Ghosts of the past haunt a former athlete who accepts the job of a PT teacher in a girl’s school to bail her family out of a financial crisis. She discovers the game of kho-kho and a bunch of talented girls there and through them tries to achieve vicariously what she herself couldn’t in her career.
Review: An unglamorous sport that somehow got catapulted to the National Games; the outdoor equivalent of chess where skills and strategy matter as much, if not more than, athleticism and muscle power. The game of kho-kho forms the backdrop for Rahul Riji Nair to tell the story of Maria Francis from Thiruvananthapuram who misses a chance to be in the national team because of unforeseen and unexpected circumstances. The disappointment(s) of her career are told through a series of flashbacks by the filmmaker who takes care not to dwell too much in the past but simply gives a few glimpses on her professional and personal setbacks.
As the story unfolds, we find Maria coming to terms with her new assignment as the physical education teacher in Perunthuruthu, a back-of-the-beyond island. Nobody expects much from her, not in the least the principal or the parents. But the game of kho-kho sort of handpicks her to use it as a medium to empower a bunch of giggly and fun-loving teenagers, led by the irrepressible and short-tempered Anju played by Mamitha Baiju with great flourish and realism. In a state where we grew up admiring how coach Nambiar and his protégé Usha brought back athletic glory in truckloads, it is a highly relatable tale of a talented athlete transferring her spark of desire onto the next generation, which is in desperate need of direction and an inspirational figure to stir them out of their slumber. None of the girls seem to be distracted by instagram or whatsapp messages and are not shown as inseparable from their smartphones, thereby leaving one in doubt as to the time period of the movie.
Rajisha Vijayan joins the ranks of the dynamic trio of modern Malayalam movies – Manju Warrier, Parvathy Thiruvoth and Nimisha Sajayan – who do not require a glamorous hero beside them to draw crowds to the theatres. Rajisha is convincing as the diminutive, driven and unfazed-by-all-odds PT teacher, warts and all. She gives up her career more than once for her man in a highly politically incorrect manner in what is largely a female-centric movie; in fact, she consciously chooses to desert herself when her team is playing the most important match, perhaps to equip her wards to rise to the occasion but also to sacrifice her own interest to satisfy the man in her life. In fact, this absence of the protagonist in the most important sequence is a pleasant surprise element of the movie, which otherwise suffers from a predictable plot and even more predictable dialogues. Can you even imagine Lagaan or Chak De! India without Aamir or Shah Rukh when their teams are snatching victory from the jaws of defeat?
Music is a mixed bag; it surely helps set the pace but the English rap songs are a bit off-tangent with the rural setting, unforgettably captured on camera by Tobin Thomas, who clearly specialises in aerial filming.
It would be a pity if the pandemic were to prevent families from going to the theatres to enjoy this inspirational sports drama that encapsulates girl power in a way Malayalam cinema has never done before. Women are likely to shed tears but even grown-up men would do so, just like the peon-turned-manager of the team, played by Renjit Skekar Nair, does when the team belies everyone’s expectations.
DirectorRahul Riji Nair