legendary film-maker P.Padmarajan.

Varane Avashyamund had the same pair – Shobana and Suresh Gopi, who worked together in Innale 30 years ago. Just that they didn’t have longer screen time in Innale as the film focused more on Shobana -Jayaram, but the impact that her pairing with Suresh Gopi had on people was profound.The way, director handled the subject of Amnesia so realistically in Innale is something you will not even find in cinemas of 21st century. Malayalam cinema and especially, Padmarajan was way more ahead of his time. That’s what I’ll talk about in this blog.

Basic plotline – Film opens with a bus accident in the middle of the night in a small rural settlement in Kerala. All the passengers died on the spot, except a few. Only one of them survived without any serious physical injury but suffered Amnesia. She is Maya. No one including herself knew who she was and where she was from. No one came to claim her despite the efforts to search for her identity. This film deals with how the girl with no past moved on and became Maya , with the help of Dr. Sandhya and her son, manager of the hospital, Sharath. There was a heartbreaking twist at the end when her husband from her past, Dr. Narendran appeared.

CastShobana as Maya/ Gauri ; Jayaram as Sharath; Srividya as Dr. Sandhya and Suresh Gopi as Dr.Narendran.

I’ll now dig deep into Padmarajan’s style and understanding of cinema using Innale as an example. Let’s break down this cinema into four aspects : Character’s Pyschology ; Storyline and Editing ; Acting and Detailing ; and, Sound and Music.

Character’s Psychology

When I say character’s psychology, I don’t just mean the main character’s psychology. I’ll talk about human psychology in general with respects to both major and minor characters in Innale . From what I observed, I think Padmarajan sir’s strength was in understanding emotions and behaviours .

 I say this because he not only handled sensitive emotions relating to the subject of amnesia without making it too dramatic but also shown a minor character like a poor native man unable to resist the urge to steal a woman’s jewellery while she lay unconscious by the waterbank, before taking her to a hospital. This scene of the native man is not of any importance to the main plot, but he added it to make the sequence of story seem realistic and smooth , not rushing anything. Had he not shown any natural behaviour from a minor character, it would not feel as real as it did when transitioning to next scene.

We also see in a scene post the accident, the dead bodies covered with sheets lay on the hospital floor , cut to next shot, where Dr. Gafoor trying to save a patient and Dr. Sandhya standing by the hospital window, her hand covered in medical gloves soaked in blood. He kept the frame on close shot in which we see Dr. Sandhya by the window , then camera follows her and zooms in on her face as she slowly turns around, her face looked pale and eyes hinting at her helplessness while she was coming to terms with her own realization of the fact that she has failed to save even one patient, out of all the 37 that was brought.

The main character , Maya , didn’t remember her name. Maya wasn’t her name. When she regained her consciousness and was able to stand on her own feet, she was given the name Maya by Sharath. She responded by saying that the name suited her situation. As soon as he left the room, she thought of poking once again into her memories so that she could learn something about her past. All she could find there was pieces of visuals from delirious dream  she had before regaining her consciousness few days back, other than the memories post the accident. That didn’t help, so she let it go once again.

Every scene was created and handled with utmost care in respect to the character’s emotions and behaviours, without complicating them. Unlike Padmarajan, most film-makers of his time had the tendency to complicate psychological dramas, making the genre prone to melodramatic effect. He made sure that his amnesia patient act like one, not remembering a thing from her past ever again, unlike similar characters of other people’s film where they would suddenly get their memory back just by looking at a tree or something.

Storyline and Editing

Padmarajan’s sense of sequencing the images in scenes are spectacular. There’s not a shot or a scene that will throw you off the track. It was that smooth.

He started the film with a scene where there was a chaos , villagers moving to and fro, in a pitch dark stormy night, helping the people in uniforms carrying the body from the accident spot to the ambulances, parked far away from the remote location . Just like Maya, we too don’t know what happened before the accident. Maya’s past is as much unknown to us as it is to Maya.

Maya’s unconscious body was discovered by the native settler the next morning, separating her from the other unfortunate passengers, making her the special character. From there onwards, we follow the story , empathizing with Maya, following her as she follows the cues her life post the accident offered her. Initially, she clung to her desire to find her past but in vain. No one came to claim her. Time passed by her.

