Friday Malayalam: Joseph, A Story of a Life and How it Ends

Despite einthusan’s best efforts to foil me, I did in fact manage to start and finish this movie. And it only took me 5 days of trying! To be fair to einthusan, it is also the fault of my consistently weak internet. It can handle the fancy well-designed streaming sites, but einthusan puts it under a bit of a strain.

This is a movie that takes a character actor, Joju George, who you don’t usually notice and puts him front and center, and takes a character type you don’t usually notice either and puts him front and center as well. The mystery part of it is an interesting experiment, the quiet overweight older ex-cop and his fellow older friends slowly and methodically trying to solve a case. But the bigger experiment is taking this quiet overweight cop and exploring the tragedies of his losses, the little undramatic messy human tragedies.

Image result for joseph malayalam poster

This is a film that takes what is special about Malayalam films and goes just a little bit further. Non-heroic police officer lead, I’ve seen that before. But this time he was never young and slim and handsome, he was always just the average guy in the background, not even reaching the point of heroism I am used to from Malayalam police stories. Slow build of a backstory before getting to the “real” plot, that’s normal of course. But this time the backstory is only related to our lead character, no one else knows what he has gone through, it has no effect on anyone else’s motivations or actions in the “real” plot, it is a story that is buried within him alone.

Along with the overall broad sweeps of the story and what makes it special, there are the smaller elements. The songs are lovely, not just lovely to listen to, but lovely in their visuals as well. Beautiful slow visions of sunny scenes filled with nature and old well-built houses. And the people are lovely, a snack stand owner and a priest with only a few scenes make an immediate impact. Nice people, good people, trying to do the right thing and fill the world with goodness. The more central roles and characters are excellent as well. Joju George is very good, playing a slow steady kind of person, one that would make friends easily and keep them, but never receive awards or notice. He is surrounded by other nice solid actors, but it is Dileesh Pothan that really stood out for me. Their relationship is one that I would never have expected to see on film, an unexpected brotherhood between two men who do not speak of their emotions or their bond.

Joju George is good, but it is the script that makes him good. It works on two levels at once, the mystery story and the story of Joju’s life from youth to old age. In another simpler film, the first half would be the personal and the second the mystery. Or the personal would be one long flashback in the middle. But in this film, it tries to create a much larger kind of personal story, of a life that was made up of many sad and happy moments, moments that flash in and out of memory as Joju nears the end of his life and begins to assess what it was made of.

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We open with Joju and his small routines, all alone in a large house. He is interrupted by a phone call as he is watching TV news about a murder nearby. He is being called out of retirement to help with the case. At the crime scene, the younger police officers make fun of him, with his rumpled clothes and beard. But an older police officer tells them he has solved most of the cases in their area, just doesn’t care to get the credit for them. He casually walks through the crime scene, then wanders out and goes off for a drink with the servant sent to pick up the bodies by their relatives. He rudely sends the grieving nephew off to buy him a soft drink to mix with his liquor, seeming like a drunk and a bit of a lout, only for the nephew to return and find the police waiting. Joju, without ever drawing attention to himself, has been working through possibilities and likelihoods and has figured out exactly how the murder happened and that the nephew did it. And then he shambles off before he can receive too much praise for what he has done, preferring to go back and hang out with his fellow old retired friends, driving and singing in a car.

Our picture of his life in the present is completed when he returns home late at night to wander through his house and hear memories of his daughter who no longer lives with him, and his wife who left him. We know this character as he is in this moment, a man who let his career and his family drift out of his grasp because he never really tried to hold them. In a different film, we would leave it at that, a man who had lost everything now will be inspired to try for the first time in his life by this last big mystery. And the last big mystery being set in motion by the death of his ex-wife, happening after that night of drinking, fits within the usual format, a shorthand for someone who was once important to him who he will be inspired to avenge.

But this film aspires for more. It doesn’t want to just tell the same old story of old man redemption, it wants to explore how he got to the point of feeling he needed redemption. Instead of presenting him as a solid heroic rock, one who always sacrifices and takes care of others, it is brave enough to go back in time and show him as a confused broken mistaken man, just like any other human person.

It begins with his arrival at the hospital, when there is a lovely flashback to his wife giving birth in the same hospital. He is scared and excited and loving and all the things a husband should be. He fusses over the baby being brought into the house for the first time, he massages his wife with oil as she recovers from birth, he is kind and gentle and young. This is not the perfect dreamy flashback we usually get for these heroes, the flashback that makes them look like the perfect husband and their wife like a nagging shrew for leaving them. He isn’t perfect, he is just nice, and they love each other.

