Wednesday Malayalam ReRun: Koode, A Movie About Sacrifice and Hope

Koode! Such a beautiful movie, and such a sad and then hopeful movie. I hope a lot of you saw it so we can discuss it here, and also just because it is worth seeing.

This is Anjali Menon’s 3rd film as director and writer, and 4th film as writer.  And her career is impressive, to say the least.  Starting with an award winning student film made while at the London Film School (a real film school, not like the thing Ranbir attended in New York, this one is internationally accredited not for profit).  Then a short film as part of the Kerala Cafe collection, an honor to be invited to join that group without any feature film in her background, then Manjadikuru with Thilakan and Prithviraj in a cameo, another honor that these wonderful artists were excited to work with her in her first Malayalam film.  This was followed by writing the script for Ustad Hotel, and then writing and directing Bangalore Days.  And finally, writing and directing this movie.

Image result for koode poster

This movie brings together 3 major stars.  Parvathy and Prithviraj, plus Nazriya Nizam’s return to film post-marriage.  Parvathy and Prithviraj alone would be impressive, adding Nazriya Nizam means these are people who really wanted to work with this director and this script.  It goes beyond calling in favors or liking the director personally, to get all 3 means there is something special there.

It’s not just the 3 stars.  Anjali attracted Raghu Dixit, Bombay based rock star, to do the music, his first Malayalam film.  And it released on 155 screens, a remarkably high number for a film without a major superstar “hook” to it.

(Raghu Dixit was worth it, this song is so beautiful it makes me cry)

And there is something special here.  A story about family and lost youth and broken people trying to find their way to happiness.  A story told in a new way, jumping between present day and flashbacks, between the lives of various characters, with a little bit of fantasy thrown in.  And a story in a beautiful place, filmed in the hill stations of Tamil Nadu.

The story comes from a Marathi film, Happy Journey.  It is available on Netflix, and I just quickly skimmed through it.  The basic structure is the same, but while this film is a searing meditation on lost time, lost relationships, lost people, that film is a bit happy and a bit silly and a bit magical and hopeful.  And the real ugliness of the world, the unsaid terrible things that Anjali Menon’s version alludes to, those are completely gone.  Anjali took an idea and a story, and twisted and turned it until she found just the right angle she needed for what she wanted to say.  And her actors followed her lead.  Including Atul Kulkarni, the lead in the original and an important supporting part in the remake.

Image result for happy journey marathi poster

(Just compare the first poster to this one.  It’s still technically 3 people on top of a blue van, but it is so different)

It’s a movie that isn’t easy to grasp or follow on the first watch.  Similar to Bangalore Days, the plot moves back and forth between characters and situations.  The themes of the film are hiding from you, hard to grasp as you chase them from moment to moment.  And there are no big conversations, big moments of resolution, it is all in the unsaid things between characters, the slow unwinding of time as they came closer and closer together.

It’s the characters that carry us through.  Parvathy, Nazriya, and Prithviraj, with minimal dialogue and no simple answers, manage to convey everything.  I know Prithviraj’s pain, the hidden terrible secret pain that the film never clearly says and yet is there for us to see in the little ways he has never fully grown up.  I know Parvathy’s pain, her implied pain, in the way her shirts are always buttoned up to the neck, the layers she puts to cover her body.  And then there is Nazriya.

Nazriya’s performance is the slowest to bloom.  She lights up the screen, she is happy and free, seemingly the only character who is.  But then as the film goes on, there are little moments of stillness in her.  And finally, she gets her own flashback.  And we see that in the past, she was a completely different person.  All that happiness and freedom was there, but hidden away, stifled, to scared and shy to let it loose.  And we see why she needs the other characters, Prithviraj especially, just as much as they need her.

All of this pain, it doesn’t come from the expected places.  That’s what makes this film hard to watch.  Because, it is stories that feel true.  It’s not filmi, not even as filmi as Fahad Faazil’s reveal in Bangalore Days, it’s the kind of thing that is so true films will not speak of it.  At least, not modern films.

