“Kodi”… A very effective masala movie, despite a very ineffective heroine

Posted on October 30, 2016

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Spoilers ahead…

After Thodari, Dhanush could have made Parattai Engira Azhagu Sundaram: Part 2 and we’d be calling it a return to form – but Kodi, directed by RS Durai Senthilkumar, is really the kind of “commercial movie” we wish more of our stars would make. A bird’s eye view of the plot suggests business as usual: the leading man in a double role. A party worker (Karunas) and his wife (Saranya) have twins. The party chief (SA Chandrasekhar) declares: “Oruthan veettukku, oruthan naattukku.” He might well have said, “Oruthan class-ukku, oruthan mass-ukku.” Anbu grows up to be a professor, delivering lectures about mesh/loop analysis. But, expectedly, the twin who couldn’t be bothered with studies is the one who is valorised. This Dhanush is named Kodi – ostensibly in keeping with the film’s political backdrop, or maybe because he looks, in profile, like a flagpole. But he means business. He wears dark glasses. His thick beard is darker. An early scene shows him driving kids to school (translation: nallavanukku nallavan), stopping midway when accosted by burly hero-introduction-fight extras, and then beating them to pulp (kettavanukku kettavan). We sit back, awaiting a story that will keep prostrating at Kodi’s feet, turning to Anbu only when it’s time for romance. Or comedy, perhaps with Kodi stumbling into Anbu’s classroom with a quarter in his hand, and breaking into a song as Anbu’s students transform into backup dancers.

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That none of this happens is the first of the film’s many sweet surprises. Kodi features a “mass” character who’s unusually focused on his work. We see Kodi in party meetings, progressing from the head of the youth wing to an MLA candidate. Politics, in other words, is more than just a “fresh” backdrop – it informs everything he does, everything he is. The reason his mother won’t speak to him – that’s got to do with politics. Even his girlfriend (Rudra, played by Trisha) is in politics. I’ll wait for a minute while you absorb the fact that here’s a Dhanush film in which the heroine doesn’t just have a job, she has the hero’s job. The film keeps sidestepping cliché. We know the party chief isn’t an entirely good man, but we don’t get into the Sathya/Madras zone where he is entirely evil. He’s just doing what he needs to do in order to win elections. And Kodi isn’t a wide-eyed worshipper either. He’s wary. He has a file the party chief – his mentor, the man who named him – wants, and yet, he isn’t naïve enough to hand it over. Loyalty is one thing. Survival is another.

Kodi is the rare hero-centric masala movie where the people around the hero traverse arcs too. Like Kodi’s mother. She experiences loss. It’s only right that she’s the one who stays the hero’s hand when, at the end, it looks like she might lose him too. Or consider the hero’s friend (Kaali Venkat). It isn’t just about his relationship with Kodi. It’s about his relationship with Rudra too. Even Anbu’s students end up more than just bodies warming up benches. To see a film like Kodi is to realise that it’s not impossible to make a commercial movie that isn’t just a whistle-dispensing machine for fans. Which isn’t to say the film is above mass-hero moments. There’s a fantastic one involving Anbu in the latter portions. But the whistles come from the writing, not the posturing. We saw this in Sethupathi too, but Kodi is far more layered, textured. Sethupathi was about the home – it looked inwards. Kodi looks outwards, at the world. The issue of contention is mercury contamination by a Unilever-like factory. This isn’t explored in much detail. But it’s handled with dignity, which is more than what we can say about other “mass” films that ripped headlines off the newspapers, like Kaththi (ground-water depletion by a Coca Cola-like MNC) and Kakki Sattai (the illegal organ trade). The issue isn’t just a vehicle for cheap, empty rhetoric – it’s the mercury that contaminates the film, the characters.

If it appears that I am overselling the film, it’s because even the heroines are mesh/looped into the narrative. The more dispensable one is named Malathi (Anupama Parameswaran). At first, she’s just the love interest. But she’s the one who slowly leads the film back to the mercury-contamination plot. Had she been a generic heroine, the only way to keep us from forgetting her would be through generic duets and romantic scenes – but she’s invested in the cause, and she joins the hero’s crusade. It’s not the most elegant of screenwriting solutions, but it’s refreshing. But Rudra is a magnificent creation, right out of Macbeth – a good woman slowly corroded by visions of power. You see her and you think: When was the last time we saw a mass-film heroine with ambition? When was the last time we saw a heroine who’s the hero’s rival? (They belong to different parties.) When was the last time – if there was ever such a time – we saw the hero so understanding about the heroine’s career, with a tossed-off line like “politics vera, personal vera”? Such a woman is usually never the heroine. She’s the vamp. She was one in Padayappa. The hero put her in her rightful place, under his feet. Here, Kodi doesn’t seem to care that she may rise to a position higher than his. Kodi is Padayappa minus the misogyny. Unlike Ramya Krishnan’s Neelambari in that film, Rudra doesn’t become who she is simply because she was rejected by a man. The reasons are so complex, so clouded that Rudra is as surprised as we are when she turns into a Neelambari.

The great tragedy of Kodi is that they created this fantastic character and called on Trisha to flesh her out. We want a fiery orator, a Machiavellian manipulator – we get the cardboard cut-out of Rudra outside Sathyam theatre. The actress couldn’t be stiffer if she tried. But Dhanush compensates, despite a key Murugadoss-like, pseudo-scientific twist being disappointingly under-written. There’s no other star who’s so in tune with his inner actor, no other actor so capable of doing the things that make a star a star.

KEY:

  • Kodi = flag
  • Thodari = see here
  • Oruthan veettukku, oruthan naattukku” = One for the home, one for the country.
  • Oruthan class-ukku, oruthan mass-ukku” = One for the classes, one for the masses.
  • nallavanukku nallavan = If you’re good, he’s good.
  • kettavanukku kettavan = If you’re bad, he’s baaaad.
  • Madras = see here
  • Sethupathi = see here
  • Kaththi = see here
  • Kakki Sattai = see here
  • “politics vera, personal vera” = Let’s not mix political life with personal life.

Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Tamil