His friends gather after his death and ask what happened, why the marriage broke up. Which is what the audience is wondering as well, after having seen that lovely flashback. And that is when we get a second flashback, showing him as an enthusiastic but awkward young boy. He was in love with a girl of a slightly better family, they flirted and kissed and snuck off together during a party. But he didn’t have a job or prospects, so they couldn’t get married. When he came back to town after police training, he found her married to someone else. It was a young romance that faded away because he was young and unsure and didn’t put himself forward, fight for her with her father, or ask her to elope. And years later he learns the price of his weakness, he has a happy life with a wife he loves and a baby daughter, and a good job with the police. He is called out to investigate a death, a body that has been sitting for 4 days, and discovers it is his ex-girlfriend, most likely murdered by her husband. Not only that, he was the one who was handed the police file of her abuse complaint two days earlier and hadn’t even read it yet.

After that, seeing the body and remembering her young and healthy, he couldn’t handle having his wife touch him, seeing her around. He knew if he told her what happened, she would stay with him. But he thought she might be happier if she was free, if she left. So he let himself sink into seeming depression, drinking, silence, until he drove her away. But he asked to keep their daughter. Two years later, she remarried to a quiet nice man. He raised their daughter and dropped her off at her mother’s house to stay when he had to go out of town. They saw each other there, and he saw her husband in passing too. It isn’t a tragedy, not really, there was no big fight and no passionate hatred, it was a relationship that just slowly died away.

It’s the relationship between Joju and the husband, Dileesh Pothan, that I find most interesting. They are each respectful of each other, aware of each other. At her funeral, Dileesh makes sure Joju has a chance to say good-bye. And he asks for help in making the decision about organ donation. In return, when Joju is searching for clues and finds a small photograph of himself in his ex-wife’s purse, he does not react, just hides it away again. Both men know that Joju was her first love, and that the pain of his rejection was always with her. But neither man will say it out loud for fear of hurting the other.

This is not the relationship we usually see between the ex and the current husband in popular culture. And yet, it is a relationship that feels more real and human to me than the usual “I hate you and resent you and will defeat you” relationship. Just as Joju’s less than perfect fumblings at first love and young husband and fatherhood feel more real than the usual perfect hero who is always right and always sure. He isn’t a “hero”, and neither is anyone else around him, they are just good people trying to do the right thing.

There is one more small part of the backstory. Joju’s daughter died in an accident a few years earlier. Joju and his wife came together again to decide to donate her organs. That is what left Joju completely isolated. He has his age mate friends, and one younger police officer, in the cyber cell, who was a schoolmate of his daughter. And he has his house and his drinks and that is all. A very small life that he lives in a small way, and is contented.

The death of his wife shakes Joju, enough that he finally tells the whole story of his marriage to his friends for the first time. But he is not dramatic, he is not sunk in grief, he is simply sad. And his investigation is not emotional and dramatic either, it is slow and careful, putting a story together step by step. Beginning with a simple visit to the location where his wife’s bike was hit. And then a conversation with the snack stand owner who witnessed it. A few small oddities in his story, lead to an attempt to clear up those oddities, which leads to more oddities, and slowly step by step Joju builds up a case until he knows not just exactly what happened, but what will happen in future.

It’s a clever mystery and a clever motive, but I am slightly concerned because it is about organ donation. Organ donation already has so far to go towards acceptance in India, why make it harder by inventing conspiracy theories like this? On the other hand, the basic accepted reality of the film is that everyone will donate their organs, and that it is a good thing because organs save lives.

Joju and his wife donated their daughter’s organs as a matter of course. And his wife’s own organs were naturally donated as well. Later Joju tracks down the recipients of his daughter’s organs, including a poor lower class teenage girl who is dying of heart disease. With that part alone, organ donation is good here, it is what good people choose to do and it can help other good people who deserve a life.

Purely in terms of organ donation messages, I still like this movie better. Donate your organs! You could end up giving a heart to the woman who falls in love with your husband!

It’s the system around donation that this film questions. In a really clever manner! The concept is, hospitals find a donor that would match with a local recipient. They arrange their death in an accident, an accident that is witnessed so there will be no police case and no autopsy that would damage the organs. But they also have to make sure that the accident itself causes brain damage but not death, or organ damage. The system is a small bump with one car, witnessed, and then followed by another car with good samaritans who offer to take the victim to the hospital. It is while traveling in the second car that the victim receives the fatal blow with a hammer. All of this then brings a viable candidate to the hospital and they are prepared for donation to the local recipients. Which is where the truly evil part comes in to play. The victim is kept alive as long as necessary in order to give time for a wealthy overseas recipient to arrive at the hospital. The organ transplant occurs, but the poor local recipient gets nothing. Instead, the organ goes to the wealthy overseas medical tourist, while the local is left to believe they have received an organ they never actually got.

This is a really complex intelligent solution to a mystery. But it also is built to make people doubt the whole concept of organ donation, how can you know your organ is going to the right place and the right person? How can you trust the doctors to truly care for your loved one if all they want is the organ? It makes me nervous.