The feel of this movie, the beauty and the pain and the ugliness of people and the strength it takes to rise above, reminded me of Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal far more than anything I have seen from recent years.  There’s an awareness in the best Malayalam films of that classic era that beauty and pain can co-exist.  One does not necessarily negate the other, not in films and not in life.  The sadness is in those films is because that is the only way to bring out the beauty.  And the beauty is there because that is the only way to soften the sadness.  These movies do not turn away from the realities of the world, the realities of what can happen to people, what other people can do to them.  But they also do not turn away from the amazing human ability to survive, to keep moving forward somehow, and sometimes find a happy ending after all

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This is a narrative that weaves in and out of time.  Rather than give it to you as the film shows it, I am going to do it more or less in chronological order, just to make things simple.  Whole plot in two paragraphs:

We open with Prithviraj working a soul-numbing job in Dubai.  He gets a phone call, and starts a journey back home for a funeral, eventually we learn it is his sister’s funeral.  And then the flashbacks start and the rest of his life and his family’s life is filled in.  Prithviraj had an idyllic childhood in a beautiful hill station, doing well in school and on the soccer team.  He had a friendship with a girl who wanted to play soccer with the boys, a friendship that could have turned into a romance when they were a little older.  He was thrilled when his baby sister was born and leaped in to set up her nursery himself, help feed her, love her.  But then she got sick and the doctors told them that she would live a short live and need expensive medicines the whole time.  The family struggled, sold everything they could for money for the medicine, Prithviraj had to leave the soccer team and failed his classes from the stress.  Which is when an “uncle” arrived from Dubai and offered to help, to take Prithviraj with him to Dubai and find him work, get him set on a good path, and also make some money to send home to help.  The film gently implies, without saying it, that this uncle than raped Prithviraj and Prithviraj’s early years overseas involved sexual labor.  Prithviraj spent 18 years away from home, only returning for occasional visits, sending money for his sister’s care.  Meanwhile Nazriya grew up in constant pain and constantly dreaming of and missing her brother.  She was a little quiet and a little shy and no one would have noticed her, but her few friends really loved her.  Just before death, she fell in love, a sweet college romance with the bass player of a college band who liked her poetry and liked talking to her.  Until he found out she was sick, and then he couldn’t handle it and left.  And now she is dead and Prithviraj is back for the funeral without knowing anything about her or her life, and the family is trying to adjust to this new reality, and to face the sacrifice they asked their son to make.

In the present day, Prithviraj resists opening himself up to anyone, shuffles along with his head down, afraid of even the dog.  And then he borrows the old VW van that his father used to take his sister back and forth to the hospital, and while out for a drive, he suddenly sees his sister Nazriya in the van with him.  She explains that she is dead, but somehow still around, and only he can see her.  And she cannot leave the van.  Slowly, after death, they build up the brother-sister bond they were cheated of in life.  She teases him and makes him feel young again, he spoils her and supports her.  He starts to open up.  And to notice his old friend Parvathy, the girl he played soccer with, who is now back home after leaving an abusive husband.  Just as the film only very softly implies Prithviraj’s sexual abuse, so does it only softly imply the hell that was Parvathy’s marriage.  And the hell that she is living now, having returned to her home where her father is supportive, but her uncle and grandfather consider her a disgrace to the family.  And her cousin has a predatory interest in her.  Prithviraj and she slowly bond over caring for their old soccer coach who Prithviraj tracked down in a terrible state.  Until it reaches a peak when her family drags her off from talking with Prithviraj and he asks her to leave with him.  She doesn’t at first, but finally shows up at his family house and they elope in the van.  Prithviraj, Parvathy, and ghost Nazriya go on a journey together, finding themselves again, finding happiness.  Reaching a culmination when Prithviraj and Parvathy attend a memorial service put on at Nazirya’s college for her by her boyfriend and friends, which is interrupted by Parvathy’s family who are fought off by Nazriya’s friends.  That night, Nazriya and Prithviraj talk about him marrying Parvathy, having children with her.  And the next morning, Nazriya is gone.  Prithviraj is devastated and Parvathy figures out some part of what was happening and helps him, gently promises to be with him, and the film ends with a flash forward to their marriage, and then Prithviraj working as a soccer coach and getting a call that Parvathy is giving birth, and finally a new baby being brought home to the same room that Prithviraj made ready for Nazriya when she was a baby.

