Scene 1: Shoshanna who belongs to an influential family confronts her lover Solomon who is the son of a church musician while he was being taken to be enrolled in a seminary. She pushes the acolyte who argues with her from the narrow footbridge into the river and asks Solomon point blank: “Do you want to become a father in a Church or the father of my children?” (Film: Amen. Year: 2013. Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery)
Scene 2: Mariam, the daughter of a wealthy moneylender from the influential Alappaatt family, prepares to leave her house to marry her childhood friend and lover Porinju who hails from a humble background. Mariam’s dad with a noose around his neck threatens to commit suicide and the lovers end up leading lonely lives longing for each other due to the events that follow. (Film: Porinju Mariam Jose Year: 2019. Director: Joshiy)
Even as Joshiy, the veteran director credited with some of the biggest, all-time hits in Malayalam, released yet another action drama to a roaring box office, reminiscent of some of his big hits, one was tempted to think that the ace director needed a reboot to stay relevant in the fast-changing landscape of Malayalam movies.
Unfortunately, Porinju Mariam Jose (Read the Onmanorama review of the film), despite the box office appeal it seems to be generating, didn’t offer much to change that perception.
Joshiy has delivered another hit despite an inconsistent screenplay by a newbie writer and a cast that doesn’t boast of any big names. This movie underlines Joshiy’s reputation as someone who puts style over substance and extracts the best out of his cast and crew. The three second-rung actors who played the title characters have delivered commendable performance and helped the director mask the shortcomings in the screenplay, and the film is getting the traction with the mass audience.
Before we go back to what triggers the doubts about Joshiy’s ability to stay relevant beyond the box office success, let’s have a glance at his filmography till date. It is an undeniable fact that Joshiy is one of the rare directors in Malayalam who have made blockbusters across genres that appeal to a wide range of audience.
Some of his memorable works include Nirakkoottu (1985) and New Delhi (1987), the blockbusters that launched Mammootty to the big league; the Mohanlal-starrer Naduvazhikal (1989), a political thriller that is much talked about even after three decades of its making; Number 20 Madras Mail (1990), the timeless thriller comedy in which the two superstars outshone each other to deliver an all-time favourite for their fans; and Twenty20, the casting coup of a lifetime that broke all box office records in Malayalam. The fact that Malayalam actors’ collective AMMA felt only Joshiy could pull off the mega project Twenty20 despite their access to all frontline directors in the industry stands testimony to Joshiy’s stature as a director who pulls off mega projects and delivers big openings and bumper hits.
Joshiy’s imprint is unmissable in the career graphs of some of the biggest stars in the industry. Among his peers, Joshiy stands out for having worked with the noted stars belonging to different generations of Malayalam cinema. He has worked with almost all frontline heroes from Prem Nazir to Prithviraj. The list includes Jayan, Madhu, Mammootty, Sukumaran, Ratheesh, Shankar, Mohan Lal, Suresh Gopi, Jayaram, Kunchakko Boban and Dileep. Porinju Mariam Jose has two of the critically-acclaimed actors Joju George and Chemban Vinod Jose in the lead.
In fact, he is credited with redeeming or redefining the careers of some of the stars when their fortunes seemed to be dwindling. Take for example, New Delhi (1987) which changed the course of Mammotty’s career and the grammar of action thrillers in Malayalam cinema for years to come or Lelam (1997) which returned the superstar tag to Suresh Gopi after his three-year long run of stereotyped roles that invariably tanked at the box office. The consecutive hits Mambazhakkalam and Naran in 2004-2005 offered Mohanlal a breather when he was facing the heat after a series of flops.
On the personal front, Joshiy is a fighter who had survived many a storm in his career and personal life. His father died at a young age, ironically when Joshiy was watching a movie as a six-year-old in his family-owned theatre. His daughter died in a car accident in 2011, but he was soon back behind the camera where he feels most comfortable in. The media-shy director, who describes himself as an introvert, has often said that he has been “breathing” cinema ever since he was a kid and he loved to prove his critics wrong whenever he was written off. In 1986 when Nyayavidhi, Veendum, and Sayamsandhya flopped, he made a comeback with New Delhi. He was written off again when Bhoopathi bombed in 1996, but he hit back with Pathram and Lelam. In 2001, after the serial flops of Praja and Dubai, he delivered the hit Runway with Dileep. Porinju Mariam Jose is his comeback film after four flops in the last six years.