But it also leads to a really elegant conclusion. Joju slowly puts together all the pieces, how the scheme works with the complicity of hospitals and doctors through out the area, how the actual killers swap cars and license plates untraceably, how impossible it would be to prove any of this. And he decides that the only solution is to sacrifice himself. Just like the way he killed his marriage in order to free his wife, or solved cases and let his superiors take the credit, he cares more about the result than what it does to himself. So he arranges for himself to be the next victim, uses his contact at the cyber cell to get access to the donor list and then fakes a suicide in order to get his own information entered on the list and a match found. It is simply a matter of waiting to be killed, and using the information he gained to trap his own killers.

The whole movie is about sacrificing yourself for others, disappearing within them. It reaches the culmination when Joju quietly prepares to die, in order to prove his case. To make himself into the final evidence.

11 thoughts on “Friday Malayalam: Joseph, A Story of a Life and How it Ends

  1. Hello! A really nice review!!!

    The organ donation part was highly controversial in Kerala too. Doctors/ Hospitals coming out and slamming the movie.
    The script writer, who’s a cop(I think), stood by his story saying he has proofs. So not really sure if it’s a “conspiracy theory”.

    Besides, I think the movie took a stand that these transplant surgeries should be video taped – which I think is extremely fair – in a country like ours, where these things could easily be manipulated, and being run by mafia groups!

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    • Or, alternatively, transplant recipients should receive follow-up medical care as a matter of course, which would catch these fraudsters and give needed medical care. I liked that the movie acknowledged that with the heart recipient, if her family could not afford the necessary life time of pills, she would have been dead shortly after the transplant. Not getting the heart in a way saved her life.

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  2. I think Joseph is the best movie I have seen this year so far. I started watching it because the poster intrigued me, and I thought that if I won’t like it I will quit. But it is so well made, right from the first minutes, that I didn’t want to pause it even once. Nothing was happening on the screen, just a guy woke up and drank, but I was full of questions: who is he, why he is alone in this big house, what happened?

    I agree with you: Joseph and Peter (Dileesh Pothan ) relationship is something special. I loved how subtle it is. Their respect, the looks they were exchanging (especially in the hospital scene, when the nurse ask who is Stella’s husband). It elevated, already good, movie.

    The only thing I didn’t like was the enquiry. Once I knew it’s all about organs transplants I didn’t care much who did it.

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    • Yeah, I kind of wish the central motive had been something beyond organ transplants. I don’t know what, but something else. Maybe a land dispute? They killed the daughter first to make sure his wife would have no heir and then her?

      On Sat, Apr 20, 2019 at 10:57 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

      >

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  3. So, could you accept Joju as a decent person? Remember Ramante Edentottam? 🙂
    Looks like his graph is going up, and good for him!
    The guy got last year’s state award for Joseph and Chola( S Durga & An off day game director’s next)
    Chola teaser here:
    https://youtu.be/RD07D62mFI4
    Angie, have you watched Poomaram yet? I think you might just like it as well…

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    • No, I haven’t seen it. I was looking for Poomaram because someone recommended it to me long time before, but couldn’t find it 😦

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    • Oh wow, I forgot he was in Ramante Edentottam. Really interesting comparison, in both he was kind of slow moving and big and lazy, in both of them he was a good father and a bad husband, in both of them his wife left him. But in this he ultimately thought of others before himself, he knew he was a bad husband and wanted his wife to leave him.

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  4. Like you said the relationship between Dileesh Pothan and Joju Goerge is the best thing about the movie. It really elevates it to a different level and hence Dileesh Pothan receiving the medal in honor of Joju makes complete sense. He’s the only family that Joju had.
    I still don’t buy the way Joju leaves his marriage though. He really loves his wife and daughter, why would he just abandon her then? I guess I have an issue with the way first love is glorified in Indian movies these days. I really think what you feel for your family (especially once kids are involved) is a much higher commitment than what you’d have for your first love; because it’s not just love, it’s responsibility and a life shared. I’m tired of seeing people throw everything away for something that could’ve been (e.g. Kalank)

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    • It’s not just First Love, it’s also the idea of suffering because you lose it, right? You can’t just fall in love and be happy, no no, you have to fall in love and be miserable for ever.

      This movie was interesting to me because they seemed to make it primarily about physical affection. After seeing the body of a woman he had sex with in that terrible state, the idea of sex became disgusting to him. He still loved his wife, just couldn’t touch her or let her touch him. And he tried to chase her away because he wanted her to feel physical affection again. I still think they should have just talked it out and he could have gone to therapy, but I guess that wouldn’t be as dramatic and sacrificial as driving her so she wouldn’t be poisoned by his secret pain.

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  5. Pingback: Thoughts on Joseph: Man With The Scar – Tales'n'Tunes

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