Cast: Nayanthara, Yogi Babu, Saranya Ponvannan
The archetypal premise of Kolamavu Kokila, directed by Nelson, is at least as old as K Balachander's Arangetram (possibly even older): a woman from a respectable family is in need of money, which leads her into a disreputable profession. It was sex work there; here, it's smuggling drugs. But the happy twist is that Kolamavu Kokila is no weepie, and neither is it, thankfully, a heart-in-the-right-place empowerment drama. (These seem to be the only two flavours of heroine-oriented films, though the fact that a heroine has been asked to carry a "nice girls usually don't do things like this" narrative is certainly its own kind of empowerment.) I would have enjoyed it more if Kokila (Nayanthara) weren't presented as such a wide-eyed victim, had she learnt to enjoy the headiness that comes from breaking the law, but… baby steps, baby steps!
There's a lot to cheer in Kolamavu Kokila. As in Aramm, there's no hero — instead, we get Yogi Babu as Sekar, a provisions shop owner who carries a torch for Kokila and gets a fun music video set to Anirudh's super-catchy Kalyana vayasu. Frankly speaking, this is a looksist conceit that wants us to laugh at the mere fact that a guy who looks like Yogi Babu can dream of getting a girl who looks like Nayanthara. (Yogi Babu is a terrific comedian, and it would be a shame if he became the Usilai Mani of this generation, used for the same "joke" over and over.) But on the other hand, this, again, points to Nayanthara's adventurousness in picking parts. I don't see too many top heroines, today, saying yes to films where the answer to the "Who is your co-star?" question is "Yogi Babu!"
Many gags are present on paper but they don't build
Why, then, does the film sound better than it plays out? For one, the director can't make up his mind about the tone. The events (and Anirudh's wacky score) suggest a black comedy. The staging and pacing (and Sivakumar Vijayan's studied camerawork, with neon colours and skewed angles) suggest a mood piece, a drama. Many gags are present on paper but they don't build. When a cop stumbles on Kokila's tiffin box stuffed with cocaine, or when Kokila's family outwits a gang in a gruesome manner, there's no zip. Or maybe we could say that the extreme stylisation chokes the film and zaps it of energy. The screenplay looks like it needed a few more drafts. A cop played by Saravanan comes and goes. Kokila's family is too colourless, little more than "dad", "mom" and "younger sister." Black comedies thrive on eccentric behaviour, and this family is too straight.
As is Nayanthara, who plays Kokila as a timid, halting creature, and maintains this single note throughout. Yes, the key to her character is her "appavi moonji" as someone puts it, her innocent face, but it's hard to read her. When she asks for someone to be shot, or when she engineers a double cross, you don't know what's going on in that head. Is it fear? Or cunning? But the supporting cast — each character nuttier than the next — saves the movie. Mottai Rajendran plays a smuggler with a fondness for circuitous sayings. We get an idiot gangster who likes ice cream. (The scene where he leads Kokila to his boss is a scream.) Yogi Babu and a sidekick (who's in love with Kokila's sister) get their moments, especially after they board the van with a ginormous consignment of drugs.
Best of all, Saranya, who I feared was being cast in the "Saranya role" yet again, gets to kick ass. This is so unexpected that I laughed as much at what she does as the fact the she's the one doing it. This, then, is another triumph: the reversal of what we find in hero-oriented movie, where all the women (girlfriend, mother, sister) are stock characters whose only job is to revolve around the hero. In Kolamavu Kokila, the women do everything, from cooking to killing. The men are either useless (like Kokila's father, played by RS Shivaji), or clowns, or cops and gangsters who are outwitted a tad too easily. The suspense factor is criminally low and this film could have been so much more, but it's so different in so many ways that I'm just glad it exists.