Kho Kho Movie Review: A predictable but empowering sports drama
Kho Kho is at its best when its focus remains on its characters' personal battles
When director Rahul Riji Nair announced Kho Kho last year, I wondered how he would tackle a sport with which many are unfamiliar. I didn't know much about it until I saw the film. Having seen it, I must say that kho kho, the game, takes as much endurance, skill, and determination as any other. And Rahul presents it in a way that elicits interest, albeit briefly. It's not a film that immediately turns one into a kho kho fan, but it has its strengths.
Starring Rajisha Vijayan in her second sports drama after 2019's Finals, Kho Kho is a film that works much better as an empowerment tale than a sports drama. And like Finals, it has a secondary character getting equal prominence in the second half. However, Kho Kho is not the same kind of film, and Rajisha's character, Maria Francis, is actively present till the final frames. The film doesn't bring anything new to the table in terms of storytelling, but then again, how many new ways can one narrate a sports drama, especially when motivation is its primary intention.
Director: Rahul Riji Nair
Cast: Rajisha Vijayan, Mamitha Baiju, Renjit Shekar Nair
When Maria first arrives on a remote island, she carries both kinds of baggage — the external and internal. She has an unpleasant history with the place but has no other choice but to accept her new job, given that she is married to a man terrible at handling his finances. She needs the money, and the local school needs a physical education instructor. The school doesn't really care about physical education or kho kho for that matter, but as with all sports dramas, or most films involving teachers and students, we can sense that someone will shake things up.
The template is familiar: a new teacher shows up, gains the students' trust, and forms a strong emotional bond with them. It's a bond that gets tested often over the course of the film, especially after Maria learns that she shares a traumatic past with Anju (Mamitha Baiju), who becomes the captain of the school's kho kho team. The Maria-Anju interactions are easily the best thing about this film. Kho Kho is as much Anju's story as it is Maria's. It gives Mamitha, who recently appeared in Operation Java as Balu Varghese's girlfriend, enough moments to shine. It's her breakout performance. When we first meet the character, she is in the middle of a fight with another student. She has much rage and anguish in her, after-effects, no doubt, of the 'traumatic past' I mentioned earlier. Given the character's extreme vulnerability, we wait with bated breath to see her victory more than anyone else's. We also get a heartwarming friendship between Anju and the team's manager (Renjit Shekar Nair), one of the few unpredictable aspects in an otherwise predictable film.
Though Kho Kho also involves a dozen other players, all played by promising newcomers, it doesn't dwell on their personal lives as long as we want. Besides the lives of Maria and Anju, it briefly explores the troubled home of another student whose parents are portrayed by Jeo Baby (director of The Great Indian Kitchen) and Geethi Sangeetha. These are cameo appearances, but they do make an impact. The former plays an abusive father and husband to a woman who is hopeful that her daughter's interest in sports might someday save her from her misery. The other characters, too, see kho kho as a gateway to much better prospects. Though their parents show a bit of opposition initially, they are relatively more open-minded. They wasted their lives on the island, and they don't wish the same fate for their children.
Kho Kho is at its best when its focus remains on its characters' personal battles and their attempts to see the sport as a form of therapy. But it falters in other places, particularly the uninspiring staging of the training and gameplay sessions. The repetitive nature of these sequences combined with the unimpressive songs accompanying them tested my patience. And, mind you, there are a dozen songs in the film. I also found the stilted dialogue delivery in a few places bothersome. There is one particular instance where Maria is giving a pep talk to the students. It feels as though she memorised lines from some random spirituality article she found on social media. It's a pity because Maria is an otherwise strong character. She reminded me of those teachers in school days who, despite being curt with students, also inspire their affection.
But despite these few hiccups, Kho Kho is a film worth watching because it's a showcase for some newcomers who show much conviction. Being their first film, you can see that they put a lot of effort into doing their parts right. There is not a single false note in their performances. Also, it's a film that proves, once again, that Rahul Riji Nair is one of the rare filmmakers in Malayalam who is capable of sensitively handling female-oriented subjects. We saw this gift in his debut film Ottamuri Velicham and this year's national award-winning Kalla Nottam. Despite being his most ambitious work yet, Kho Kho shows that regardless of how big a film gets, one can always make space for the little things that make a big difference.