'Kho Kho evolved from a casual conversation with Rajisha Vijayan'
...says writer-director Rahul Riji Nair as he talks about making his new film, Kho Kho, a sports drama led by a female cast
One of the most adventurous filmmakers in Malayalam cinema today, Rahul Riji Nair has been reinventing and pushing himself in new directions ever since his Kerala State Award-winning debut Ottamuri Velicham. The last year saw the filmmaker coming out with two experimental projects in a short span — Kalla Nottam, a coming-of-age drama, and Survival Stories, a lockdown-based anthology. He has also quickly completed one more film, the mainstream sports drama Kho Kho, named after the game of the same name.
Led by Rajisha Vijayan and Mamitha Baiju, Kho Kho is, for Rahul, his most ambitious work. Aside from the two actors, it has a host of newcomers — high-school students who happen to be skilled kho kho players. As the game is relatively more well-known in North India, Rahul had initially considered making it outside Kerala when his script got selected at NFDC Film Bazaar’s co-production market. But, he didn’t find any of the opportunities exciting. Since the original setting was an island in Kerala, Rahul focused on making it there itself.
The film’s main characters are Maria Francis, a physical education trainer, played by Rajisha, and a student named Anju, played by Mamitha. The former appears in the film in two different looks, as the character has a few flashback portions.
Kho Kho is something that Rahul didn’t plan on making immediately, but the lockdown provided an opportunity that he knew would likely never be found again. “It all evolved from a casual conversation with Rajisha about this subject, and once she got interested in being part of it, everything else started falling into place,” says Rahul, who completed filming in one month, and post-production in two months. The overall process took four months.
The making of Kho Kho had its share of challenges, reveals Rahul. “We had to clear a couple of challenges. The first was to find kids who can play kho kho, and the other was to cast a talented actor as Anju, the team captain who appears throughout the film. Though Mamitha had only made small appearances in a few films, we saw great potential in her and decided she was right for the part. But as she was new to kho kho, we assigned a coach to teach her its fundamentals. That took a month. For casting the players, we contacted some coaches through whom we auditioned and shortlisted 14 names.”
The team carried out these tasks week-by-week and completed everything in the month before the shoot. Rahul found the whole experience incredible as they “didn’t have a start time” given the nature of the situation, and believes that the lockdown proved to be a blessing in disguise. “We have various schools, colleges, and grounds in the film which we wouldn’t have been able to get permission for if these establishments were functioning at the time. And once we found the kids, we grew more confident.”
Since kho kho is not so popular and given the challenge of doing a sports drama in a country that has produced many such films, Rahul found a fresh way to approach the material. “Every sports film has some unavoidable cliches. The outcome has to do with winning or losing. But still, we tried to come up with new and engaging ideas while staying within the limitations of the genre,” says Rahul, adding that there is enough information about the game in the film that can be understood by an ordinary spectator. “Since kho kho is a complicated game, we had to find a way to communicate its fundamental elements without making it seem foreign at the same time. Besides, the film is more about the two main characters and the interpersonal dynamics between everyone.”
In his previous films, Rahul had proven himself adept at handling characters of both genders. Ottamuri Velicham and Dakini had a predominantly female-centric narrative. Though all the main characters in Kho Kho are female, the film also features male actors such as Vettukili Prakash and Renjith Shekar Nair.
Rahul says he doesn’t see making a film with women as a big challenge because he is “not too conscious of the gender” and sees them as characters instead. “These characters are influenced by people I had met in the past — not necessarily for making a film. These experiences are always at the back of my mind and later come out as story threads for a film. Sometimes, my personality traits would show up in the characters I write.”
For Rahul, Kho Kho has been one of the most emotionally fulfilling journeys of his life. He primarily attributes that to the bond established between him and the actors — especially the newcomers — and their parents. “I was so overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of both the kids and their parents. And they are not all hardcore film buffs. But still, they were very supportive and fully committed to it. Everyone is looking forward to seeing the film in its entirety.”
The technical crew comprises cinematographer Tobin Thomas and editor Christy Sebastian. Sidhartha Pradeep wrote the music to the lyrics by Vinayak Sasikumar, Aditi Nair, and Arjun Ranjan. Dhanya Balakrishnan did the costumes, and Prathap Raveendran worked on the production design.