The Koodathayi killings had garnered nationwide attention; after all, it is not every day that one learns about six murders within an extended family. The quaint village of Koodathayi in the Kozhikode district of Kerala went into a state of shock when they found out that their beloved Jollyamma Joseph was the prime suspect in the murders. Most people who knew Jolly remembered her fondly, describing her as a well-behaved, sweet-spoken woman. But why was all of a sudden the NIT guest lecturer suspected of killings? The Netflix documentary film Curry And Cyanide provides a brief account of the sensational murder mystery.
The case has been covered in detail on the Spotify podcast Death, Lies, and Cyanide, narrated by Sashi Kumar. A two-part episode of the case is also available on the Desi-crime podcast. After the wide coverage of the case, the Netflix documentary should have gone out of its way to provide a fresh take, but it barely adds anything to the information publicly available. Curry And Cyanide is a rushed attempt with barely any investigative quality. The most intriguing questions are not posed, and we are presented with the most publicly accepted version of the entire case.
Who is Jolly Joseph?
Born into a family of farmers from Kattappana, Idukki district, Jolly always aspired to live a flamboyant lifestyle. Pictures from her teenage years reflected the life she wanted for herself. Journalist Nikhila Henry traveled to Kattappana to find out more about Jolly’s background. She believed that to understand the motive behind the murders, it was important to find out who the perpetrator was. Once again, Curry And Cyanide does not provide a deep insight into the psyche of the killer. From the information provided, we know that Jolly and Roy were distant relatives who had fallen in love with each other. After exchanging romantic letters for some time, the couple decided to exchange wedding vows. Roy’s father, Tom Thomas, was against the marriage because she was related to the family. While discussing the couple, Roy’s sister, Renji, recalled Jolly wearing high heels, something that was not quite commonly seen. This little detail is important to understand the flamboyant lifestyle Jolly aimed for. Roy and Jolly got married against Tom’s wishes, and Renji remembered how it rained nonstop that day.
Jolly perhaps believed that all her dreams would be fulfilled once she married Roy. The Thomas family was well respected and highly influential in society. The matriarch, Annamma Thomas, was a school teacher, and Tom Thomas worked in the education department. The family was quite progressive, and they prioritized education over everything else. To win their hearts, Jolly faked her qualifications with forged documents. She was a college dropout, but she posed to be an M.Com. graduate. Annamma was highly impressed by Jolly’s academic accomplishments, and soon after the marriage, she suggested Jolly start working. This was not the life that Jolly had imagined. She assumed that once she was married, she would spend her time at home taking care of the family and living a lavish life. She was neither interested in getting a job nor was she qualified to get one. Once pregnant, Annamma stopped pressuring her, but after the baby was born, she was expected to work and support the family. Annamma believed in sharing equal responsibilities, and she was not comfortable watching Jolly waste her education by staying at home. Jolly gradually found the situation impossible to deal with. Jolly’s case is not quite like any other serial killer. Every murder had a strong motive, and maybe “it just happened,” as she later allegedly confessed to her sister-in-law, Renji, because she was afraid of losing the respect and admiration she had received after she was welcomed into the Ponnamattam house.
When did the killings begin?
Jolly is yet to be proven guilty by the court, but from the evidence provided by the police, it is deduced that Annamma was Jolly’s first victim. In 2002, during a family gathering, Renji noticed her mother leave the dining room, and she decided to follow her to her room a little later. Annamma was in distress when Renji went to her room. She knew she was going to die, and she asked her family to be with her during her final moment. Rojo recalled how his mother’s face had turned red, and she struggled to breathe. Soon, she experienced a convulsion. By the time Annamma was taken to the hospital, she had passed away.
