Netflix has been churning out some interesting documentaries from India, and this content is unearthing many stories that have been forgotten by the audience. Since the advent of the internet and technology, plenty of stories from three or four decades ago have resurfaced on OTT platforms in the form of television shows and films. Netflix India, in the past few years, has been way ahead of any other OTT platform in India when it comes to producing and releasing true crime documentaries.
The Indian Predator series, House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths, The Hunt for Veerappan, and The Karma Killings, must be among the best-researched documentaries on the platform. Curry & Cyanide: The Jolly Joseph Case, a Netflix India original documentary film directed by Christy Tom, is about a series of murders that took place in a sleepy town in Kerala between 2002 and 2014. The one-hour, forty-minute-long documentary film was released on the platform on December 22, 2023, and a lot is discussed and uncovered throughout the run time of this spine-chilling film.
The documentary begins with the incident involving Jolly Joseph, a homemaker and a person who works with NIT Calicut, being arrested for her role in the murder of her husband, Roy Thomas, and her alleged links to the deaths of her mother-in-law, father-in-law, and three other family members. Jolly Joseph’s sister-in-law and brother-in-law, Renji and Rojo, speak in this documentary and chronicle the horrifying incidents as they lost five family members because of Jolly Joseph, who seemingly came across as a simple, hard working woman living in the sleepy town of Koodathayi in the Calicut district of Kerala.
The then IPS officer and investigation lead, KG Simon IPS, spoke in the documentary in detail about the time the police took to get hold of Jolly Joseph, the prime accused in the deaths of her family members. Jolly Joseph comes from a humble background, and marrying into a family as prestigious as Roy’s was a big deal for her. As per the family members speaking on the show, Roy and Jolly were in love and chose to marry each other. Roy’s father was not very happy about the match. There was a lot of emphasis on Jolly being highly educated and why it was important for Jolly’s mother-in-law for her to work and be financially stable. It was a sore subject for her because it is assumed Jolly wanted to take over the responsibility of the house; she found solace in it, but the immense pressure to work was intolerable. The first ‘murder’ happened in 2002 and is the reason many assume her mother-in-law Annamma was one day made aware of Jolly’s fake qualifications. Even though she had died of a heart attack, Jolly is currently under trial and is a suspect in the murder of the elderly lady. Years later, the family is under the impression that Jolly was probably seeking money, comfort, property, and control, which could be the motive, but so far it has not been established yet.
Year before her husband’s father, Tom Joseph’s death, Jolly had claimed to have bagged a guest lecturer job at the NIT, Calicut. Tom Joseph as an elderly person had died of heart attack as stated by Jolly who was running the household as well. Many blindly believed her, including the family and neighbors. There was no reason to suspect her because no one would assume a daughter-in-law would take such extreme steps for purely selfish reasons. Renji and Rojo discussed in detail how their sister-in-law’s demeanor changed after the deaths of their parents. Jolly made sure Renji and Rojo were kept away from the property. She produced a fake will with the help of her husband, Roy Thomas, to have full control over her father-in-law’s property. The will was questioned for its discrepancies, and the updated version of it did not help Jolly later in her life. Her father-in-law’s death was followed by the death of her husband, who seemed to have died in the bathroom. One of the family members insisted on an autopsy, where the reports clearly showed cyanide’s presence in the deceased body. Jolly dubbed her husband’s death a suicide because of the heavy losses incurred due to their business and mounting debts. The documentary describes every move made by Jolly as strategic. There was also an affair angle that was discussed in detail. A lot of family members claimed to have seen Jolly fraternizing with Roy’s cousin Mathew, who was a salesman at a gold jewelry shop.
Three more deaths happened in the family, and none of them were put through an autopsy. An uncle who had discovered Jolly’s affair with Matthew, a young infant named Alphine, and the mother of the said infant, Sili; all were related to her deceased husband, Roy Thomas. It was widely speculated in the show that Jolly was keen on marrying Roy’s cousin Shaju, who was married to Sili, but it never led to any murder accusations. With Sili’s passing, Jolly soon married Shaju.
The defense lawyer in the show, BA Aloor, fought in favor of Jolly and had to debunk many of the allegations against the woman. There was a case of police having no physical evidence of Jolly acquiring or adding cyanide to the food all the deceased consumed. The lawyer also questioned the investigating team’s caliber, which did not take into account the presence of cyanide mentioned in Roy’s autopsy report. The police claimed to have obtained cyanide powder from Jolly’s home but it was widely speculated, by the journalists covering the story, that this crucial evidence was planted by the investigation team.
The documentary ended with Renji finally reopening the case of her brother’s death, which unlocked Pandora’s box for the family. The saga ended with Jolly confessing to her son Remo her role in the murders. Remo’s association with his mother ended with her arrest. The investigation unearthed the fact that Jolly never worked for NIT Calicut as the institution never had a record of her being a guest lecturer. Along with her, Mathew was arrested for providing cyanide, an object only gold jewelry owners could legally stock because they are used to polish the precious metal. Romo and his brother now live with Renji’s family, who wholeheartedly accepted the only legacy left of her murdered brother Roy. Renji also admits to having spoken to Jolly in prison, and the accused seemed to have no remorse and claimed to have been collected about her role in the killing.
Christy Tom, the director of the documentary, remained consistent till the end. However, the documentary comes across as one-sided, as the investigation and the trial are still in progress. It would have been interesting to hear about some of the incidents that have occurred in the family from Jolly’s point of view.
Nevertheless, the documentary is a great insight into the human mind, especially for women from the rural parts of the country who are programmed to find the right man from a financially sound family to settle down. As per the speakers, Jolly was obsessed with being in control, and that could have been her motive behind the killings she carried out. The makers, through the police officers and the family, did not get to the bottom of the motive behind these murders. A lot was speculated, beyond money, power, and property. A mental health angle could have been investigated as well.
The direction and the screenplay of the documentary are straightforward, as the narrative does not deviate much from the subject. It managed to create a mood of eeriness and shock, which would allow the audience to remain engaged till the end. Many journalists in detail spoke about how the neighbors and other acquaintances of the family tried a lot to add a sleaze element once Jolly was arrested to make her seem like the femme fatale. The focus of the documentary was more on the series of deaths that took place and the eventual arrest. There wasn’t much focus on the media coverage, the dysfunctional family dynamics, the motive, and the nature of Jolly’s relationship with her first husband, Roy, and her current spouse, Shaju.
The documentary seemed slow, but it added to the intrigue the makers created and made the film worth watching till the end. Jolly’s family and her so-called fake ID and job with NIT Calicut were busted, but beyond that, there wasn’t much information shared in the film. The police probably did not have much lead on who employed Jolly and how she was acquiring money she claimed to have got as a salary. It was upsetting to watch the family find the courage to talk about a tragedy of this magnitude. There was an instance where a couple of family members of the deceased spoke about receiving flak from their extended household when the bodies were exhumed. The fact that Renji and Rojo rose above all the criticism to fight for their father, mother, brother, and other members proves they were brave enough to come out in the open to share their experiences and pain. Curry & Cyanide: The Jolly Joseph Case is another successful outing from the Netflix India team. The retelling of this case is chilling, and it deserves a watch.