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King of Kotha review: Dulquer Salmaan’s skillfully-crafted gangster film fails to offer a gripping narrative

King of Kotha is arguably the first-ever Malayalam film to be made and promoted in line with the ongoing ‘pan-India’ trend. Abhilash Joshiy’s gangster saga, starring Dulquer Salmaan in the titular role, entered the scene amid high expectations and promotional efforts, setting a new standard for Malayalam cinema.

Before we delve into discussing the film, take a moment to reflect on your all-time favourite gangster movies (not to confuse this with mere action thrillers), if any. What makes them special to you? Is it the action sequences, filmmaking style, performances, and technical elements alone that endear them to you? Isn’t the way the story unfolds, develops, and concludes, enriched with a blend of emotions, also a significant reason for your fondness? Didn’t their exceptional scripts, along with other elements, play a part in crafting such masterpieces? Let’s put a pin in it for the time being.

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Helmed by debutant Abhilash Joshiy, King of Kotha tells a story set in the fictional locale of Kotha, 1996, situated near the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, known for its criminal activities. The land is introduced to viewers by Mohanlal’s voiceover. 

Although CI Shahul Hassan (Prasanna) had heard tales of Kotha earlier, he understands the grim reality only upon his arrival. Through SI Tony Titus (Gokul Suresh), Shahul learns about Kotha’s current king Kannan Bhai (Shabeer Kallarakkal), and his destructive drug empire that has devastated the youth. Shahul soon grasps Kannan’s untouchable status. At this juncture, Tony narrates Raju’s (Dulquer Salmaan) story – the former King of Kotha who left the area a decade ago. Recognising Raju as the sole person who can tame Kannan, Shahul hatches a plan to repatriate him and cleanse Kotha.

As a gangster film, King of Kotha maintains its genre consistently throughout its 176-minute duration. Like classic genre movies, it underscores how the story’s setting and the socio-economic-political environment have a lasting impact on its characters.

The first act of the film is to adeptly establish the atmosphere and offer glimpses into the lives of the people under Kannan Bhai’s rule. Using meticulously designed sets that convey the era’s essence without extensive explanation, the movie initially proceeds at a deliberate pace, seemingly aiming to shed light on the locality. Here, the narrative introduces various characters linked to Kotha’s history. However, the absence of memorable or captivating moments significantly affects this part of the film.

Around 30 minutes into the film, there’s a flashback scene where Kotha Raju makes an impressive double entry – first as a silhouette with just his voice, and then fully, five minutes later, creating a goosebump-worthy moment.

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With Raju’s entrance, King of Kotha‘s tone and pace shift dramatically into an action-packed mode. However, even amidst the action, the plot struggles to engage, progressing without a clear direction. Despite attempts to present touching moments, these fall short due to a lack of impact and quality in the script.

While one might expect the situation to improve as the story unfolds, it unfortunately persists. The flashback scenes repeatedly emphasise Raju’s fearlessness, only saved by Dulquer’s commanding presence. Additionally, the forced nature of the dialogues exacerbates this issue.

Even into the movie’s second half, the issue persists, where the script grows weaker, offering little new beyond the typical gangster movie formula. In an unconventional moment during the latter portion, friends-turned-rivals Raju and Kannan share a heartwarming reconnection. However, Abhilash N Chandran’s writing severely undermines this scene, a stark contrast to his previous work in Porinju Mariam Jose.

Throughout the film, the script remains lackluster, only redeemed by Abhilash’s impressive style. With a strong focus on all other elements, except its disjointed narrative, Abhilash makes a significant debut in Malayalam cinema, echoing the blockbuster style of his father, director Joshiy.

On the performance front, Dulquer truly stands out in the movie, acing a never-seen-before avatar. He effectively demonstrates that despite taking more than a decade to taking on an action-packed role, he is fully capable of mastering such impactful characters.

Shabeer Kallarakkal too delivers an impressive performance, while Aishwarya Lekshmi, Nyla Usha, Chemban Vinod Jose, and TG Ravi also shine. However, both Prasanna Gokul Suresh fail to align with their character and give off a disconnected vibe.

Despite limited screen time, Shammi Thilakan makes a remarkable impact as Raju’s father, Kotha Ravi, a former rowdy.

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Undoubtedly, Nimesh M Thanoor emerges as the film’s ultimate star, showcasing exceptional skills as the production designer. His work is so authentic that it might deceive one into believing Kotha actually exists. With meticulous attention to detail and well-grounded research, Nimesh masterfully establishes the distinct atmospheres of 1986 and 1996.

Cinematographer Nimish Ravi, known for his excellence in films like Kurup and Rorschach, maintains his high standards in King of Kotha too. His frames are captivating, particularly in the massy scenes where he brilliantly captures Dulquer’s swag in its entirety.

Shyam Sasidharan’s editing also deserves praise. The skillfully choreographed action scenes by Rajasekhar are enhanced by Shyam’s work, ensuring consistently gripping and exhilarating sequences without any compromise.

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Jakes Bejoy’s background score too is dominant in the technical side of King of Kotha. Unlike the criticism faced by the recent action thriller Jailer for the overuse of the Alappara theme, Jakes creates distinct tracks for different moments and employing the main King of Kotha theme only as needed. Throughout the film, his tracks shine consistently, offering a cohesive experience in line with its tone. Ronex Xavier (makeup) and Praveen Varma (costumes) also excel, preserving the film’s essence and era effectively.

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In short, though King of Kotha possessed the potential to be celebrated alongside iconic gangster movies like Satya, Vada Chennai, and Gangs of Wasseypur, due to its impressive technical aspects, its failure to feature an absorbing, enthralling, and even compelling narrative prevented it from reaching the lofty heights it aspired to achieve.

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King of Kotha movie cast: Dulquer Salmaan, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Shabeer Kallarakkal, Prasanna, Gokul SureshKing of Kotha movie director: Abhilash JoshiyKing of Kotha movie rating: 3 stars

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