There are certain hallmarks to a Joju George performance: subtlety, nuance, method, and an ability to make viewers empathise with even morally ambiguous characters.
Last Updated: 11.55 AM, Mar 28, 2023
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In Iratta (which had its digital premiere on Netflix this month) Joju George plays twins DySP Pramod and ASI Vinod, both working at the same police station. The story kicks off when Vinod is found dead at the workplace. While the cause of death seems to be suicide, his colleagues do not rule out foul play. It is the unfolding investigation that introduces us to the story of the twin brothers — forced to separate in adolescence, one to live with their mother, and the other with an abusive father. This in turn shapes their adulthood, with one of the boys nursing a deep, irrational hatred for his twin.
They don’t really grow up into the stereotypical twins of celluloid — one good, the other evil. Both struggle to maintain interpersonal relationships and carry sore vestiges of their past, thereby making it impossible for them to reach out to each other. If Pramod is battling inner demons after his wife walks out of their home with their infant daughter, Vinod seems to have finally found a lifeline to pull himself ashore. What’s startling is how effortlessly Joju depicts the two men, without relying on any overtly external crutches. Except for a hint of buck teeth, it’s a very internalised act — one that strongly outlines both characters.
In one scene, Vinod’s love interest Malini is attending a workshop conducted by Pramod. Vinod walks in, signals to Malini to get up, and exchanges angry words with his quiet twin. Maybe it’s in the way Vinod’s eyes bore into Pramod’s, or the odd tranquility that flits across Pramod’s face, but the duality is very subtly manifested there.
“Originally it was not supposed to be about twins. It was Joju who suggested that he play both characters. He was there with us right from the scripting stage. The script supported ASI Vinod. Pramod lingers in your mind on the basis of his performance,” Iratta director Rohit MG Krishnan observed.
In 2022, Joju was part of a segment called ‘Old Age Home’, in the anthology Freedom Fight. His character was that of an elderly man with dementia. When his wife — who has turned cold after years of confined domesticity — plays it down, he forms an easy camaraderie with the new Tamil house help. It’s the subtle nuances Joju brings to the character that evoke empathy. In one scene his character tells his wife he can’t recollect a song: the helplessness is so minutely captured that you feel a lump rising in your throat. It is also director Jeo Baby’s favourite scene from the film.
“Joju pulled it off in the first take. I remember when I discussed the film — which is based on my father’s life — with him, even before the script was ready, he would discuss his plans for approaching the character. He looked up YouTube videos, spoke to doctors regarding the mannerisms. He thinks a lot more than is needed for the betterment of a character. The first day’s shoot is a matter of anxiety for him,” shares Jeo.
The year 2021 was when Malayalam cinema truly tapped into Joju George’s versatility. In One, he was Party Secretary Babychan, a close friend of the Chief Minister (Mammootty). It marked a homecoming in a sense as Joju’s first speaking part as an actor was as a gunman in Mammootty’s Dada Saheb (2000). As Babychan, Joju adroitly supported Mamootty’s act, and the palpable warmth and familiarity of their characters’ friendship is a testament to the evolution of his craft.
Ahammed Khabeer, who directed Joju in Madhuram (2021) and June (2019) rates him next only to Mammootty and Mohanlal when it comes to talent in Malayalam cinema. As the feudal landlord lusting after his domestic help in ‘Savithri’ (a segment directed by Jay K, in the anthology Aanum Pennum); as Sub Collector Anwar Ali in Mallik; or the gentle, patient husband in Madhuram — Joju showcased his widening repertoire as an actor. But his piece de resistance turned out to be Martin Prakkat’s Nayattu, in which Joju played SI Maniyan. Maniyan complies with the manipulations in the system and watches helplessly as he becomes a pawn in it. The only bright spot in his life is his daughter. Joju simply owns the character.
During a recent interview for his film Solomante Theneechakal (2022), which features Joju, director Lal Jose recollected one of his early memories of the actor: "I remember Joju coming for an audition to Pollachi and sleeping on a sack at the market as he couldn’t afford a room. He took a bath at the open tap, got dressed and came to the audition.”
Jose's recollection is no exaggeration. It is widely known that Joju made the rounds of directors and producers' offices for 15 years. "After a while, I figured that unless I learnt the workings of cinema, I won’t be able to reach anywhere. So I got in as AD. I have been a junior artiste in countless films, where I would just be in the background,” the actor told this writer in an earlier interview. But it took him another 25 films to snag a character with a name (Cocktail; 2010). Meanwhile, Joju’s orthodox Christian family was convinced that he was up to no good with his acting obsession.
While director Jeo Baby rates Joju’s turn in Martin Prakkat’s Best Actor (2010) as the moment he felt “this guy had it in him to make it big”, it took Joju a few more years to display his prowess. It was actor-turned-writer Anoop Menon who first offered him a space to flex his craft.
