Movie Review: Rajisha Vijayan's 'Kho Kho' scores big
A predictable yet tug-at-the-heartstrings kind of sports drama that is a must-watch
There’s a soft spot in my heart for sports dramas. A series of emotionally scarring incidents in junior and high school put me off competitive sports for most of my school days. The truth is, I grew up in a time that encouraged the ‘you need to look like an athlete to become one’ school of thought.
A pudgy teenager, wrought with insecurities about how she looked, didn’t stand a chance on the school’s basketball, football, kabaddi, or kho-kho team. Yes, my high school played competitive kho-kho. Blessed with a quick wit and a funny bone, I gave real-time commentary as the games progressed.
A popular tag team game with roots dating back to ancient India, games like kho-kho and kabaddi are often forgotten in a cricket-obsessed Indian psyche. And on that note, I’d like to thank Kerala state award-winning director Rahul Riji Nair for reminding viewers of a few things. First, for giving kho-kho a mainstream appeal; second, for leading the movie with an all-female cast; and finally, for reminding us that proper education cannot happen within the confines of our homes.
Set against the picturesque backdrop of Perunthuruthu, a back-of-the-beyond island village in Vaikom, Kottayam, Kerala, a place where girls playing a competitive sport is not considered a part of academics and men still ogle at girls wearing team jerseys.
Enter Maria teacher, a former ‘failed’ athlete with several skeletons in her closet. To bail her family out of financial trouble, she accepts a job as a PE teacher in a government-run Senior Secondary High School for Girls. There, Maria, played by the outspoken Rajisha Vijayan, comes across many talented yet unruly girls with a passion for kho-kho.
Uncaring staff with minimal resources run the school with zero interest in encouraging students to take up sporting activities. “PE class is when kids take a nap,” said Nair, who plays a cameo as the school’s gossip-mongering accountant. Maria, however, feels the need to achieve her dreams through her students vicariously. She has left behind a career in sports and a husband who had no interest in ‘allowing’ her to take up the job. Maria convinces the school principal to open auditions for a kho-kho team. The story picks up pace from here as Maria transforms the girls without ambition to an ace team of kho-kho players – strong and empowered.
Maria is faced with constant resistance from her colleagues, parents, an invisible battalion of haters, and at times, her students themselves. The director uses a non-linear narrative approach to weave in her storyline with that of her pupils.
While all the girls in Maria’s kho-kho team performed brilliantly, the movie’s show-stealer is Mamitha Baiju, a relative newcomer in the Malayalam film industry, who plays the role of Anju, the team captain, with great sincerity.
Nair has also touched on specific subjects with sensitivity and poise. For example, the reaction when teenage girls from a Kerala village are asked to wear training shorts for the first time, or how they’re encouraged to brush aside minor bruises and keep going, or playing while they are on their period.
Nair smartly uses cinematography and music to add a punch to his well-told tale. While the songs and background score are tender in most places, it is jubilant and empowering during the rest.
Overall, like any sports drama, Kho Kho is a predictable, fast-paced emotional roller coaster, but the movie is at its heart a tale of a teacher’s relationship with her star student. The pandemic has taken a precious year-and-a-half away from the world’s hardworking athletes. And Kho Kho reminds us how important it is to see our kids head back on the sports fields, sweat it out, and have a heart-to-heart with their teammates and coaches.
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