Director: Basil Joseph
Cast: Tovino Thomas, Wamiqa Gabbi, Renji Panicker, Aju Varghese
After a spate of red-themed political films, we're now being inundated with sports dramas. Georgettan's Pooram. Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu. And now, Basil Joseph's immensely heart-warming Godha (Wrestling Arena), a sturdy example of how the well-timed, well-tuned collision of clichés can become something… maybe not great, but certainly fun and interesting and consistently entertaining. As the film opens, we see Aditi Singh (Wamiqa Gabbi) in a stadium in Chandigarh. She wants to wrestle. (She's already in a singlet.) But her brother, who wants to marry her off, storms into the women's locker room and says there are two paths before her. One leads to the stadium. The other, home. It's an either-or.
To this narrative, add the one about a son (Aanjaneya Das, played by Tovino Thomas) slowly beginning to understand his distant father (Renji Panicker's Captain). Throw in a subplot about a traditional sport like wrestling versus a money-spinner like cricket. Oh, let's not forget the never-before-seen angle of a boy becoming a man. (Aanjaneya Das is directionless after completing his engineering. Captain is a wrestling coach. You do the math.) These clichés are suffused with the sheer joy of filmmaking we see only in mainstream Malayalam cinema, whose young directors speak another language just as fluently: the language of cinema.
About this, I will entertain no debate. Nowhere do you find slo-mo as sensuously used as in Malayalam cinema. In Tamil or Telugu cinema, the technique is used to punch up a hero's heroism. He walks in slo-mo. Or he fights in slo-mo. But when Captain is introduced, the film switches to slo-mo for an entire stretch, toggling between the present (he disrupts a cricket match) and his past (his wrestling glory-days).
This let's-have-fun inventiveness extends to the score: the ticking of a clock finds its way into the dramatic background music that plays over a crucial bout. And of course, the cinematography. Early on, the camera pans and tracks through a frozen three-dimensional space. Is it necessary? I'd argue yes. Part of a director's mandate is letting us know he knows how to use his medium. Style is substance too.
The writing's the glue, with lines segueing seamlessly from Malayalam to Hindi to English
And when there's actual substance, the style takes it to another level. I'm talking about the scene where Captain advises his son after the latter declares his love to Aditi. (Long story. Das meets her when he goes to study in Chandigarh. Then she comes down because… watch the movie!) This scene isn't a show-stopper, and yet it's staged so exquisitely, you can sense the high the crew got when the director yelled CUT.
The writing's the glue, with lines segueing seamlessly from Malayalam to Hindi to English. Godha has my favourite interval block of the year-so-far. Aditi gets down from a train. She buys a packet of chips. The shopkeeper says, "Welcome to Kerala." The director, meanwhile, says, "You don't always need thundering drama at this point in the film."
The actors all get to shine. Aju Varghese is a hoot as always as Das's friend. Renji Panicker is practically unrecognisable as Captain. He's beefed up and he looks utterly convincing as a former champ. Tovino Thomas doesn't get to swagger like he did in Oru Mexican Aparatha, but he shows us how diffident Das is, how unsure of his place in the scheme of things, especially when faced with Aditi's fearsome focus. Wamiqa Gabbi makes the most of this part — this is her film. She's the hero. She does the macho things. When two men gang up and tease her, she doesn't wait for Das to jump in and help. She knows the moves. Within seconds, the men are pulp.
Despite Das's overtures, there isn't much of a love story. Godha may not be as prickly as Dangal, and crises may get resolved a tad too conveniently, but it shares with that film an unwavering eye on what's really the story, what's important. Godha is as focused as Aditi is. We root for her. It's easy to see why she's embraced by Kerala as their girl when she chooses to represent the state. The locals call her opponent "Delhi kaari," the "northerner," almost forgetting that Aditi is from a northern state herself. This is a moving, forceful testament to the assimilations that make our country what it is.
Which is not to say that the Keralite identity isn't brandished with a vengeance. "What is it about parotta and beef curry?" someone asks. Das replies with the look of a man in the throes of a bone-melting orgasm: "It's not just food. It's an emotion." Translation: Take that, you northerners.
Watch the trailer here: