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.
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.
(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
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.