Kolamavu Kokila: An inconsistent, problematic dark comedy

The drug dealers in Kolamavu Kokila may not be the sharpest tools in the shed, but it seems that they definitely have a Netflix subscription. More than once, the name of Pablo Escobar is thrown about. When the group gets lucky with Kokila’s (Nayanthara) recruitment, one of the guys says, “Namma Pablo Escobar aavardhu urudhi.” I’m pretty sure I spotted Escobar’s poster inside one of their hideouts. Kolamavu Kokila, incidentally, isn’t as reminiscent of Narcos, as it is of — you said it — Breaking Bad. Yes, yes, the obvious reference, right? Hear me out though. Much like in that series, there’s a cancer angle here. The protagonist gets diagnosed with it there; but here, it’s the mother, even if it doesn’t impact Kokila’s life any less. Curiously, the cancer, much like there, is of the lung here too. A drug dealer talks about decomposing a body in acid, and it’s another hat tip, I suppose. And Kolamavu Kokila too — like Walter White — apart from the alliterative name, begins as a naïve girl, but begins to slowly pick up the street-smarts that enable her survival. Walter does the drugs thing for the kicks — to feel alive — but Kokila, a Tamil film protagonist, is in it for her family. Think of her as a K Balachander girl with a wicked twist. In one scene, as her cancer-afflicted mother speaks in resignation about her fate, she says, “Ponnu nu dhaane ipdi pesara”, and vows to save her. These bits are heartwarming.

The biggest difference, of course, is that Kolamavu Kokila has been conceived as a comedy… a dark comedy with the occasional good mass moment for its seemingly timid heroine. And I have to say, as sacrilegious as it may be to say, that Nayanthara oversells the innocence of her character. While Kokila’s timid nature may have seemed an excellent counterpoint to her depravity — yes, yes, it’s for a cause — the actor’s portrayal seems a constant indicator that Kokila’s manner of being is feigned. I kept waiting for the disguise to break. Perhaps she’s a police informant. Perhaps she’s wreaking vengeance for a past misdeed. Perhaps she will eventually grow out of her almost infantile wide-eyed meek-speak, but she never does.

Kolamavu Kokila
Director: Nelson
Cast: Nayanthara, Saranya, Yogi Babu

The film’s drug dealers and peddlers, as I’ve mentioned, are rather dull  — save for one scene in which a dealer tries to identify a rat — and some of their decisions, rather baffling. A dreaded drug lord risks losing a large shipment of cocaine by strangely trusting Kokila — a trembling, nervous, weepy Kokila, no less. A hitman who’s trying to sexually assault Kokila, suddenly accedes to her bizarre request, despite holding all the aces. Towards the end, a rather impotent threat from Kokila easily outwits a supposedly smart cop. It’s hard to enjoy victories when the contests seem staged and this easy.

The film’s constant digressions into comedy are a big problem too. You get joke attempts where they scarcely seem to belong. The drug dealer played by Rajendran often breaks into nonsensical adages that very rarely work. The boy who’s smitten with Kokila’s sister, meanwhile, is a truly irksome presence with his rapid babble. He doesn’t stop mumbling when beaten to a pulp. In the absence of his incessant chatter being funny, I hoped that his character — and Sekar (Yogi Babu), who’s a lot funnier — would at least get humanised somewhere, but sadly, they remain caricatures till the end.

And in any case, you have to wonder: What’s Kolamavu Kokila really trying to say? There’s the likeable subtext that a woman — her superficial meekness and soft speech notwithstanding — can outwit dozens of powerful men, sure, and really, hurrah for it. Beyond it though, what else is the story saying? That illegal means are justified when your needs are legitimate? That depravity is pardonable when done for good? What are the grave consequences of all the kilograms of cocaine that Kokila successfully helps distribute? If it’s argued that the film is simply about a good family going rogue, where indeed are the negative repercussions? Kokila, after all, kills, peddles, kidnaps, incites murder, and has no qualms about throwing innocent people — like Sekar — into harm. Where’s her comeuppance?

Amid the jarring shifts between seriousness and comedy, Anirudh’s music comes as a big respite. Kalyana Vayasu has clearly turned out to be the most popular of the songs, and one of the reasons I took to its video — when it was originally released — was the possibility that for once, Yogi Babu’s character would be treated as a normal person, one whose appearance didn’t need to be constantly described in degrading terms. Alas. There are plenty of ‘jokes’ aimed at his supposedly unattractive looks. Characters compare his face to an ape, and he responds in kind. When he shares that he’s in love with Kokila, a boy suggests that he look at the mirror first. Another questions his lack of conscience for falling for an attractive girl. Almost scarily, the audience burst into laughter. It’s perhaps time that we looked past his appearance, and tapped, maybe, more into the terrific comic timing that he’s shown ample evidence of. Who knows, maybe, some day in the distant future, a character he plays may be shown to genuinely fall for a conventionally attractive girl. And maybe, just maybe, some character won’t go, “Manasaatchiye illiya?”

This review was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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