Koode Movie Review: A Good Film That Could Have Been A Great One

Prithviraj Sukumaran is superb in a beautifully directed Malayalam drama by Anjali Menon, which is too self-consciously serious
Koode Movie Review: A Good Film That Could Have Been A Great One

Director: Anjali Menon

Cast: Prithiviraj Sukumaran, Nazriya, Parvathy

When we first see Joshua (Prithviraj) in Anjali Menon's Koode (Together), his face is covered by a safety mask. He is in the midst of cleaning up something that looks like chemical waste in some kind of industrial plant in the Middle East. Soon, he gets a call from home, which he has to take in the office of a supervisor who is clearly not happy about this. It sounds like bad news from home, but what's worse is this: even when the mask comes off, Joshua's face remains a mask. Inscrutable, unreadable – the camera moves in real close, but finds nothing. Look at how much this small, near-wordless opening section accomplishes. Even without knowing much about Joshua, we know the type of man he is. We see the monotony of his generic blue-collar job, realise that it's probably a dangerous job, register that he is far away from home, see that the work atmosphere (recall that grumpy supervisor) is less than ideal, and, finally, sense that things at home aren't great either.

Koode (adapted from Sachin Kundalkar's 2014 Marathi film, Happy Journey) is Joshua's story: of a man who suffers from a (somewhat justifiable) martyr's complex, having hoisted himself on the cross, since his teens, in order to become his family's Saviour. (The father is a car mechanic. When expenses mount, he sends Joshua away with a "Gulf"-based relative.) The film keeps cutting between the present (shot in cool tones of blue) and the past (bathed in warmer colours), and we see that the highlight of Joshua's life is the arrival of his sister, Jenny (the grown-up version is played by Nazriya Nazim). She's born during Christmas – she's his present. Over a beautiful lullaby – Minnaminni (composed by M Jayachandran) – we sense the love, the tenderness this sensitive brother feels for his sister. And then, one day, without being consulted on the matter, he is sent away, and his heart turns cold. If you just want me to make money for the family, then that's exactly what I will do. But don't expect anything else. There are hints of sexual abuse, too.

The character's psychology is expressed not through words but visuals. As a boy, Joshua saw a nest that had fallen from a tree, filled with squawking chicks, and he – very carefully – restored it to its rightful place. And now, he is himself cast out of the nest. Or consider the scene where Joshua discovers that his football coach (Ashraf, played by Atul Kulkarni) has no one, and invites him home for Christmas. Joshua wants to include everyone, and when he is excluded, his very core undergoes a transformation. It all may sound precious, but on screen, it's wrenching. Zubin Nazeel Navas, who plays Joshua as a boy, not only looks like he'll grow up to be Prithviraj, but his face is also so alive, so open to the wonder of life that it contrasts stunningly with the mask of a man he will eventually turn into. Prithviraj does some of the most complex acting of his career. Without the crutches usually available to actors playing these characters – say, overly resentful dialogue, or dramatic scenes where he lashes out – he conveys the pressure-cooker situation Joshua is in, simmering with resentment.

Koode (adapted from Sachin Kundalkar's 2014 Marathi film, Happy Journey) is Joshua's story: of a man who suffers from a (somewhat justifiable) martyr's complex, having hoisted himself on the cross, since his teens, in order to become his family's Saviour.

But the film doesn't live up to these touches, this performance – and at least some of this may have to do with my impatience with the genre where a man with serious issues learns life lessons from a blithe spirit who is his exact opposite. (A journey functions as some kind of twee therapy.) Nazriya oversells the cuteness as the Manic Pixie Dream Sister, just a step away from the loosu ponnu-s we find in Tamil cinema – and I found it impossible to take her seriously. Her overcooked adorableness keeps undermining the gravity of Joshua's transformation. He begins to wear brighter colours (reds and maroons, reminiscent of the past). For such a bottled-up person, he gets comfortable having even his most intimate moments – a kiss, a hug – being witnessed by someone else. But was there no other way to bring about this change?

Koode keeps veering off into other narratives that are not only less interesting than Joshua's, but also suck up valuable screen time without offering much. As long as Jenny is connected to Joshua, her scenes work – like when they talk about being forgotten, or when we see how she's managed to include him in their family photographs. But her college scenes are a write-off. Even here, the writing is meticulous. Jenny, who suffers from a congenital condition that often leaves her breathless, dreams of flying – her bedroom is filled with drawings of birds, and the rousing Raghu Dixit number that the college's rock band plays, is titled Paranne (to fly). But when she falls for the bassist, Krish (Roshan Mathew), it looks like it belongs in some other film.

Each of these characters deserves their own story, their own movie: the boy (Krish) who gets scared and flees when he finds out about the girl's illness, and later regrets his actions; or the coach who was surrounded by students and who now finds himself alone. And in their own movie, these characters might have been developed with deeper insight. But now, they come and go, and I wished more scenes had been given, instead, to Joshua's parents (Maala Parvathi and the director Ranjith), whose arcs are reduced to small (though meaningful) scenes. When Joshua and his father bond silently over the electric train set from his childhood, it feels as though a lifetime of ache has been condensed into a single feel-good moment. Raghu Dixit's overemphatic score keeps rushing in to flesh out emotions we don't really feel.

Parvathy plays Sophie, another wounded creature. She shrinks from touch the way Joshua does. This, finally, feels like the film we should be seeing, about a man and woman who heal each other. If Joshua's family maintains a stoic distance, Sophie's (mostly male, and gun-toting) relatives are practically in her face, demanding that she lead her life the way they want her to. This patriarchal setup is overblown, too melodramatic for this movie, though again, we might not have felt that way if we knew these people better, had the time devoted to Jenny and Krish and the coach been spent on Sophie and her family. Parvathy hits no wrong notes, but the character is too generic: Sophie is someone who suffers. That's all we get. Oh, and that her father gives her a copy of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a groaningly literal metaphor for the emancipation that awaits her.

Anjali Menon has exquisite taste, an exquisitely delicate touch – but the glorious scene with the local gossip shows the kind of rough-edged energy Koode needed more of. (The Kalpana character in Bangalore Days came to mind.) This isn't (only) about humour. It's about imbuing a narrative with a different kind of colour than the ones conjured up in Littil Swayamp's gorgeous cinematography, and the too-perfect art and costumes. The blue of Joshua's van matches the colour of a blue sweater, which is similar to the blue of the gate outside Joshua's house, which resembles the blue of the doors outside the room the coach is found in. Yes, colour is psychology. But too much of it can suffocate a film. The condolence meeting where a boy bursts into the completely inappropriate Daddy mummy veettil illa punctures the film's funeral air, and in an entirely organic manner. We laugh. But we also see that this is who Jenny was, something Joshua has just begun to discover. This is the magic Anjali Menon infused into Manjadikuru and Ustad Hotel and Bangalore Days, and this magic dusted the cobwebs off plot clichés and made them soar. Koode, on the other hand, remains earthbound, a good movie inside which a great one is struggling to get free.

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