So, that’s a lot!  And most of it wasn’t in the original Marathi version.  The original Marathi version had the simple idea of a man returning home for his sister’s funeral, and discovering her cheerful ghost living in the van.  The kernel of it all is the importance of the brother-sister bond, that the brother needs that nagging little sister to encourage him to take leaps, to take risks, to finally go after the girl he likes.  And that the sister needs the brother to really be happy, she missed him all those years and all she wants after death is to finally get to know him.  The remake kept a lot of the visuals too, the way the initial meeting between the two plays out is almost identical shot for shot.  As is the ending, the quick flashes of Prithviraj in the van mourning, then in wedding clothes and Parvathy coming for him, and so on.  A few of the small moments between Prithviraj and Parvathy in flashback as well.

(There is nothing even close to this in Koode, it wouldn’t fit in the lyrical magical world Anjali Menon creates)

But beyond that, it is totally different.  Anjali Menon in her script brought in so much more detail and pain to the life of the overseas worker whose childhood was ended too soon.  She added in the soccer coach character, this unusual way for Prithviraj and Parvathy to bond in childhood and adulthood.  And she added in the horror of Parvathy’s life, in the Marathi original the love interest is merely rich and a little spoiled, not suffering silently.  And she brought out much more from Nazriya’s character.  She isn’t simply a young woman who is talky and happy and so on, underneath that we get to see who she was in life, so worn down by pain that she had a hard time breaking out of her shell, unwilling to speak up for herself, to put herself forward.  Needing a big brother around to make her feel confident and loved and secure.

Not just the script, the visuals are on a whole new level.  Starting with the amazing opening, the camera slowly spinning down on a perfect white tube with black inside it and two small white figures.  It looks fantastical, more unrealistic than anything Prithviraj will experience with his ghost sister.  But it is real, it is the life of workers in oil refineries, spending their days in white tubs sorting through sludge.  Through out the film there are these moments of the fantastical in the every day, the magic of an old train yard, or the terror of a small room with a crippled man trapped on a bed.

The essential idea is a cheerful ghost, a young woman who is just happy to spend time with her brother.  Which is touching and beautiful, that is the real pain of death after all, the loss of who you could be when you were with that person.  And Prithviraj gets it back, gets to be that heroic perfect brave big brother after all.  But in Anjali Menon’s version, it’s not just that Nazriya is a cheerful ghost, it is that she is the only person in this world who can speak freely, say the things that need saying.  One of the first things she says as a ghost is that death really does take away pain, she feels so much lighter now.  But the living, they are still carrying their pain around.

(This is a very different kind of heroine song, for a different kind of movie)

Prithviraj and Nazriya’s parents, Maala Parvathi and Ranjith Balakrishnan, are carrying with them grief for their daughter, but also the slow guilt of what they did to their son.  We see in the flashbacks that they were wonderful parents, loving people.  But when they learned their daughter was dying, there were no easy answers.  They had to sacrifice their son for their daughter, a 15 year old boy for a 1 year old baby.  And this guilt is incapacitating them.  They aren’t able to even speak to Prithviraj directly, left to just move around him disconnected in the house.  It is so hidden that, watching the film, it is hard to see that it is even there.  Like Prithviraj, we see them as in denial, choosing to believe he worked and sent money home because he wanted to and not because they forced him, choosing to believe he was never abused.  But late in the film comes the reveal, after having see the neighborhood children bring Ranjith their toys to be repaired over and over, that Ranjith has been spending most of his time repairing Prithviraj’s old toys.  He is trying to fix him, fix his childhood somehow, undo what he had done.  And the little boys who bring him things, that is his way of paying his dues, fixing things for other children because he could not do it for his own son.  They aren’t in denial, they are just so crushed by guilt they don’t know how to move forward.  They are looking for a second chance to get things right.

That’s what this film is all about, second chances.  It’s a myth that we tell ourselves we get stronger as we get older, braver, better.  Too often instead what happens between childhood and adulthood makes you weaker, makes it harder to change things, to grab those chances when they come.  Parvathy and Prithviraj, in their young days, were brave and happy.  Parvathy insisted on playing soccer with the boys, Prithviraj was a sweet boy who impulsively invited his teacher home with him for Christmas holidays.  But now twenty years have gone by and they have been broken by life, they have both survived terrible things.  It is so much harder for them to reach out, to make a move.  And they can only do it with someone else who truly understands what they are struggling with.

