*Some spoilers ahead
When an exhausted Joshua (Prithviraj) rides a bus back home, he falls asleep on the way. You'd expect Joshua to have a nightmare, wake up sweating, considering why he's making that journey. That would be the path that most films take. But in Anjali Menon's Koode, Joshua dreams of a fallen nest with three chicks, their mouths wide open and cheeping incessantly. He takes them in his hand tenderly and places the nest back on the tree, risking his own safety.
That dream defines the life that Joshua has led, caring for his parents and sister (Nazriya) to the point that he has given up on his own. And it isn't because he made that choice by himself, like many earlier films about self-sacrificing heroes. Joshua was sent away to work in the Middle East when he was a mere 15 years old because his parents couldn't afford medicines for Jenny, who was born with a congenital condition. This means that the brother, who'd waited so eagerly for the arrival of his baby sister, barely sees her growing up.
A remake of the Marathi film Happy Journey - which I haven't seen - Koode is about second chances. The what ifs, the words that struggle to find a way to our tongue, the pregnant silences that we wish we had the courage to break. While the young people in Bangalore Days had their own problems, they were also infused with the spirit to take on the world. Joshua is neither so young nor so rebellious. The dark shadows under his eyes, his hesitant manners, his quiet body language mark out his vulnerability - Joshua believes he cannot make any demands, he can only fulfil them.
Is there a reason why this sensitive but enthusiastic young boy changes? Anjali Menon does not spell it out - but there is more than an indication of what Joshua has to endure when he leaves his family and goes abroad to stay with a relative. As the man places his hand on young Joshua's shoulder and slides it below, you feel your heart fill with dread. The train pulls away and Joshua leaves. What horrors await him? Anjali does not show us. The next shot is that of the adult Joshua, taking a shower. We know and we understand.
What is unsaid in Koode is as important as what is said. The grandmother who stares into space, for instance. When Joshua's mother, Lilly (Mala Parvathi) asks her how she managed to live all alone, the grandmother simply says, "But I wasn't alone". Nobody even registers her words, but they take on significance later, when Joshua goes through a breakdown. If a scene can strike terror in your heart and yet overwhelm you with tears, this is it.
In that small town where everybody knows everybody, the characters don't always say and do what they wish. It's the opposite of all that Bangalore stood for in Anjali's last film. So, Sophie (Parvathy) does not talk about the violence she has experienced in the hands of her alcoholic husband; she wears a high-necked blouse to hide the bruises. We know only because she examines them briefly, in a rare moment of privacy. Again, Anjali holds back from throwing these scenes in to milk sympathy from the audience. We don't need Sophie to be stripped off her dignity; it's enough if we read it in her eyes. When Joshua places his hand on Sophie's shoulder, it mirrors that ugly scene on the train - but we know that this touch is different, and not conveniently because Joshua is the hero. Anjali gives the characters a back-story for why Sophie can turn to Joshua, trust him in a way that she cannot her own family.
Perhaps because these characters who stay so close to each other cannot bridge the gap that society has imposed upon them for as long as they live, it takes a death to make that happen. Nazriya's return to cinema after a four-year break (to which there is a cheeky reference) is through a premise that was difficult for me to buy. In the beginning, it looked like Koode was going to be one of those exhausting films where an unnaturally cheerful character goes around lecturing to people about the "meaning of life". But gradually, Anjali draws you into the story she wants to tell - of tremulous bonds and the beauty we deny ourselves because we are too afraid to look it in the eye.
What if you could attend your own funeral? Observe who cries for you and who is thoroughly bored by the proceedings? These are thoughts that many of us may have had at some point. Koode offers us that opportunity through Jenny - gently suggesting the idea that the ones who walked away from us may have had their own struggles, just as we did. Her little romance with Krish (Roshan Mathew) is filled with music and energy, two elements we always associate with Anjali's films.
Koode is also that rare film in which children are in the position to extend their compassion to their parents; forgive them for the past. An embittered Joshua slowly realises that his father (Ranjith), "Repair uncle" to the neighboring children, has put himself through a penitence in the only way he knows all these years. Joshua and Jenny have not had an easy childhood but as adults, they realise that these difficult and often unfair decisions that their parents made on their behalf have also eaten into them. We see Sophie's father (Devan), silenced by his family, but quietly lending strength to his daughter's decisions. We can ask why he isn't more vocal; why he cannot chuck these unreasonable people from his life and stand by his daughter openly. That perhaps would have been more satisfying, but that's not where Anjali wants to take us - Koode is about human fallibility and none of its characters aspire to be heroes. Including Joshua, who gets at least two instances when the audience would have forgiven a fight sequence, but doesn't indulge.
Atul Kulkarni, who played Prithviraj's character in the Marathi original, appears in Koode as coach Ashraf. When he came on screen, I assumed that he'd be the "good teacher" character who protects Joshua from all the evil in the world and pushes him towards success. But he isn't. He, too, needs love and care, just as the others in the story. Perhaps that's why Anjali titled the film Koode - we all need someone to walk with us, whether that's a lover, sibling, friend, well-wisher or dog.
To many, Koode may prove to be underwhelming. It does not have enough laugh aloud moments, the characters don't do anything that would give us a sense of euphoria. The mood of the film, captured by Littil Swayamp's unwavering camera, is very different from what we've come to expect of Anjali. But in between the lines, the stirring music (Jayachandran and Raghu Dixit), and the small victories of its ordinary characters, Koode manages to make you fall in love with the life you already have, with the limited possibilities that it offers. And extend to those who are with you in this journey, a little more affection, a little more forgiveness.