Joji: A Study of Manhood Masked as an Adaptation of Macbeth

Azhar Moideen
·9-min read

Note: This article has spoilers

Before the opening title sequence, before even the promotional video for the production house Working Class Hero, in fact just preceded by the mandatory disclaimer at the beginning that the movie is a work of fiction and a note of gratitude; in what seems to be as much a marketing tactic as an acknowledgement, Joji begins with the line ‘Inspired from Shakespeare’s Macbeth’. And whether by design or not, but certainly encouraged by the setting of the movie and the casting of Shammi Thilakan and the use of similar visual symbols, there is also a nudge to the audience to draw parallels to KG George’s acclaimed Irakal (1985). Although the filmmakers have since downplayed the influence of both these source texts, most commentators have taken the bait. Critical analysis of the film, both on news and social media, concentrate on these similarities alone and evaluate it according to its perceived success in living up to this image. In my opinion, this does disservice to the film and reading Joji instead as a study of masculine performativity would provide a much richer insight into it.

A still from <i>Joji.</i>
A still from Joji.

A concern with masculine performance is not new to the director-scriptwriter duo of Dileesh Pothan and Syam Pushkaran. In fact, their first movie Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016) was a twist on the revenge drama and a deliberation on associated masculinities.

The titular Mahesh in the film is an emasculated man (cheated/ derobed/ professional capacity questioned) who reshapes his life by getting better at his profession/ vanquishing his enemy/ winning a girl. One can see attempts at portraying male insecurity on screen right from Pushkaran’s early scripts, Salt n’ Pepper (2011) and Da Thadiya (2012). Most recently, his Kumbalangi Nights (2019) was widely applauded as a film which exposed toxic masculinity. I have written previously on how, as much as Pothan and Pushkaran have played a role in rewriting the expectations of the audience in commercial cinema, they are also responsible for rewriting Malayali manhood on screen (sometimes even rewriting scenes and dialogues in their own previous movies). Joji is no different.

The Panachels, a family of 4 men, a woman and a young boy who live in an ominous bungalow in the midst of vast rubber plantations, provide the backdrop for the filmmakers to train their eye on social relations and the interplay of emotions between characters. The isolation of the family that is evident in the surroundings is also heightened by setting Joji in the direct aftermath of the breakout of a pandemic and ensuing restrictions in travel and interaction. However, the members of the family are also unable to come close together themselves as a result of the power relations within the family, something that is visually captured by the long distance between them in many frames. Many have noted that lockdown policies have reinforced gender roles inside the household and have resulted in a rise in incidents of women experiencing domestic violence. But perhaps men who are forced to sit at home have also suffered as a result, even if in different ways.

A still from <i>Joji.</i>
A still from Joji.

The titular character in Joji (played by Fahadh Faasil) is visibly bored and frustrated. His attempt at a tourism venture has been blocked by the onset of COVID-19. More importantly however, he finds himself trapped in his house and spends most of his time inside the four walls of his room.

His only escape is when he goes out to smoke, and for this too he has to go to a place where he won’t be visible from his father’s room on the top floor. His failures are all the more evident to him because he has to spend this whole time in the company of his father who abuses him, and his brothers who look down on him.

Even when his father is lying prostrate and unconscious and he is asked to get the car in order to drive him to the hospital, he cannot move before asking permission to get the key. His white horse (in many cultures a symbol of the warrior-hero and fertility) provides a comic contrast to his own character.

The humorous, if darker, rewrite of the fall of a strong patriarch in Maheshinte Prathikaaram results in a disability that leaves the ruthless and domineering father in a wheelchair and a chance for Joji to take more control over the household. Joji resents the fact that he is weak in front of his father and siblings, and this is made all the more evident by his frail physique. Even when he is invited to the dinner table, his opinion is not sought for; he is infuriated that even the judgement of Bincy (played by Unnimaya Prasad) is given value over that of his own. This, however, does not mean that he turns his bitterness towards the authoritarian patriarch; in fact, he envies that position. In The Authoritarian Personality, the Frankfurt school theorists identified harsh and abusive parenting and the resultant repressed hatred and fear of castration as the reason behind idolising authority figures.

Joji, although he does not appear to be intellectually inclined, is a keen observer of the power relations in family and society and tries to emulate what he thinks is the ideal masculine performance.

A still from <i>Joji.</i>
A still from Joji.

