'Kotthu' movie review: Sibi Malayil delivers a film that hits all the right emotional beats

Kotthu sees the maverick filmmaker return to form after a long time.

Published: 17th September 2022 07:46 PM  |   Last Updated: 27th December 2022 05:59 PM   |  A+A-

A still from the film Kotthu.

A still from the film Kotthu.

Express News Service

In one of the film's many emotionally overpowering moments, we see a man wielding a weapon standing in a school courtyard surrounded by children while the camera tracks him from above, with a Mahatma Gandhi statue slowly coming into focus. Children and non-violence. It's what Kotthu stands by. The film, through its characters, often looks at children -- children who have either lost one or more parents or are about to gain some.

Asif Ali's Shanu belongs to the former. He is now under the protection of a father figure and mentor, Sadhandan (Ranjith), who took advantage of the boy's tragedy and turned him into an eternally loyal party 'activist'. I use single quotes because the definition of it is questioned later by Shanu's better half Hisaana (Nikhila Vimal). Shanu is out here to do the party's bidding, or to be specific, Sadhanandan's.

Let me start with the bond between Shanu and Sadhanandan. It's one of the most compellingly written mentor-protege relationships I've seen in a long time. The lion's share of the credit goes to Ranjith, who delivers a determined and driven performance.

He is as focussed on a carrom board as he is when facilitating the union of Shanu and Hisaana. He also demonstrates stretches of vulnerability, like in the instance where he feels conflicted about ordering someone's killing or when he has to answer his superiors.

Ranjith is such a potently commanding presence throughout the film that one finds it difficult to take one's eyes off of him. It's also the reason Kotthu often got me thinking about the structure of a gangster drama, which it closely follows.

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I liked how Ranjith's presence offers some cathartic pleasures, like when he has to deal with Hisaana's intrusive relatives or when he learns that some of his khaki-clad allies didn't exactly stay true to their word. However, the film is careful not to glorify Sadhanandan, as it presents enough opportunities for us to see him as a manipulator, regardless of some of his admirably humanitarian deeds.

That's not to say Ranjith is the only strong performer in the film. A considerably poignant sense of brotherhood runs through Kotthu, courtesy of Shanu and Sumesh (Roshan Mathew). There is a point where the latter becomes an integral part of all the characters' lives owing to the fact that he takes on a particular task to protect others.

This also provides an opportunity for Sudev Nair to step in for a terrific cameo as a Malayalam-speaking North Indian cop showing up unexpectedly to stir things up. I wish the film had more for him to do. I wonder why that didn't happen. Was it because having him stay on longer would thicken the atmosphere with more doom than we could handle?
 
Kotthu also gives us two strong female characters, one of whom is Hisaana, who becomes the film's sane voice of reason. And Nikhila plays her as a sensible forgiving character. She isn't one to get easily agitated. She has a sense of humour that helps lighten the mood when we need it most.

Hisaana questions the motives behind the so-called 'political activism' -- an excuse for the endless chain of violence in which her husband and his comrades get caught up. She exists to put a sense into anyone with a misguided sense of purpose. It becomes equally applicable to those on the 'other' side, too, not just the reds.

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The other standout turn comes from Sreelekshmi as Ammini, Sumesh's mother, who is as concerned about the sword of Damocles constantly looming over her as the other women in the film. 

Kotthu devotes a significant amount of time even to its minor characters, such as Vijilesh's Moeen, who ends up in a situation where he has to reflect on some of the poor choices he made. All the mounting regrets make these men teetering on the edge of sanity.

Kotthu sees Sibi Malayil back to form after a long time. It's a film that gets its emotional beats right in many places, except for a couple of instances where it resorts to musical interludes to drive home the emotion. I found the latter approach unnecessary. What worked for an 80s film like Kireedam -- one of Sibi's greatest -- doesn't work for something made in 2022. But these are minor gripes in an otherwise competently executed film. It's not his best, but it's his most gripping work in a long time. One doesn't expect anything less from a maverick filmmaker who enthralled us many times in the past.

Director: Sibi Malayil
Cast: Asif Ali, Roshan Mathew, Nikhila Vimal, Sreelekshmi, Vijilesh
Ratings: 3.5 out of 5 stars

(This story originally appeared on Cinema Express)


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