Abbas Tyrewala at the Mumbai Film Festival, 2011
It’s become very clear to me that Abbas Tyrewala and I must not watching the same films. While he has been quoted (more than once) bemoaning the state of screenwriting in India, I have been watching a steady flow of smart, well-written films from all over India - e.g. Shor in the City (Hindi), Naan Kadavul (Tamil), Maanasare (Kannada), and Urumi (Malayalam). Perhaps Abbas got his copy of Game stuck in his DVD player and can’t get it out - that film on a loop would surely make anybody feel fucked.*
So, I couldn’t help shaking my head at Abbas (once again) as I watched the highly entertaining Tamil film Ko this weekend. Smartly written by K.V. Anand (who also wrote and directed Ayan) with a sharp eye towards the the intertwined nature of the media and politics, Ko amuses, delights, charms, and, most importantly, makes you think.
(I will not be going into spoilers for the plot in this review. If you do plan on seeing the film, please do yourself a favor and stay away from the wikipedia entry because you will want to see this film with fresh eyes.)
Ko is the story of Ashwin (a winningly floppy-haired Jeeva), a regular guy working as a photographer for the Dina Anjal (Daily News) in Chennai. Ashwin lives a pretty normal life - work, home, work - until two people enter his life. The first is Renuka (Karthika Nair), a hard news reporter who is coming back to Chennai after doing some award winning work on the Sri Lanka problem, and the second is Vasanthan (Ajmal Ameer), an good-hearted man running for political office on a platform of hope and change.
Ashwin falls hard for Renuka, which upsets the delicate balance of his friendship with Dina Anjal reporter Saro (Piaa Bajpai) and complicates matters for Renuka, who is rooming with Saro. But the three friends don’t actually have all that much time for romantic shenanigans because there is something much more important happening - an election.
The meat of Ko deals with the media’s impact on the election. Ashwin, Renu, and Dina Anjal are faced with choices regarding which stories to cover and we see the results play out as young, idealistic Vasanthan is able to build support for his guerrilla campaign for the office of Chief Minister against incumbent CM Yogeswaran (Prakash Raj) and the well-funded opposition candidate Aalavandhan (Kota Srinivasa Rao), the “Pouncing Tiger” with the help of the media spotlight.
Will Vasanthan and the young, idealistic technocrats of the Siragugal (Wings) Party be able to ride the tide of public support to victory or will the money and power of the establishment crush them? Trust me, no matter what you’re thinking right now, things do not work out the way you expect.
Let me tackle a few of the issues that are brought up in Ko. To begin, watching Ko made me wonder if director K.V. Anand has daughters because I was really very pleasantly surprised at how positively women are depicted in the film - especially Renu and Saro. Renu is a talented writer with a smart mind and a firm set of moral values. She stands up for what she believes in and values her friendships above all else. And though she wears a full-coverage sari to the office, Renu is no prude and she is happy to joke around with her friends about adult topics. It’s fortunate because adult topics are Saro’s favorite topic! But even though she has a filthy mind, Saro is never demonized as a man-trapping slut and I want to give K.V. Anand full credit for making Saro a well-rounded character and to Piaa Bajpai for making Saro so much fun. Thanks to Renu and Saro, this film does pass the Bechdel Test.
But even beyond the two leading ladies, I was very pleased to see women included among the candidates running for office as part of the Siragugal Party, as part of the gang of friends in the college flashback sequence, and even as part of a gang of bad guys.
One of the featured guest appearances was Ms. Sona Heiden playing a top actress named Smitha who played into an interesting little tangent on the relationship between celebrity and politics and media. Early on in the film, Vasanthan tries to hold a press conference on children’s education and to get the media to come out, he has some stars there - including famous item bomb Ms. Smitha. When it comes time for the question and answers, the reporters all want to know about Ms. Smitha’s personal life and the relationship status of this and that celebrity. When Vasanthan gets agitated at the press for only focusing on the glitz, a reporter snaps back at him, asking, “What? Should we be reporting on how much partying went on that fancy fund raiser you held last night instead? This is how the game is played.” The issue gets attention because the stars are there but there is price to be paid for the attention.
[Nice try, Vasanthan! This reporter's editors probably want 500 words on the celebrity relationship based around whatever quote he can get. And you want him to write about ISSUES?!]
[Maybe the issue he'll pick up on is whatever dirt he can find on you.]
It’s almost a metaphor for this type of issue-oriented masala filmmaking, especially considering that Ko features a “Deewangi Deewangi” style song (Aga Naga).
