"A good teacher does not just teach children, she also learns from them," a wise old man tells Maria Francis on a quiet evening at her home in Perunthuruthu. Maria has been recruited as a physical training instructor at the local government girls' school and is assembling a team of kho kho players among the students.
It is not an easy task. She has been informed already that kids here tend to quit their education after school to financially assist their families. They are not impoverished, but they are not comfortably off either. More important, the lack of opportunities in the place has further fuelled the students' and staff's lack of drive.
Writer-director Rahul Riji Nair's Kho Kho is different from films in the genre that have focused on problem children and crime/poverty-stricken communities, the most famous of them being the 1967 British production To Sir, With Love. Kho Kho is instead the story of a teacher who comes to terms with her own troubled past while inspiring a bunch of not-particularly-ambitious kids of short-sighted, not-particularly-ambitious parents in an unambitious school to look beyond their pint-sized goals.
You don't need to go the extra mile to earn your salary, the principal assures Maria Teacher one day, you will get it anyway. She does not sit still though.
Rajisha Vijayan plays Maria, a woman who once gave up her dreams in tragic circumstances and is keen now to spur others never to do likewise.
The fulcrum of the kho kho team she puts together is Anju (Mamitha Baiju), a no-nonsense quick-tempered girl who clashes with her well-meaning but quick-tempered coach partly because they have such similar personalities and partly because Maria is an imperfect teacher who is learning on the job.
Although Maria is the central character and her equation with Anju pivotal to the plot, through their stories the film also paints a portrait of the community as a whole. Though there is a vein of poignance running across the narrative, especially in the two heartwarming father-daughter relationships portrayed, comical respite comes in the form of the early interactions between Maria and her colleagues.
Nair makes generous use of cinematographer Tobin Thomas' breath-stopping aerial shots of gorgeous Perunthuruthu that establish the island and its surrounding placid waters as a visual idyll, lending greater dramatic effect to the considerable unrest the village harbours within its heart. A community nursing a hurt that may never heal, domestic violence, roadside 'Romeos', petty inter-personal politics and status quoism " a lot is going on below the picturesque, seemingly calm surface and the director slowly dredges it all up through Kho Kho's 1 hour 57 minutes running time.
Realism and a keenness to unearth women's truths have been the hallmark of Nair's work as a filmmaker since he debuted with Ottamuri Velicham (English title: Light In The Room), a terrifying saga of domestic violence in a remote mountain region that scooped up the Best Feature Film honour at the Kerala State Awards 2017. Last month his Kalla Nottam (English title: The False Eye), a cautionary tale about unauthorised surveillance and social policing, was named the Best Malayalam Film of 2019 among the much-delayed National Awards for that year.
Kho Kho does not have the visceral brilliance of Ottamuri Velicham, but achieves a charming overall sweetness and positivity belying the heartaches experienced by its primary characters. It stumbles intermittently though when it veers away from its slice-of-life narrative style as it gradually begins to over-use music and at one point gets overtly didactic, all this culminating in the over-wrought, needlessly-stretched-out closing 20 minutes or so. By turning the finale into a conventional tearjerker, the film actually subtracts from its emotional appeal.
Sidhartha Pradeep's compositions play a crucial role in both elevating and pulling down Kho Kho. While the tempo, tune, singing and arrangement of the title track Kho Kho Kho Kho Theevandi (lyrics: Vinayak Sasikumar, main voices: Souparnika Rajagopal and Aparna Sathyan) are enjoyable and lend energy to the film, the rap and English in the songs are an uneasy fit here. First, the rap gets too loud, and when it initially rears its head is at odds with the till-then-muted tone of Kho Kho. Second, the English lines (English rap in particular) are not just awkwardly worded, they don't match the setting. Rise Theme at least has a thoughtful melody, but Aditi Nair R. belting out "Are you scared about the fact that I will be alone? / Well you ain't gonna worry more cuz Imma be alone" in the rap number Did She Catch Me is incongruous here. "Imma be alone"? In Perunthuruthu? The use of a tongue so alien to the location and the characters is jarring.
There is also too much music packed into the narrative and in places I wished it had been given a rest in favour of silences and ambient sounds.
The mark of a good sports flick is that it can draw you into the game even if you know little about it. Nair's film explains kho kho well without drowning the viewer in technicalities and got me interested. Each actor chosen for the team looks like an actual player. However, after a while, there is a sameness in the depiction of the matches in the way the film cuts to music in those scenes.
This is not the first time Rajisha Vijayan has played a sportsperson " she was a cyclist in Finals and manages to look as convincing here as she was in that role. The actor last appeared in Khalid Rahman's overrated Love that terribly underutilised her. Kho Kho gives her space and depth, and she remains mostly steady on the rollercoaster of despair, fear, anger and hope that the story takes her through, except where the film itself departs from its intimate quality. That look on her face in the closing moments (Was she choking with feeling or surprised? If the latter, then why?) is, for instance, confusing. And in a couple of scenes where music is playing in the background, it feels like she was asked to over-emphasise her lip and body movements so that they could be better read.
Mamitha Baiju has the same problem in these portions, but otherwise delivers a mature performance as Anju. In terms of writing, Kho Kho is consistent in its focus on Maria and Anju. It also brings up questions that don't usually get mentioned in Indian sports flicks " periods, for one. And unlike most mainstream films across the world and in India, it does not view women's stories as incomplete sans a romance. (Minor spoiler ahead) There is a possibility of an attraction between a student and a male character at one point, but by making it a source of conflict between Maria and the student yet leaving us guessing about where it goes by the end, Kho Kho makes it clear that the women are its priority and its interest in the romance is only to the extent that it might affect the player's career, no more. (Spoiler alert ends)
A film about a team sport is bound to direct its spotlight on a couple of characters. Here, the script picks only Anju, and that is okay too. What is not okay is that it makes the other girls, barring two of them, indistinguishable from each other.
Other supporting characters are written better, and made memorable by some fine actors. Renjit Shekar Nair is a darling as the school's team manager. And the director himself is a hoot playing one of Maria's slithery colleagues.
Maria's choices in the end are consistent with Kho Kho's clarity from the start that it is not the story of an individual driven by a life-long passion for teaching nor one who knows it all " she is flawed; she comes to Perunthuruthu for practical reasons (she needs the salary); but once there, she sees a spark in the students that rekindles a spark within her, as a result of which she ends up making a difference to their lives and improving herself. (Minor spoiler in the next sentence) The briefness in the intersection of their paths holds out its own life lesson " sometimes even a fleeting interaction can leave a lasting impression on all those involved. (Spoiler alert ends)
This, among other reasons, is why Kho Kho is worth the time spent on it. Yes it does trip and fall, but on the whole, it is a pleasant film that strikes a chord with its simple story and relatable characters.
Rating: 3 (out of 5 stars)
Kho Kho is now in Kerala theatres. It will be released in the rest of India on 16 April.