Jolly became the matriarch after Annamma’s death. Her personality significantly changed, and she started to make decisions for the family. While she convinced everyone around her that she was keeping the family together, Renji saw her for who she was. Jolly warned Renji that she would not get anything beyond the money and jewelry left by her mother specifically for her. After his wife’s death, Tom struggled with his mental health, and Renji chose to keep the entire conversation a secret from her father. Following Annamma’s passing, Jolly declared that she would stop looking for a job and focus entirely on caring for Tom. To Renji’s surprise, she was suddenly informed by her father that Jolly had accepted a guest lecturer position at NIT, Calicut. She now realizes that even after taking Annamma’s position at home, she was not given the same respect. A teaching job would help her become a respectable figure in society, and she faked the job to impress everyone around her. Jolly always wore her NIT ID card with pride around her neck. After the investigation, it was concluded that she had forged the ID to appear more convincing. Jolly had achieved everything she had desired, but her father-in-law soon posed a threat to her lifestyle.
It is believed that Jolly was having an affair with gold jewelry salesman M.S. Matthew, and Tom Thomas had started to doubt Jolly. Matthew frequented the Ponnamattam house, and Tom expressed his concern to Renji as well. In 2008, soon after taking his usual capsule after his evening coffee, Tom experienced breathlessness and discomfort, and he fell on the floor. Tom Thomas passed away that night. It was assumed that Tom died of a heart attack, and a postmortem was not requested. Years passed by, and Roy’s business started to tank. One day, when Renji and Rojo visited the house, Roy walked up to them with his father’s will in hand and claimed that the house now belonged to him and Jolly. Renji suspected the document Roy provided since it was not presented on stamp paper and lacked witness signatures. It is assumed that Roy was aware of some of Jolly’s lies, and perhaps they had a fallout that resulted in Jolly feeling dissatisfied. By then, Roy could no longer support Jolly financially, and perhaps she found the entire marriage pointless. Inheriting the house was important, and maybe that resulted in the killing instead of a divorce.
Roy was Jolly’s next victim, and he died in 2011 after having his dinner of rice and chickpea curry. He collapsed on the bathroom floor, and once again, his condition was too critical to be saved. Roy passed away, but his sudden death raised suspicion. Roy’s uncle, Mathew Manchadiyil, decided that a postmortem was necessary. The report stated that traces of cyanide were found in his system, which was responsible for his death. Jolly explained that Roy committed suicide because of the huge sum of money he owned, and the two siblings assumed it to be the truth. Even though Rojo found it strange that no lender asked for their money back, it makes one wonder why the siblings did not decide to investigate the death immediately, considering that the reason behind the suicide no longer seemed valid. The Koodathayi killings are an example of police negligence in investigations. Had the case of Roy’s death been looked into with more seriousness, maybe a few of the murders could have been stopped.
Who were the co-conspirators in the case?
Procuring cyanide is almost impossible in the state of Kerala, says toxicologist V.V. Pillay in Curry And Cyanide. To legally get access to cyanide, one has to get a license. Goldsmiths require salts of cyanide to polish the metal, and in Jolly’s case, she knew exactly the right person for the job. She had read about cyanide in a newspaper, and she realized that she needed help from someone working at a jewelry store. She befriended M. S. Mathew and convinced him to get her cyanide to kill a dog (some reports say a rat) that was causing trouble. Matthew bribed Praji Kumar, who worked at the same jewelry store, and he got access to the cyanide. Over the years, it is believed that Jolly studied the substance and found out the most effective ways to use it. When brought to court, Matthew did not deny the allegations. Police later found cyanide lying at Jolly’s house. The defense attorney, B. A. Aloor, casts doubt on the veracity of the evidence and asserts that it was fabricated by the police to support their position. The allegation is only briefly mentioned in Curry And Cyanide, with little further exploration of it.
What led to Jolly’s arrest?
