At Tom’s Cottage, Shadow, the pet dog is bouncing around joyously. He responds to his master’s quirky orders, be it spotting crows or sitting on the window sill, with praiseworthy obedience. Shadow may be particularly indulgent as his master is home after days. Director-actor Joy Mathew is making up for his over 25-year absence from the film world with a vengeance. Sitting by the round wooden table in the lean verandah he pulls out his diary and reads out the names of the 20 films he has acted in this year. The twinkle in his eye cannot be missed as Joy subtly makes his point. He has closed the chasm of over two decades in a year’s time with these 20 films.
Joy’s thumping return will be a starred reference in the Malayalam film industry’s annual report. His Shutter intrigued pundits and laymen alike; did a bout of the festival circuit and clocked over 100 days. Directors are still peeling away his layers as an actor. He donned many roles; of the mute father in Annayum Rasoolum, the Satanic priest Ottaplakkan in Amen, the don in the recently released Singaravelan. Rolling out are more promising ones — Zachariyude Garbhinikal, Idukki Gold, Philips and the Monkey Pen. “I have been waiting for 25 years,” Joy is cryptic.
For the lead actor in John Abraham’s iconic Amma Ariyan the years away from films left him creatively rudderless. He played many parts — of a journalist, playwright, publisher and a non-resident Indian. “I was wandering,” he admits. But the small Malayalam films that arrived post 2010 gave him confidence. Joy realised his honest films will not be out-of-place. “It is very easy to make an art film. They are an exercise in self-deception. Those like John opted for the public release of his films. In these years, I could not have done that,” he explains.
Joy waited. Opportunities to direct came; a group of medical students funded a project. But Joy opted out. He worried if he would be his honest self at the helm. “I was searching. I wanted to make a good film which people would watch,” says Joy. Despite constraints Shutter did not involve compromise. He got the cast he desired. “After running for 100 days it is now being made in three languages including Assamese. If your film is honest, people will accept it,” he sums up.
Cinema that holds close humaneness is dear to Joy. So too are the characters from his childhood who taught him humanity. Be it the uncle who lost his eyes in the Pakistan War but discovered the virtues of compassion or the aunt who nursed the poor. “They are my heroes.”
Studying in the school where his mother was a teacher, having upma and milk at noon, the only dramatic act Joy did was to be a velichapadu (oracle) as young boys made merry. “Being a Christian that was all it took to be beaten up by my mother,” remembers Joy.
Growing up in Challissery near Thrissur what Joy did not lack was thrilling snapshots of life. “For Thiruvathira, small groups would walk around performing plays. Once they were doing a play on Hanuman, Raman and Sita. My mother ordered them to stage it outside the gate, but father let them in. Thenga Balan was playing Sita. After a scene, Sita disappeared behind the curtain. But the men holding the curtain fell asleep, the curtain fell and I distinctly remember Sita, squatting on the floor, smoking a beedi. Even after all these years; Brecht, Mother Courage, Caucasian Chalk Circle, no one scene has intrigued me as much as that smoking Sita,” laughs Joy. His creativity is about those moments when fiction and reality became one in bizarre ways.
In a bigger school, away from the mother’s protective umbrella, Joy slowly stepped into theatre. “In the big school, no one noticed me and I was plagued by complexes. The neglect made me fight for attention,” says Joy. By the end of school, he had conquered complexes to be crowned the best actor for three years.
College years were a heady mix of campus theatre and Naxal movement. While he performed plays on any worthwhile subject on campuses in Thiruvananthapuram, Kottayam and Thiruvalla, he also spent time in the police stations at Tirur, Parapanangadi and Manjeri. Times and politics were tumultuous. “I have no regrets, no disappointments. The base for my cinema is formed from my understanding of people and their reality then,” says Joy. In a life marked by high drama, Joy tided over disillusionment as the movement became redundant. Some ended their lives, others became insane, Joy merely wandered away. “I often feel like leaving home. But I also feel like coming back,” he says. He wished to study films at Pune, but ended up a journalist in Mumbai before becoming John’s hero.
“Knowing John’s temperament the producers had insisted on a complete script. John never referred to it even once during the shoot,” says Joy. “The script is not the film,” he adds. But one technical aspect he swears by is editing. A film is made and marred at the editing table, he says. “I was most stressed during the editing of Shutter,” he adds.
Joy the actor appears in a range of films, some of which Joy the director may never be part of. But Joy is not deterred by the dichotomy. He is democratic in his choices as an actor and deliberately so. Different styles of films are his lessons in different aspects of film making.
“As an actor I don’t have a problem with any kind of films. Further I love the energy of these films. It is on these sets that I keep the director in me on the move. It is like going to a university. But as a director I am sure of my kind of cinema. I can defend and explain it,” he says. Vying for attention are three scripts in his head. But at the moment the actor is not resting.