Director Rahul Riji Nair's fourth film is also his fourth to lead with unique female protagonists. In his first, Ottamuri Velicham, we got a moody portrait of a lonely woman stuck in a cold, loveless marriage in an even colder, lifeless terrain. In his second film Dakini, he married comic book quirkiness with the Ramayana, except that Ram here is a 70-year-old woman and her army of pensioners. In his most recent Kallanottam, shot entirely on Go Pro, we witness an intense tug-of-war between two groups of men, both vying to put a price on a woman's honour. Experimental and intriguing, these films introduce us to people we never thought we'll meet in the most peculiar situations.
A few of these qualifications apply to Kho Kho as well, which is also his most mainstream outing so far. It stars Rajisha Vijayan, who plays a newly-appointed PE teacher named Maria Francis in a small island named Perumthuruthi. Her colleagues are as indifferent to sports as the students here and with their minimal resources, achievements are generally valued only if it helps them get out of the island. But Maria Francis isn't a cheery upstart who wants to transform her class with ambition and a never-say-die attitude. She's there because she needs the money and we often get cutaways to a past that brought her here.
In her past, she was a talented, hopeful sportsperson, destined for greatness as a national-level athlete, but a tragedy derailed not her just career but also her personal life. In the template of a sports drama, you'd assume she's here to redeem herself and her family. But in Kho Kho, the redemption is almost incidental. She probably just wants to keep her ship afloat, even if it means dealing with her demons privately, in the solitude of living alone in a new place.
But Rahul Riji Nair doesn't quite immerse us into this world like he was able to in earlier films. The government girls' school is like any other and so is in the island where the film is set in. The people lack the specificity too to become memorable. The principal, the accountant, the peon and other teachers are interchangeable with any other from any older film set in a school. Unfortunately, a lot of this applies to her team of kho kho players as well.
A great screenplay usually has the ability to show us the inner lives of multiple characters even if some of them get just a scene or two. But in Kho Kho, the entire private life of these students is limited to just one character named Anju (Mamitha Baiju) who gets a past, a mood and an attitude. The others? They get a name and a jersey but we wouldn't notice it if they were to be replaced with extras.
Which is surprising because the writing can really be perceptive when it wants to. We seldom get sports dramas where both players and the coach are female and you feel the difference this makes to Kho Kho. In one instance, we get a subplot involving Anju who might be in a relationship with one of the staff members. In the usual sports drama, this would involve the coach questioning her commitment and forcing her to end the relationship.
We get that scene even here, but what's different is the one that happens after. Maria's reaction to Anju opens her up for introspection. She's not infallible or confident of her duties and leadership might not come naturally to her. So it's natural that she doubts herself and begins questioning the reasons for this outburst.
In her solitude, she even asks herself why her father didn't reacted similarly to the exact same situation long ago. Maria is flawed and confused, capable of care and love on one day, just as she's prone to rigidity and strictness on the next, a complexity we rarely get when male stars play coach.
Even "taboo" topics like period pain are dealt with sensitively in Kho Kho. Films led by male coaches seldom touch upon this area and in Kho Kho, it's heartening to see Maria deal with it matter-of-factly, like it's no big deal. She doesn't dismiss it and expect players to play on with the same vigour. She understands what it's like and she knows that it's ok to take a break and play on.
But this sensitivity doesn't quite spread to other subplots. One of her other students comes from a troubled home, but there's no depth in the writing to make us feel this. Instead of focussing on one player alone, this scene is there to make us connect personal breakthroughs to the team's overall goal of winning big. But in this, it just feels like another scene to show us how good Maria is.
Even the way Maria's husband is written brings back the same indifference. We see traces of their love story and the issues they face today as a result of their choices. On one hand, we get delicate touches when Maria factors in his mother into her every decision. This works even with the way she explains her decision to marry him so early, during a crisis. But you wonder why this doesn't sustain. In one scene, when Maria agrees to move away with the husband, we feel let down with her decision. Not only does this move confuse us about her commitment to the sport, but it also dilutes her love for these students.
Some of the dialogues too distance us from Maria's plight. There's a written quality to some of them, especially when dealing with motivational themes like dreams and mistakes. In a couple of instances, it almost feels like Rajisha is reading out her lines rather than feeling them.
But it's the barrage of montages that take away our investment from some of the lovely moments. It's a problem you're going to face when you're making a film about a sport like kho kho. We get a scene where we're taught the rules of the sport but it only ends up confusing us more than before.
In such a situation, you sort of understand why you need so many montages when so many indistinguishable games of kho kho are being played. But with so few characters in invest in, there's not much the director can do expect cut to the scorecard and reactions of the coach. What we feel for a particular match is almost entirely based on the BGM, which trains us to feel either dejected or inspired, fallen or victorious.
Even the use of the sport as a metaphor, feels forced and it requires the director to explain it to us using obvious dialogues. This is unlike the intelligent way he had used pests as a metaphor in Ottamuri Velicham. We know the beats of this drama and we also know how it will change, making Kho Kho a film with great moments and even better intentions. But as a sports drama, it plays solo for too long forgetting that every movie is kind of a team sport.