On the face of it, King of Kotha seems like the perfect flick to be a vehicle for an actor’s preexisting or imminent superstardom. It also helps that Dulquer Salmaan seems to fit perfectly within this massy world.
Abhilash Joshiy’s debut directorial written by Abhilash N Chandran takes place in the fictional town of Kotha where a man called Raju is a living legend. The film uses several tropes familiar of the gangster film genre (borrowing heavily from action and horror movies as well) and while some are given a fresh touch, others bog down the film with their predictability.
For instance, you’d think that a villain Ranjith wouldn’t get much in terms of character work considering he is just a pawn in a much bigger game. But Chemban Vinod Jose’s character is crafted with meticulous attention to detail, making him unforgettable even after he exits the main narrative. Likewise, a plot involving an older woman and her cat is unsettlingly heartbreaking.
One of the cliches that works better than some others is the trope of a friendship turning into a bitter rivalry, especially as it culminates into a showdown between the people’s hero and their tormentor. Raju Madrassi aka Kotha Rajrandran aka the ‘King of Kotha’ (Salmaan) faces off with Kannan Bhai (Shabeer Kallarakkal) in what quickly becomes a series of murders and gun fights with little else to say.
While Raju was at the top, he was a terrifying gangster with no qualms about resorting to graphic violence but he drew the line at drug trafficking. The reason isn’t presented as some moral roadblock; he simply doesn’t want to do it because of his girlfriend Tara’s (Aishwarya Lekshmi) personal aversion to drugs. This, as it often does in gangster films, becomes the bone of contention between Raju and Kannan.
Even some soft moments of camaraderie between the duo that deserved more substance in the film don’t get that treatment in service of the film’s larger arc. Scenes like this, including the one where the duo reunites over a drink, speaking to each other in veiled threats, and then meets again on a football field like when they were younger, are written well as concepts.
But weak dialogues derail the emotional depth. This is a problem that persists across the film. Scenes that could’ve had a huge effect are derailed by weak dialogue.
Dulquer Salmaan as Raju (playing the character in two different avatars decades apart) proves that he has what it takes to carry a film like this on his shoulders. He performs like a ‘hero’ in every vanity shot and finds the perfect balance between his moral dilemmas and emotions and his legacy as the ‘King of Kotha’.
All his entry shots (there are multiple) still hold their mass appeal because of two reasons: one is Salmaan himself and the second is the film’s production.
Nimesh M Thanoor and his team construct Kotha so beautifully that it is difficult to believe the town doesn’t actually exist. Their attention to detail, especially in technical aspects like lighting, texture, and colour, is absolutely phenomenal. Every frame looks so diligently sketched out that it almost makes you wish you could sit and stare at some of the scenes for a bit.
One of my favourite scenes is one where Raju is fighting off goons and Kannan’s wife Manju (Nyla Usha) sits back in her car and watches. Every single thing about that scene, including the action choreography, is proof that King of Kotha is saved primarily by its acting and expert technical endeavour.
Not to be forgotten, Nyla Usha makes a lasting impact as Manju, despite being another character in the film who gets bogged down by gangster film clichés. In the film’s clearly superior first half, Manju gets an extremely intriguing arc – you wonder what she could be hiding, what her motivations could be, if her loyalties truly lie anywhere other than her own self and why.
This is partly because Nyla Usha has the femme fatale act down like a pro. She carries herself with an almost chilling grace throughout the film, her conviction as an actor mirrors in her conviction as Manju. If the dialogue and screenplay would’ve supported that act, she could’ve gone down as a cult character.
In gangster and action flicks, women have long had roles that existed just to further the hero’s arc or give him a reason to rage, fight, or ‘change himself’ (King of Kotha has some of those characters too). While that is slowly changing, it’s still rare to see an actually well-written female character in the genre who doesn’t immediately die or give up in service of the bigger ‘hero’s journey’.
Here’s hoping someone is brave enough to take Manju from being a mere catalyst to becoming a proper villain in her own right.
That being said, Shabeer Kallarakkal gives a strong performance as the amoral and sometimes amusing Kannan. After acing the role of "Dancing Rose" in Sarpatta Parambarai, he presents new shades of himself as an actor even if both his roles rest in the same thematic vein.
Cinematographer Nimish Ravi expertly navigates the town of Kotha and bolsters the gorgeous frames designed by the production team through his lens. A particularly inventive scene wherein a fight sequence takes the form of a FPS (first-person shooter) game is made possible primarily because of Joshiy’s vision and Nimish Ravi’s efforts.
The best thing about the direction is that Joshiy seems to be attempting to rise above the limitations of the genre. After Raju is presumed dead (this isn’t a spoiler because he is presumed dead very often), his return is shot like we’re in a horror flick. This Raju is no longer the man, the king and instead becomes more like his identity of a myth, a legend.
Is this man real? Is this suddenly a ghost flick? Who can tell? And it’s in this interesting ‘who can tell’ area that Joshiy’s vision shines.
King of Kotha had the potential to be a truly innovative effort and join the ranks of some of the best that the gangster genre has to offer. But a tighter script (even one that followed the ingenuity of its own first half) would’ve sealed a much better fate for the film in the hall of film fame, whatever or wherever that is.