This is why Joji often breaks into dialogues of grandeur like in the sequence where he speaks of the need for hope even in the face of adversity and gives the reassurance that all that medical science has to offer is being provided to treat his father. This is why he throws a key to the servant in the house, addresses him in a manner which infantilises him and then proceeds to act like a benevolent master giving him money in return for servitude. This is why upon hearing the news of his father’s death, something which he had been waiting for all the time, he puts on a look of cool detachment and walks in slow motion. In Kumbalangi Nights, Shammi declares himself a hero and a complete man. While appearing far weaker, it is evident that Joji also wants to think the same.

It is also very revealing that most of these performances are initially only visible when he interacts with those he perceives to be underneath him in the hierarchy of power relations – the woman in the house, the child and the servant. He has learnt from his siblings that respect and fear is reserved for those above and condescension and pity for those below. This is humorously depicted when the elder brother Jomon (played by Baburaj) orders Jaison (played by Joji Mundakayam) to be at the house before nightfall, and Jaison in turn turns to order Joji. It is institutions like family and religion that clearly shape and give sanction to this performance of masculinity. Comically here, Jomon is forced to respect the pious priest (played by Basil Joseph who is famous for comic roles) even though he is stronger and older than him. Even Jomon’s position in a powerful family does not afford him the opportunity to express his disapproval to him beyond a point. Society intervenes to correct him and the priest goes on to speak of the need for respecting the (patriarchal) bloodline.

A still from <i>Joji.</i>
A still from Joji.

Midway through the movie, Joji tells his father that his sons are silent because of love, respect and fear towards him. The three brothers can be seen as personifications of these emotive reactions to the patriarch.

The woman in the household is made to bear the brunt of all housework and desires to rid herself of this servitude, something which only begins to look possible with patriarch out of the way. Her silent abetment of Joji’s plan to murder his father can then perhaps be explained.

Both her compliance and her yearning for rebellion can be sympathised with. But can the spree of bloodshed and misery spawned by Joji’s resentment be explained similarly? Can Joji be sympathised with?

In Kumbalangi Nights, Fahadh had played a patriarch who becomes deranged when he loses control over his household. Here, Pothan and Pushkaran are intent on conveying that Joji is not in fact a Shammi. “Think straight,” he murmurs to himself when he feels things slipping out of his hand. Even his decision to kill himself arises from his desire to be in control. The much talked about mirror scene can thus be read as Joji realising the masculine performance that is demanded by society and the need to outwardly project the façade of being in control of both oneself and others. His dying declaration of accusing society of being the cause of his actions can then only be interpreted as farce. Another attempt at dialogue of grandeur that does not absolve him of responsibility for his actions.

Those intent on looking for a cinematic depiction of the complexity of the human mind and the descent into madness, à la Macbeth, in Joji are likely to be disappointed. Neither will they get the vast scope and depth of social critique and commentary on contemporary political climate that is inherent in Irakal. But that does not mean that Joji does not offer anything to the viewer that is worthwhile on its own.

Macbeth can be read as a morality play with the witches, and also Lady Macbeth, poisoning the mind of a noble general and causing the emergence of a dangerous political ambition that wreaks havoc both in the country and his own mind. Irakal portrays the violence that is unleashed by Baby, a young man who yearns to be loved but cannot find it in a society and family bereft of morals. In both Macbeth and Irakal, normality (or at least a semblance of it) is restored once the protagonist is dead. However, in denying Joji his desire in dying rather than experience the wretched existence of someone not in control and in showing him devoid of the guilt that plagued Macbeth and Baby, Pothan and Pushkaran seem to be saying that they have no intention of making him a tragic hero.

For those looking to decode the politics of Joji, here’s a clue – society might have provided the pills which poisoned the individual’s mind, but that does not mean he is off the hook!

The heightened theatricality and drama of Joji (it starts as a family drama before venturing into the territory of a crime drama) aid the atmosphere of performance that is given by the film and its theme of masculine performativity. By working around the limitations of lockdown and being forced into an OTT-release, perhaps even because of it, Pothan and Pushkaran have churned out a piece that is less rooted to the locale in which it is situated in (like their earlier films) and more universal in tone and content. Perhaps that explains the inspired choice of background music by Justin Varghese.

(Azhar Moideen is a Masters student of Humanities at IIT Madras)

. Read more on Indian Cinema by The Quint.PM Modi to Hold Meeting to Review COVID-19 Situation at 8 PMJoji: A Study of Manhood Masked as an Adaptation of Macbeth . Read more on Indian Cinema by The Quint.