It’s another myth that love can “save” you from bad things.  But it isn’t a myth that soft understanding unconditional and undemanding love can make it much easier for you to save yourself.  Parvathy saves herself.  Prithviraj asks her to leave with him, and she doesn’t.  She waits, and then goes to his house on her own.  All she needs is someone to be there with her, to smile at her, to let her be herself, take down her hair, feel safe enough to remove all her layers of clothing and be free.  There’s a little moment we see between them after they have become friends again, Parvathy reading aloud to Prithviraj from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  She finishes, and he smiles and says “I don’t know what any of that means”, and Parvathy laughs and says “it doesn’t matter”.  She is reading it for herself, to help herself, but Prithviraj is there smiling and silent and listening, and that makes it better.

That’s what Nazriya was missing her whole life from Prithviraj.  When Prithviraj first finds her, he is looking for a simple answer, he asks his mother if there was anything Nazriya wanted in life, anything she was missing.  And his mother says all she ever wanted was the whole family together.  That’s all she needed in life, her big brother.  Prithviraj is staying in her room and investigating her life, he finds pictures and quotes.  Including “what you seek is seeking you” from Rumi (and Jab Harry Met Sejal), a subtle hint that Prithviraj needs his sister and Nazriya needs her brother, both equally.  And then the final reveal, which was taken from the Marathi original, in her desk in the secret deepest place along with her diary, is a series of family photos.  While her parents smile out at the camera, Nazriya proudly and carefully holds a framed photo of her brother with her, in every photo from childhood to adulthood.  Her parents may have had a complicated compromise in their hearts, guilt that shadowed their love, but Nazriya simply loved her brother and wanted him with her.

It comes through suddenly and surprisingly in the flashbacks to Nazriya before death.  She loved her friends and she loved her college life, but she was too shy to speak up in class and defend herself when the teacher criticized her for missing classes.  She didn’t have many friends (although the ones she had were loyal), and when she fell in love, she didn’t have anyone to share it with or ask advice.  She went too far too fast and made herself sick, and then was embarrassed and miserable when her parents came and told her new friends the truth, scared off her boyfriend.  She needed a big brother, someone who would encourage her to try new things and be brave, but also be there to catch her when she fell.  Who could be a buffer between her and her parents, who could be a confidant when friends weren’t quite enough, who could be a place where she could tell all the pain she hid away from her friends, from her parents, from everyone.

This film has a lot in it, Nazriya’s medical issues, the ghost, the romance with Parvathy, but ultimately it is a story of overseas workers.  That’s what makes me so surprised that it was originally a Marathi story, because the specific pain of the overseas worker is so present in Malayalam cinema.  Prithviraj left his home, left his family, sacrificed his life so they could live.  And it made him into only half a person.  But it was also a loss for those at home, his father destroyed by guilt, hiding in the attic and working on his old toys, and his little sister who spent her life missing something she could only half remember.  The resolution of the film is when Nazriya’s friends from college fight for Parvathy and Prithviraj.  They are fighting for Nazriya, because Prithviraj is her brother and it is something they can do for her, for him.  Finally those left behind, the privileged happy college students enjoying the life paid for by their elders, are showing that they do understand, they do care, they know what was lost in order for them to have this life, and they are willing to fight the battles of their elders and try to pay it back.  They know that their elders need them, need their youth and hope and courage.

That’s all this film is about, people needing people.  Prithviraj and Parvathy, they need people so much they have almost forgotten what it is like to not need them, they are drowned so deep in pain that they have forgotten what normal feels like.  Prithviraj’s parents, they know they need people, need their children, but they don’t feel worthy of asking for that, and so they sublimate it through taking care of other people’s children.  Atul Kulkarni’s coach character, a crippled old man, he is used to being the one that other people need, to helping his students be the best they can be, and he doesn’t know how to ask for the help he needs.  And Nazriya, a sick young woman who, more than anything else, just wanted a little more time with her brother.