 Her subsequent attachment to Sharath soon overpowered her longing for her past. Just as things started to look normal for her, Dr. Narendran, her husband , who lived in US arrived in India in search of his missing wife. Her past is revealed to us through Narendran’s eyes . It wasn’t much of a past . Her life before her marriage to Narendran was almost as meaningless as having  no past. Her name was Gauri. She and Narendran was married for only a month before the unfortunate accident. So, she wasn’t missing out on much. That’s when our empathy was slowly directed towards Narendran.

 He flew down to Kerala as soon as he found her whereabout to take her away. This is when you’ll be torn between who to emphatise with, at the end. When you think of Maya, you know she has finally learnt to let go of her quest to know her past ; there’s no point in telling her that she had a husband, who she will not remember but will be forced to think of him, leaving her newfound sense of belonging with Sharath, which helped her moving on. However, thinking of Narendran will make you understand that even though Maya remembers nothing from her past due to which she cannot deeply miss it ;  Narendran, who remembers everything ends up being the one suffering. Just like us, he too will feel the void but he being the kinder and wiser soul, decided not to reveal to her who he was and what he came for. He simply left his Gauri so that she could be Sharath’s Maya, an identity that’s a part of her recent past and present , which she created with her new memories. The film ended with him running off in a car , with Maya and Sharath looking towards the direction his car was heading. We see a perplexed Maya and relieved Sharath .  

Each and every shot focused on the emotions of the characters on the frame, which we understand from their behaviours. That’s how Padmarajan created a cinematic universe with each scene revealing something about the character’s intention, impulses, emotions etc. 

Acting and Detailing

First I’ll say that the casting was perfect. Everyone acted as realistically as they could. Out of them all, three actors has attracted my attention more so because of their detailing when it came to acting. I already knew that three of them – Shobana , Srividya and Suresh Gopi are terrific performers , but I have always thought their skills haven’t been properly utilised by majority of the film-makers. Padmarajan is one of the very few directors who had been able to utilize their acting skill to full potential.

There was a scene with Shobana as Maya ,regaining her consciousness completely for the first time , not recognizing anyone or anything. On waking up, she looked confused and kept on saying that she couldn’t recall her name. Her expression clearly portrayed the state of mind Maya was in. It looked as though her mind was blank leading to confusion followed by a mild agitation. It was so natural.

In one of the scene where Maya lay unconscious in the hospital bed, someone from the travel agency was called to identify her. He couldn’t identify yet wouldn’t leave easily once he lay eyes on Maya. This irritated Srividya’s Dr. Sandhya. Srividya, without uttering any dialogue, looked at her wrist watch and nodded her head subtly at Sharath to express her irritation at the fact that this man was wasting her time and Sharath should take him away, now. Perfect detailing once again.

Suresh Gopi’s Narendran , at the last scene, when he arrived at the place Maya was staying,  looked straight at smiling face of his Gauri, thinking that she recognized him until the very next second when she asked Sharath ‘ What took them so long to come ‘? instead of asking anything to Narendran , who she didn’t recognise. Subtle expression in Gopi’s face when his hope of sporting a broader smile was cut short by her question, suggested how his hope was shattered in that moment  he faced the harsh truth .

Sound and Music

I understand that sound and music is something that the technicians and composers deal with. But I have observed that Padmarajan’s cinema always have serene music , something that I like. That’s something I have noticed in his other film also. He surely had some say in the choice of music and sound he used.

This cinema , particularly had a beautiful background music in some scenes post the accident scene. It was a lingering music in the morning scene , which makes you feel dejected and helpless as if you know something worst has happened but you cannot do anything about it. So you go along with the sense of void in you. It gave that kind of feeling. Perfect pick.

That’s PADMARAJAN , for you !

P.S : I know I wrote more about Innale than about Padmarajan . It’s because there’s no Innale without Padmarajan. He was best known for his screenplays. It has always been full of cinematic storyline, dialogues and wonderfully developed characters. He was keen observer of human behaviour which was visible in his cinema.