Dulquer Salmaan-starrer 'King of Kotha'.
Dulquer Salmaan-starrer 'King of Kotha'.

'King of Kotha' film review: Sturdy, satisfying gangster epic with ample highs

For a first-timer, Abhilash Joshiy shows much promise, impressively handling a humungous cast and explosive set-pieces

There is a moment in King of Kotha (KoK) where Dulquer Salmaan’s Raju Madrassi dispatches, efficiently, the goons sent by a woman. When he dusts himself off, he is framed against a Rajinikanth poster in the background while he looks at the same woman who wanted him killed. I see this as the Padayappa moment in KoK, you know, Rajini bringing down the swing to sit in front of Ramya Krishna? But there is more of Annamalai in KoK than Padayappa, in how it is the story of two childhood friends who grew up to be sore enemies. Now, apply this thread to the Mohanlal-Suresh Gopi dynamic in Irupathaam Noottaandu, and it essentially explains the dynamic of Dulquer’s Raju Madrassi and Shabeer Kallarakkal’s Kannan Bhai before ‘Madrassi’ and ‘Bhai’ became their surnames. And since KoK is a story about the second coming of a fearsome man with an epic backstory, one can’t help but recall another Rajini film, Baasha. 

Before you start wondering whether KoK is actually a Rajinikanth tribute without Rajinikanth, let me tell you that there is a strained father-son bond in the film that evokes several movies where Thilakan and Mohanlal play father and son, respectively. And it’s only apt that Thilakan’s son Shammi plays Dulquer’s father if the intention was indeed to recall films like Spadikam and Narasimham. But when you think even more, you’ll see shades of Joshiy’s Kauravar in his son Abhilash Joshiy’s debut feature. Dulquer even shows up in the latter half with streaks of grey hair, as Mammootty did in Kauravar.

I think the Kauravar tag would be a good segue into talking about what KoK is ultimately about—the extent to which some people go for their own blood or their loved ones. The motive behind nearly every character’s actions in this film, good or bad, is their allegiance to someone close to them. In that regard, KoK has sprinklings of Shakespearean and Greek tragedies. Macbeth. Helen of Troy. Stories rife with betrayal and men weakened grossly by excessive subservience to their women. This is especially true of Kannan Bhai’s arc, where his Lady Macbeth Manju (Nyla Usha) pulls the strings. One of KoK’s pluses is interesting characters, even if not all are well-developed. 

The Raju-Kannan arc is the most compelling, pulsating with near-Biblical undertones. It’s the Cain and Abel story of Kotha, a fictitious, doom-laden world depicted from high above as one in which every household seems to be breathing smoke to the point of choking on it. This ‘smoke’ gets so overwhelmingly toxic to its inhabitants that Raju’s mother tells him to leave town for the sake of his younger sister. Everyone in the film uses their loved one as an excuse to either drive someone away or bring them back. Interestingly, for Raju, his sister becomes the reason for him doing both. 

And while I enjoyed watching Dulquer bash up one psychotic thug after another while looking cool, I would’ve liked to see a little more depth than just a twice-heartbroken guy who became a thug himself on account of his dad. As a character, Raju merely feels like a compilation of unused alternate takes of what Dulquer did in Second Show and Kurup. There are no major discernable differences in these performances as such. Perhaps, this was deliberate; maybe ‘bashing up one psychotic thug after another while looking cool’ was exactly what he was required to do.

Through KoK, Abilash Joshiy brought back memories of watching some of the most iconic South Indian gangster dramas of the 80s and 90s, some of which I’ve mentioned earlier. I even thought of two early revenge-soaked crime epics of Priyadarshan—Abhimanyu (1991) and Aryan (1988). KoK does embody the tragic undertones and constantly lurking menace of these two films, but then you also sense the makers want to envision Raju as a John Wick-type figure, this ‘Baba Yaga’ one-man killing machine capable of eliminating people with pens, forks, shards of glass or anything he can get his hands on. As Kannan remarks at one point: “Raju passed matriculation and returned with a PhD.” 

At times, the build-up gets repetitive, considering how we get a primer on the skills of Raju more than twice. Even the John Wick films were wise enough to know that putting the “Do you know who he is?” line so many times would test the audience’s patience. In KoK, we get moments where this attempt to ‘announce the king’s arrival’ approaches a tone of desperation. And when the film makes it obvious, in more than one instance, that Raju will most likely save someone in distress exactly at the point the audience has already predicted it, it gets slightly tiring. 

While on dialogues, they aren’t exactly one of the film’s strong suits. Save for witty lines like, “I was on the population control board,” or, “The usual trend is to go to Mumbai; I went to U.P for a change,” or a wordplay involving a mother calling her son “thendi” and him responding with, “mindi, thalla mindi” (spoke, mother spoke), most deliveries are jarring to the point of even ruining the fun. 
One is almost taken out of the movie when you hear characters from the 90s talk like people in 2023. In certain instances, like when Prasanna’s cop, who is responsible for orchestrating the events, says “Best” more than once and you can’t help but think of the Maheshinte Prathikaram climax. The lines are simplistic to the point of registering a comical effect. For example, in the scene where the villain tells the upright cop, “All cops are on my payroll,” and the latter responds, “But I’m not one of them,” I couldn’t help but cringe. Also undercooked are the Dulquer-Aishwarya Lekshmi portions, which reek of contradictions and rushed culminations. 

Fortunately, such contrivances get evened out by fairly gripping plotting and a few arresting performances, most notably, Shabeer Kallarakal, who first makes Kannan an endearing and vulnerable common man-thug before turning him into a devious and cocky mafia kingpin who proclaims himself as “the government” of Kotha. While the fight sequences are nothing worth writing home about, they do satiate the appetite for cathartic violence, albeit mildly; quite notable is the climactic showdown that briefly emulates the first-person shooter gameplay view to spice things up. Jakes Bejoy’s fittingly rousing score acts as a neat cushion without being intrusive. Cinematographer Nimish Ravi’s work evokes the ambience of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films, with its amber-drenched elegance and brown-dominated colour palette. 

Yes, KoK may seem like a cocktail of the most tried-and-tested mass action movie formulas, but, like me, if you approached it as the Bheeshma Parvam prequel that happens in an alternate universe where Michael was once named Raju, then you might find yourself walking out of the theatres sufficiently satisfied. But if you ask me if I would revisit it soon, I’m not sure. 

But, I can say one thing for sure, though: For a first-time filmmaker, Abhilash Joshiy shows much promise, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call him Malayalam cinema’s answer to Lokesh Kanagaraj, it’s evident that he has the Tamil hitmaker’s capabilities when it comes to handling a humungous cast and explosive set-pieces. And we need more of these guys in Malayalam cinema at the moment. As long as they remind me of what Thampy Kannanthanam and IV Sasi accomplished once, I’m all for welcoming whatever they come up with next. 

Film: King of Kotha
Director: Abhilash Joshiy
Cast: Dulquer Salmaan, Shabeer Kallarakkal, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Shammi Thilakan
Rating: 3.5/5

The New Indian Express