After Roy’s death, using false documents, Jolly tried to legally take over the ancestral house, and that was when siblings Renji and Rojo stepped in. They merely compared the new will that Jolly provided with the one that Roy had previously presented to them. It was impossible that a deceased man gathered witnesses to sign the will, making the document completely false. Matthew Manchadiyil could not accept Roy’s sudden death, and he eventually also found out about Jolly’s affair. She realized that the man could make her life difficult, and she chose to strike once again. One evening in 2014, when Matthew visited Jolly’s house, it was assumed that she had added cyanide to his drink. As shocking as the news was to his relative, a postmortem was not conducted. With time, Jolly lost track of reality, and she accepted that only through crime could she attain financial gain and live the life of comfort she had always desired.
Jolly had her eyes on Roy’s first cousin, Shaju Zacharias. She always considered him to be the perfect husband since he had a permanent job as a teacher and was well respected. Shaju was married to Sili Sebastian, and they had two children, Abel and Alphine. On May 1st, 2014, Jolly and her two sons arrived at Zacharias’ house to celebrate the holy communion of Abel. All of a sudden, Alphine choked on the food she was being fed, and she suffered a convulsion. Alphine was kept under ventilation, but the two-year-old succumbed to death. Sili could not recover from the loss, and it resulted in the degradation of her mental health. Jolly started to regularly visit Sili, and when she expressed that they were planning on conceiving again, Jolly suggested she take the anti-depressant pills her father-in-law took. One morning in 2016, when Sili was at the dental clinic along with Jolly and Shaju, Jollu offered her the mushroom capsule to calm her down, and it ultimately resulted in her death. The hospital insisted on Shaju having a postmortem, but he refused to get it done. It is hinted in Curry and Cyanide that maybe Shaju had a role to play in the deaths of his wife and daughter. If we consider Jolly to be the suspect, getting rid of Sili was a necessity. The toddler would have tied her down, and that could have been the only motive behind the murder. While attending Sili’s funeral, Renji noticed a spark on Jolly’s face, and from that moment on, she wondered if she was behind all the deaths. A year after Sili’s death, Jolly and Shaju got married. Renji became all the more convinced of her doubt, and she revisited Roy’s postmortem reports. She found discrepancies in what she was told by Jolly and the details mentioned in the report. It became obvious to her that Jolly poisoned her brother, and it was not suicide. Renji spoke to K. G. Simon and that was when the investigation began. Her truth gradually came to light, and she went into a state of panic. The remains of the victims were exhumed, and the case caught the attention of the public. Remo returned home to find his mother in a jittery state. She initially denied the allegation, but when he continued to press, she admitted to the murders. Remo contacted Renji and informed her that his mother had indeed committed the murders. In 2019, Jolly was arrested at the Ponnamattam house.
Where is Jolly Joseph now?
Curry and Cyanide ends with Jolly behind bars and Renji accepting Jolly’s two sons into her family. While she was in police custody, Jolly admitted to the accusations, but her confessions will not come in handy in court. There are multiple loopholes in the case, be it the cyanide that was found at Jolly’s house after all these years or the fact that traces of cyanide were only found in Roy and Sili’s remains. The postmortem of the victims was conducted far too late, and the reports are not conclusive. Her defense advocate, B. A. Aloor, states with confidence that Jolly will not be convicted in court based on the reports and allegations presented.
Renji responds to the most asked question in the case: why were they not doubtful of Jolly? Her answer is simply that one does not readily doubt their family member because trust is crucial in family dynamics. She recalled how unbothered Jolly was when she met her in prison, and she allegedly confessed to the crime without an ounce of guilt. Jolly’s elder son, Remo, feels more at home now with Renji and her family than he ever did with Jolly. He refuses to acknowledge her as his mother and has chosen to move on from the past. Jolly is still in prison, and she attempted to commit suicide by biting into her arms. Maybe there is regret, and the only explanation behind her managing to live with the truth for this long was her belief that God would forgive her no matter how many sins she committed. On March 6, 2023, the Koodathayi murder case trials began at a special court in Kozhikode, Kerala. It is still an ongoing case, and it explains why certain aspects are not covered in the film. Curry and Cyanide could have been a great limited series with more perspectives and a serious investigation.