Be it as Althas, the rich school-dropout in Trivandrum Lodge (2012) or the salacious cop in Hotel California (2013), Menon inadvertently unearthed Joju's comic side. That facet clinched him a few more interesting roles (as Nivin Pauly’s miserly brother-in-law in 2013's Neram; the goofy brother-in-law in 2014's RajadhiRaja; the absent-minded cop in Action Hero Biju, 2016; the schoolteacher in 2017's Udaharanam Sujatha).
However, Joju truly flourished in roles that had some rough edges. His director Ahammed Khabeer ventures a reason as to why the actor has this facility to grasp particularly deep and intense roles: “Joju has had incredible life experiences and has gone through many ups and downs since his struggling days. So he is able to add perception to his characters [sic]. And he has great observation skills as an actor," Khabeer comments.
Take his turn as the misogynist, emotionally abusive husband Elvis in Ranjith’s Ramante Edanthottam (2017) — a layered and intricate portrayal that revealed Joju's capacity for gravitas. Elvis is egotistic, manipulative and toxic. But strangely, Joju is able to humanise the character.
2018's Joseph was Joju's first solo film, and it took him places. He played a retired cop who grapples with a troubled past. Joseph’s seemingly happy marriage takes a pounding when he discovers his former lover’s unnatural death. Neither does he ever recover from his failed marriage. The character is shown in his 20s and early 50s, and except for the inorganic dialogue rendition, the actor successfully inhabits the complex persona.
Joju gave a geniality to his turn in June (2019), which revolves around the coming-of-age story of the titular character, a teenager. It was Joju as June's father, Joy Kararikkal, who provided the narrative the requisite heft. The father-daughter bond is heartwarming and one of the most memorable scenes in the film is when he invites June to sample a beer. “It was done impromptu by the two actors, and it is my favourite scene in the film,” says director Khabeer.
Khabeer specifically wrote Madhuram keeping Joju in mind: “I chose him because he had never done an out-and-out love story. I thought it was an image makeover for him. Here is a man who is going through so much emotional turmoil, yet faces it with a smile. Joju nailed it.”
Jeo Baby describes Joju as a “methodical actor, [who] does a lot of research, and is extremely anxious before approaching a role". "He is a perfectionist and involved in all the departments of filmmaking," Jeo says. However, Joju himself previously declared to this writer that while he "thinks about [his] role a lot, [he] doesn’t do any homework.”
Joshiy’s Porinju Mariam Jose (2019) proved that Joju had the screen presence to carry off the "mass hero" type of roles. Porinju is local honcho Iype's henchman, but it’s his softer side that’s more endearing: the times when he's busy daydreaming about Mariyam (Nyla Usha), his childhood sweetheart. At night, he lingers outside her home, waiting to catch a glimpse. Joju pulls off Porinju's duality with flair; the critique, if any, would be that he needs to improve his suppleness for stunt sequences.
Juxtapose this performance with his creepy turn as the benefactor-turned-predator in Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Chola (also 2019). Nimisha Sajayan and Akhil Viswanath portray teen lovers who are eloping with the aid of the latter's mentor (Joju). However, the journey soon takes on a nightmarish turn for the girl. Joju's performance is eerie at a visceral level — replete with stoic silences and idle glances that magnify your unease as the narrative inches towards the inevitable.
Yet another study in contrasts would be Joju's phenomenally moving act in the following year's Halal Love Story (dir. Zakariya Mohammed). Siraj is a divorcee; a filmmaker by profession; irresponsible, short-tempered and an alcoholic. Joju's portrayal is subtle and poignant; a scene where Siraj breaks down while briefing his cast on their script has Joju delivering a performance that is on par with some of Malayalam cinema's greats.
A footnote here that bears mentioning: Joju's film credits include citations as a producer on 2015's Charlie (Parvathy-Dulquer Salmaan) and even though he maintains that "production is not his forte and Charlie happened as it involved his friends", he went on to produce five more films — Udaharanam Sujatha, Joseph, Chola, Porinju Mariam Jose and Madhuram.
Joju's two Tamil films are important milestones in his oeuvre. In Karthik Subbaraj’s Jagame Thandhiram (2021), he plays a Sri Lankan named Don Sivadoss, who facilitates immigrants. Joju's act, despite limited screen time, is the best part of the film. That he is able to hold his own even with a consummate performer like Dhanush next to him, in unfamiliar turf, proves that Joju has deservedly earned his way to the top.
The other title is 2022's anthology Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidiyaadhaa, which has Joju in the silent segment 'Mouname Paarvayaai'. It centres on a middle-aged couple who haven't spoken to each other for years, and there couldn't be a finer showcase for Joju's craftsmanship than this part that requires him to communicate a multitude of emotions through his gaze and body language alone. This is Joju building a character through his craft and refining it with his observations.
With Iratta continuing to enthrall, Joju George has truly come of age as one of Indian cinema's actors of note. Now he has the privilege of cherry-picking his characters.