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17 thoughts on “Wednesday Malayalam ReRun: Koode, A Movie About Sacrifice and Hope

  1. I have mixed feelings about this movie. It started off great but lost track somewhere in the second half.There was just too much crammed in and Anjali Menon takes her sweet time to close all the stories.This was my same thought upon watching Banglore days too. Everyone has a story and she is like a grandmother who takes her time to get to the point testing my patience. Only in Bangalore Days there were different stories with different people so it was okay but in Koode it’s just Prithviraj who shifts in and out of different stories with his parents,sister,coach, childhood friend etc that it got boring. I wish he didn’t not have so many problems to deal with all at once.But I just loved loved Prithviraj’s character and performance. It’s after a really long time he’s playing a non-macho, relatable,grounded character and what a heart touching performance it was. The scene where he is looking at Nazriya’s pictures of holding his photos & starts crying silently made me ugly bawl.I just love Anjali Menon’s male characters who are every day men with fears, insecurities and lots of love and kindness for the people around them which is as rare as Shekhar Kammula’s female characters in South Indian films.And that extends to the supporting father,uncle,mother,grandparents characters too who all make their presence and emotions felt through little nuggets of scenes.Nazriya and Prithviraj had great chemistry and I could really believe they are the loving,teasing little sister and big brother which is again not a commonly seen dynamics in Indian films.Also perfect casting of the young actor who played Prithviraj’s teenage. He even looked like Prithviraj. I so wish Anjali Menon had done away with some of the subplots and made the second half less crowded. As it is ,I couldnt wait for the movie to finish as it dragged on and that’s the after feeling I probably am carrying along for this movie.Hope Prithviraj plays more such roles. He’s super hot and lovable in this.

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    • I agree that the ending dragged on. I’m not willing to throw out all of the second half, but I agree that some scenes and stories were a little extra (basically, once Parvathy and Prithviraj ran away together it felt like we were marking time). And definitely the multiple endings at the very end were too much. Which is too bad, because it is the very end that the audience will take with them when they leave more than anything else.

      On Wed, Jan 23, 2019 at 10:27 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I understand MPK’s arguments but for me this movie was such a beautiful experience and I’m not able to see the parts separated. I loved every minute, from the first wonderful shot to the last moment, and being honest I wanted more. It didn’t seem too long or dragged also.
    But I didn’t feel like watching it again yet, it was too emotional.

    Few weeks ago Prithviraj tweeted this:

    And I answered that it’s a shame films like Koode aren’t everywhere. People must search on some strange sites and watch it illegaly (mostly). Why it’s not on Prime, or Netflix? My Prime is full of strange marathi, bengali, and now even kannada movies, and some of them are so bad that even the trailers are unwatchable. But there ‘s not even one malayalam movie.Why?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Netflix is getting more and more Malayalam movies, so that gives me hope. And Hotstar too. But then there are still so many that fall between the cracks, like this film. It’s not low budget, it wasn’t a flop, Bangalore Days is already on Hotstar and one of their most popular films, so why isn’t someone buying the streaming rights for this?

      On Thu, Jan 24, 2019 at 5:11 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Not even one malayalam movie on italian Netflix or Prime 😦
        Netflix is a big disappointment for me – only hindi (but not many), and exactly 5 south movies (Eega, Mersal, Spyder, Sometimes and my favourite Nila).
        Prime is better because adds southern movies from time to time, but never malayalam.

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        • Clearly, we need to get more desis to move to Italy. Who can we pay off to film their next movie in Italy?

          On Thu, Jan 24, 2019 at 10:06 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Prabhas was here few month ago 😉
            Instead of wasting his time in Russia, Prithviraj should make a movie in in Italy too.

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  3. Desperately want to see Koode. Watched some early scenes and the cinematography and performances looked amazing. My darling Prithviraj is so much more than a superhero hunk. It streams on JaiHo and You Tube, but without subs. Thanks for the review. Now I want to see it even more. Eventually, I will.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. When I got to know that Koode is a remake of HappyJourney, I decided to go for the latter because I was interested in the original. Then I didn’t have any time to watch the remake. Much of what you wrote about Koode I found in HappyJourney were I especially liked the silent play of the protagonist (played by Atul Kulkarni who I first saw as Raees’ employer Jairaj) versus the talkative and quite bubbly play of his sister (Priya Bapat) who was happy to be free of every pain and adamant to spend the most time possible with her brother.
    Already Atul’s slightly aggressive and hostile behaviour to everything connected to his joyful youth revealed his repressed pain for all the time far away from home feeling just as being good enough to send money (he never visited his family resenting having been sent away growing more and more apart.
    The writer and director Suchin Kundalkar (maker of the wonderful Rani-film Aiyyaa) made his protagonist very hesitant to open up to his sister and even more to his parents. Here, too, the key scene is with the photos where one always sees his sister fondly holding a photo of his brother (in different stages of age) to the camera.
    I loved the opposing of the slow pace the brother employed to get accustomed and then change and the vivid and cheerful demanding of his sister who can let loose every inhibition now that she is freed of her life.