The last bit I want to bring up is a moment with CM Yogi, who is doing an interview with Renu while driving. The CM is frustrated at the positive media attention that Vasanthan is getting for his ‘man of the people’ act. He tells Renu, “You think he is wonderful because he walks? Look what happens when I try to walk.” The driver stops the car and Yogi gets out. Immediately he is swarmed by people who want to speak with him - either to thank him or ask for favors or to complain. I think Renu is taken aback by this - I certainly was. Perhaps it was the casting of Prakash Raj as Yogi but I had already begun to slot him in the villain role and this moment of him as part of the flow of humanity gave him more depth.
[Memo to anybody who thinks people who need social services from the government are 'lazy.' There is a difference between needing to catch up on Bigg Boss and needing to chose between paying for groceries or paying your rent.]
Because, really, the Siragugal Party is not made of politicians, with the exception of Vasanthan. They’re technocrats and teachers and engineers - people who know how to get things done, who would be able to govern. Politics is about image and narrative and popularity. In a democracy, you need to convince people to vote for you - some might call providing essential needs to poor voters bribery but for those voters it certainly provides more concrete good than riling up voters on hot button social issues like illegal immigration.
Part of what makes the Siragugal Party narrative so compelling is that it gets the public involved, the people feel engaged in the positive messages and the media helped build that shared narrative.
I think at the heart of Ko is the idea that the media has power - especially images - and that not everything counts as news. Discussion of Ms. Smitha’s workout habits should be discussed after children’s education; Yogi’s relationship with his secretary is irrelevant to his job performance; and Ashwin has a responsibility to print photos that represent the truth.
[You said it, Ashwin!]
Also, Ko is just a lot of fun.
Now, let’s talk about Ms. Smitha’s workout habits!
Jeeva was delightful as Ashwin. I’d never seen him anything before but he is one flexible son of a gun! He has a bit of the floppy-haired chocolate boy about him but don’t let that fool you. Jeeva aquits himself perfectly well in the fighting and serious acting arenas, too.
How can I say this nicely? Karthika’s eyebrows were very distracting, sculpted to D-Listed approved standards. Other than that I quite liked her. She is tall, which is nice for me to see as a tall woman, and has a lovely figure. Her acting was nothing spectacular but she was far from awful. I wouldn’t mind seeing her as a heroine again.
The one person who really surprised me in Ko was Piaa Bajpai. What a firecracker! Not only is she adorable, with her curly hair and shapely legs, but she has an infectious spark in her eyes. Piaa also has a great sense of comic timing, throwing out zings to rival the Golmaal crew. (Somebody call Rohit Shetty!) Piaa actually does more heavy lifting acting wise than Karthika does, which was probably a smart decision on K.V. Anand’s part.
Ajmal Ameer was also fantastic. I can’t stress enough how much he bowled me over as Vasanthan. He captured the ‘affable average guy’ persona that drove Yogi so crazy but was able to flesh it out a bit so we could see the steel underneath the affableness.
The supporting cast was all great - from Prakash Raj (who I could have used more of, as always) to Ms. Smitha herself Sona Heiden to Kota Srinivasa Rao and everybody else playing friends, co-workers, and just city folk. There wasn’t a dud among them.
Musically, the film was okay, with the stand out track being the college days song “Gala Gala.” It has this catchy guitar hook that reminded me a bit of the “Bodyguard” title track. The picturizations were stunning, though. From the club track to the pastoral Norway song to the fantasy snow globe song, I was really impressed.
So, overall, I would definitely recommend this one to people who are looking for a good masala flick with some brains to back up the razzle-dazzle. And I look forward to seeing whatever K.V. Anand has coming out next!
(And I would humbly suggest that Abbas Tyrewala do the same.)
* Of course, it’s equally possible that Abbas Tyrewala and I have have different ideas about what is considered good writing. After all, he is the man behind a film I found (in equal parts) tedious, extremely derivative of Hollywood romantic comedies, and overly reliant on meta-references to previous Bollywood films - Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. (Even just typing “Meow” and “Rats” is like nails on a chalkboard to me. Don’t make me do it again.)
I suspect he belongs to the subset of people who can’t appreciate a proper, leisurely masala narrative that uses song picturizations as plot points, not just as an excuse to get free advertising on MTV. This isn’t to bash Abbas - to be fair, he did write De Taali, which I enjoyed - but just to say that maybe he thinks screenwriting in India is fucked because he takes his cues for what is “good” writing from the global middlebrow cinema style (e.g. whatever movie wins Best Picture at the Oscars) and not from masala film.