A Hydraulic Reading of the Malayalam Film 'Joji'

The creation and destruction of capital – economic, social, symbolic, psychological and religious – through the control of flows is one of the central themes running through this finely delineated film.

By now, most of us who enjoy good films will have (or ought to have) seen the recently released Joji. Set in a lush Kottayam plantation, Joji’s central narrative is straightforward. Panachel Estate is run with an iron hand by its physically-imposing patriarch P.K. Kuttapan. His three sons – Jomon (divorced, alcoholic and father of the teenaged Popy), Jaison (the timid second son, married to Bincy who is enslaved by the kitchen and stifling patriarchy), and Joji (the youngest, single, ambitious but with little ability or drive) – are thoroughly cowed by his domineering presence.

A sudden stroke paralyses Kuttapan setting off some frenzied jockeying between the siblings for their share of the inheritance. Kuttapan, unexpectedly, recovers (though still partially paralysed) and returns from the hospital to the mansion, to the clear disappointment of Jaison, Bincy, and especially Joji. Despite his alcoholism and short temper, Jomon remains truer to the best interests of his father.

Joji engineers Kuttapan’s death but leaves too many tracks many of them uncovered by the largely lower-caste servants of the Estate. As the noose closes around him Joji kills Jomon as well, and then attempts suicide as the story ends.

‘Joji’. Photo: Wikipedia

Flows and interdictions

The movie intriguingly states at the outset that it is “Inspired from (sic) Macbeth.” Yet if Bincy is supposed to be the equivalent of Lady Macbeth, her collusion with Joji is far subtler: she is not so much an accomplice as someone who encourages him to indulge his darker impulses, especially as they converge with her own interests.

In this essay, I offer a hydraulic reading of Joji in terms of flows and interdictions: of water, money, people and traffic. I suggest the creation and destruction of capital economic, social, symbolic, psychological and religious through the control of flows as one of the central themes running through this finely delineated film.

The drone’s eye-view aerial shots that open the film immediately sensitise the viewer to two things: Panachel Estate is separated from the nearest town by a fretwork of highways, country roads, rough pathways and hairpin bends that cannot be traversed quickly; and second, the lush tea terraces of the plantation look gorgeous from up on high but require a labour-intensive network of canals, ditches, tubes and waterways to function at the ground level.

The opening sequence has a delivery boy speeding on his motorbike from the town to the Estate to deliver an airgun that Popy has ordered online using his grandfather’s bank account, but unbeknownst to the latter. As the biker reaches the front gate of the Estate looking for a “Mr. Kuttapan,” a masked Popy intercepts the parcel “on behalf” of his grandfather claiming the latter is under ‘quarantine’ for COVID. At the outset, we see that flows and their interdiction in the generation and diversion of value are going to be a recurring theme.

Kuttapan’s stranglehold on his family and the Estate rests upon his control over the flow of money. He reveals a startlingly detailed knowledge of every rupee in his wallet and in his many bank accounts. He practically chokes Joji assuming it was he that stole the money that went missing when Popy mail-ordered the airgun.

Also read: With Abolition of Film Certificate Tribunal, Bad Days for Filmmakers Will Become Worse

In the movie’s pivotal scene, Kuttapan literally girds his loins and descends into a drainage ditch to unclog a pipe valve that three strong labourers working together had been unable to. He yanks the pipe out of the clayey soil to release the flow of water but his superhuman effort triggers a stroke. Kuttapan collapses and is rushed to the hospital in town.

Once back at the Estate, the wheelchair-ridden Kuttapan shows signs of rapid recovery, imperiling the fantasies of the rest of the family. Bincy has long waited for the day she can leave the Estate and its endless chores and instead live in town with Jaison and their share of the inheritance. Joji’s various get-rich-quick schemes had in the past run aground due to Kuttapan’s contemptuous dismissal of his physical and mental ability. Their futures had come to depend on releasing the liquidity congealed by Kuttapan’s tightfisted regime.

Joji engineers Kuttapan’s death by intercepting his daily dose of pills and medicines: he replaces them with over-the-counter lookalikes as Bincy pointedly looks the other way. Starved of the right drugs, one afternoon Kuttapan goes into cardiac shock. As the sole driver on the Estate at that moment, Joji deliberately pretends to be out of earshot. The delay in transporting Kuttapan to the hospital proves fatal. Once again, intervention in and interruption of supply chains are critical to the plot of the movie.

As the sibling squabble over their inheritance, Jomon’s bargaining position is weak: he is reminded by his brothers that his divorce settlement had leaked a good chunk of the family’s capital to an outsider, a woman at that. Joji taunts Jomon that he seemed to be replacing his lost liquidity with alcohol instead, for which he is given a swift beat-down by his eldest brother. In the meantime, rumours and innuendo flood the social landscape around the Estate. Infighting over the inheritance, suspicions about Kuttapan’s mysteriously quick death just when he seemed to be recovering, and the delay in transporting him to the hospital provide ample grist for the gossip mill. The aura of Panachel Estate in the eyes of those living around is diminished.

Also read: Netflix’s Big Bet On Global Viewers Could Upend Mediascape

In the meantime, the local Jacobite padre, a young newcomer to the area, tries to gain status amongst the flock by seeming to stand up to the Estate. He reminds the brothers publicly that their unseemly squabble and rumours were not in accord with the word or spirit of the Lord. He threatens he may even choose not to grace the funeral service for Kuttapan should this continue. As Jaison pleads with the priest to change his mind, Jomon opts for a more direct method. He schools the young priest, instructing him to read the fine print on the various notice boards adorning his church, school and diocese. Were he to do so, he would understand the ways in which ecclesiastical and economic capital have braided the Kottayam society: without the Estate’s charity, the priest would have no job.

Joji’s attempted suicide fails and he awakens in a hospital bed with the police waiting to charge him with the murders of Kuttapan and Jomon. His final effort to garner value through the interdiction of the flow of his own life is thwarted as it continues uninterrupted. As the credits roll out to end the movie Joji remains, as ever, in deficit.

Sankaran Krishna teaches political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, US. He can be reached at krishna@hawaii.edu.

Note: In an earlier version, the padre, who is Jacobite, was mis-identified as Syrian Christian.