Like most of his contemporaries, Joshiy didn’t write his own screenplays; instead, he worked with a string of like-minded writers who often gave him the right material to deliver the hits. Dennis Joseph penned Nirakkoottu, Shyama, New Delhi, Dinarathrangal, Number 20 Madras Mail, Sangham, and Nair Saab. Kaloor Dennis is credited with Katha Ithuvare, Vannu Kandu Keezhadakki, and January Oru Orma while SN Swamy wrote the blockbusters Sainyam, Dhruvam and Naduvazhikal. His occasional outings with scenarists Padmarajan (Ee Thanutha Veluppan Kalathu), Renji Panicker (Lelam, Pathram), Lohithadas (Kauravar, Kuttettan) and Udayakrishna-Siby K. Thomas (Runway, Lion, Twenty:20) were equally fruitful. The one-off partnership with Ranjan Pramod, Naran (2005) gave Mohanlal one of the biggest box office grossers of his career. However, most of the recent writers he had worked with, except Sachi (Run Babby Run), could not bring much success.
So, what makes one wonder about his ability to stay relevant to and connected with the changing times? To answer that we need to take a closer look at some of his characters, including from the latest flick.
Though Joshiy has often strived to break the stereotype tropes of action movies— outlandish stories with larger-than-life heroes and mindless chases — the protagonists of some of his biggest action flicks were macho, chauvinistic, alpha males. Their female counterparts stayed within societal boundaries, performed conventional household duties or stuck to being obedient assistants to the hero. Kurisummoottil Mariamma Vakil in Pothen Vava (2006) played by singer Usha Uthup was a feeble attempt to break his female lead stereotype. Mariam in Porinju Mariam Jose is cast in that mould. Mohanlal’s village strongman character in Naran did not have a heroine or a female character worth mentioning.
These are interesting times for Malayalam cinema. Young writers and directors offer fresh perspectives that turn the stereotypes that ruled the industry on their head. What does it take a veteran like Joshiy to stay afloat in these times? Though Joshiy deserves credit for backing a newbie writer and a bunch of second-run actors in his new movie, the main grouse, which might work as an alibi too, is that Porinju Mariam Jose is firmly set in the 80s, in terms of the milieu, style as well as values. The inconsistent character arcs plagued by conformism and predictability make for some uneasy viewing though the director has masked most of them with his craft and the performances of his lead actors. When it comes to setting the stage for a high-octane drama, it is a big let-down to see the master of spectacular action failing to create the frenzy of a Christian ‘Perunnal’ which Lijo Jose Pellisery had richly choreographed in his Angamaly Diaries.
While the characterisation of Mariam as one of the three main leads in itself is certainly a whiff of fresh air by Joshiy’s standards, the female lead deserved a better closure to her story. In Mariam, all we see is a loner who drinks neat, shares an occasional smoke with her male friend and utters profanities at will. In a revenge movie filled with brutal stabbings and bloodbath involving the two male protagonists, the firebrand Mariam is made to stay calm when it’s her turn to avenge the brutal murders of her dear friend and her lover one after the other. Were Joshiy and his writer sceptical about the adverse audience reaction to the female protagonist leading the final proceedings or was Mariam seriously reformed? What a seriously badass film it would have been, had Mariam took on a persona like that of Black Mamba of Kill Bill in the final act!
The veteran filmmaker with a wealth of experience and abundant energy may still pull off a hit, but Joshiy badly needs a reboot to take on the current crop of filmmakers. The ground has shifted and a new order has emerged in Malayalam cinema in which content trumps star value. In a lighter vein, Joshiy 2.0 will emerge when his Mariam has her revenge for the tragic losses in her life or when a Mullamkolli Velayudhan (Naran) feels that it is unbecoming of a hero to be standing guard at the door of the lone sex worker to protect the morality of a whole village.
Joshiy effectively combines all the ingredients of commercial potboilers and adapts himself well to the changes, but the one element that seems to be missing in his armour is a fresh perspective. Given Joshiy’s cross-genre strengths, can we expect him to push the envelope and make a neo-noir film, one that caters to the new-age sensibilities?
(The author is a communication professional and a film enthusiast. Views expressed are personal)