Would you believe me if I said that the most affecting character in Abhilash Joshiy's King of Kotha is a cat? It has been adopted by an elderly lady whose family has thrown her out, and it gives her what humans won't: a sense of companionship, a sense of not being alone, a sense of having someone to care for. The first time I saw a close-up of this creature, I wondered why we needed this specific visual. But much later, we get the payoff, and it's a brilliant bit of masala-film writing. It ties into the bond between this elderly woman and this cat, and you see how the animal has come to mean more to her than even the humans who still love her. This lady is one of the many "victims" in the imaginary city of Kotha, which is now a den of vice, ruled by a gangster named Kannan Bhai (and played with lip-smacking flourish by Shabeer Kallarakkal, the Dancing Rose of Sarpatta Parambarai).
There are many other characters like this elderly woman, like this cat. There is a younger woman who is a victim of circumstances, a former sex worker with a complicated relationship in her current life. There is a mother who won't talk to her son. There is a gangster who is obsessed with his wife, and whose love she underestimates. There is a woman who runs a bookstore and who has – through her love – convinced her boyfriend to ban drugs in the region. There is a cop not averse to playing games in order to clean up this lawless land. And best of all, there are two friends, only one of who truly honours this friendship over time. In other words, the stage is set for a compelling drama punctuated by bursts of action.
But what we end up with is a slo-mo action movie with occasional bursts of drama. Look, Dulquer Salmaan is super-cool and he holds the screen with utmost confidence – so if all you want is to worship His Handsomeness, then run to the nearest theatre. But Dulquer, who plays Raju, is underserved by the generic writing. Yes, we all know "mass" movies aren't meant to be analysed too deeply – but if all you want to do is showcase Dulquer's undeniable star quality, why have so many other characters and so much drama and so much unused potential? Why not choose a simpler story that is geared towards simple star service? There is a scene where Raju begins to read a letter from a loved one. The reading is interrupted by the arrival of another character. We never return to the letter and we never get to feel the surge of emotion Raju must have felt. No number of slo-mo shots can make up for these lapses.
The generic writing makes little use of several actors, especially Aishwarya Lekshmi, who is Raju's love interest. Prasanna pops up every now and then as a cop who is more a device to deliver truckloads of backstory to the audience. (He is the listener, like us.) Poor Shanthi Krishna is wasted in a part that just has no scope in this kind of star-worship scenario. Apart from Dulquer and Shabeer, only Chemban Vinod Jose and Nyla Usha get a few sharp moments, and they make the most of them. The main character in King of Kotha, though, is the style. This is a film that seems to have been conceived using storyboards rather than a screenplay. It looks dazzling, but there's only so much that eye candy can do in a nearly three-hour-long movie.
I wasn't bored, exactly. I was… underwhelmed. The scene where Kannan breaks a cop using a scan report carries so much potential – but the way it plays out is underwhelming. There is a plot point that Raju does not save money because he wants to celebrate life, but nothing comes of it – and that's underwhelming. The big friendship angle has its moments (like the one involving a cigarette), but due to the emphasis on swagger over emotions it turns out… underwhelming. We never feel Raju's love for Aishwarya Lekshmi, or his other emotional conflicts. The director keeps throwing things at you: a biker gang, a ridiculous journalist from Mumbai, a big fight sequence at the end with body-cam shots (I think)... The result is a showreel for surface-level style. Some substance would have helped to make this a far better movie.