    I did not found you mentioning the episode with the sister’s love interest in the bus which is an important plotpoint in HappyJourney to get Atul ready for rekindling with his burried love for his school-love (a rich gangster’s daughter guarded by goons) – after first rejecting her very obvious affection for him.

    In HappyJourney, the father repairs cars and uses them secretely because he never bought one of his own dispite all the money his son sent – also especially for a new car. He admitts that the money did not go only into the treatment of his sister but was just spent. I can understand that the son (rightly) reproaches his parents that his sister was more important to them – something kids with a very ill sibling often have to experience. In addition they never insisted that he comes back.

    Like Koode seems to have a lyrical side (as you wrote), I think HappyJourney (which is shorter in running time) has a very poetic tone, too.

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    • I’m excited to have you watch Koode! I didn’t see all of Happy Journey, just jumped around a bit to confirm that it is a close remake, but the very look of the film is extremely different. Koode has this look of realism, colors kind of grey and washed out like they would be in natural lighting, but with moments of beauty in the real. It sounds like the feel of the hero, melancholy and closed off, is similar between the two. But the worlds they inhabit are so different, I imagine the way the story is told must be different as well.

      On Fri, Jan 25, 2019 at 11:42 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. There is some wrong affair illegal affair scene in parvathy’s family that was not easily understood by me in theatre. If you remember that scene, coull u explain it little bit.. Because i thought it is unneccessarily kept just to move the script of screenplay or sorry i cant put it correctly in words…

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    • I’m not sure what you might mean. Parvathy’s extended family disapproved of her leaving her marriage. Later in the film it was implied that her cousin desired her and was prepared to molest or rape her, simply because she was an available woman with no protectors.

      On Sat, Jan 26, 2019 at 1:57 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. I finally watched this on Hotstar!!! It was on premium though and I had to pay but it was totally worth it. First, I love that Anjali Menon loves dogs as much as I do, and the dog in this film, the retriever, is the exact same breed of my dog and they are both so cute and adorable ❤️ I was like how can Prithviraj be scared of such an adorable thing?
    I’ve never really seen Prithviraj in any of his Malayalam films, and I really liked him in this, he has lovely expressive eyes. Also the boy who played his younger version looks so much like him!!! Great casting. Parvathy was lovely as expected, but I felt that her character was the cliched abused woman. Nazriya was good, but I don’t think she has much range – her character is similar to the one she played in Bangalore Days. Also, is it just me, or the grandma was also able to see Nazriya?
    And the music and cinematography was so beautiful – the lullaby still haunts me. And I’ve been to Ooty several times, but never has it looked so beautiful.
    The best part of Anjali’s films, for me is that I’m so invested in the characters that I don’t want it to end. Bangalore Days was almost for 3 hours, and I never realized it. Koode made me a little sad, sometimes made me bawl( all the scenes with the dog – any dog bonding scene makes me emotional), sometimes melancholic, but not once did I want the movie to end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am so glad you like it!!!! And it was worth getting premium Hotstar!

      Agree that the dog was adorable. It was also a smart move as a director, giving a third “character” in the Nazriya and Prithviraj scenes. Not like the dog had any dialogue or anything, but it added something to have it to interact with and moving in the background.

      Interesting that you and Angie had a similar reaction, the film really does string out too long for the plot, but at the same time you don’t want it to end because the characters are so wonderful, and the place is so beautiful.

      Also, I now no longer want to go to Ooty! If it’s not as beautiful in real life as it is in this film, not worth it.

      On Sat, Jan 26, 2019 at 9:39 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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