On Monday, I went with friends to see “Kodi”, a Dhanush double-starrer Tamil blockbuster. I don't generally watch movies. The only exceptions are when I take my daughter to watch a Disney animation. Even this, I do only to safeguard myself against future criticism, I don't want to be accused of having deprived her of exposure to the real world during her childhood.
“Kodi” was an exception for a different reason. The film had been out three days – that's a long time already in cinema-crazy Madras – and the reviews of the film were curiously silent on one of the key sub-plots in the movie which I was privy to well before the release.
I am too lazy to write a full review of the film. So, here's something that is passable that I lifted from Wikipedia. “For Kodi (Dhanush), politics has been a part of his life ever since his birth. His father (Karunaas), a low-rung party worker, brings him up to become a politician, before setting himself on fire, protesting against a factory whose toxic mercury waste has ruined lives in the locality. Kodi’s identical twin, Anbu (also Dhanush), is a contrast to his rough-and-tough brother. He is a college lecturer and a pacifist. Kodi is the secretary of his party’s youth wing, and his girlfriend Rudhra (Trisha), who belongs to the rival party and has been in politics since childhood like him, is appointed as the candidate for an upcoming by-election. Meanwhile, Kodi comes in possession of documents relating to the factory that could ruin his party’s chances in the election, and to keep him silent, his party leadership announces him as their candidate. To what lengths will these lovers go to win, and how does Anbu get into the mix forms the crux of the story.”
More than 50 of the 163-word review -- most likely written by the film's PR company -- deals with toxic mercury discharge from a controversial factory. One would think at least one of the reviewers would have picked up on this and wondered aloud if this had anything to do with Unilever's mercury pollution in Kodaikanal.
Nope. If you go by the 13-odd reviews that I analysed, the film had to do with politics, Trisha's evil role, Muttai Malathi's bubbly role, Dhanush's double role, SA Chandrasekhar's political leader role, Saranya's mother role and all that.
Times of India is the only one credited with having mentioned “mercury pollution” and spelling both words right.
Most made no mention at all of this sub-plot. It didn't exist. The few that did, were way off the mark. Firstpost: “Kodi at a young age sees his father setting himself on fire, protesting against a factory that dumps toxic waste which causes environmental pollution and health issues in the village (A leaf out of Kudankulam nuclear power plant protest).”
Kudankulam? What leaf? Nuclear?
So, why didn't any of the critics pick up on the connection between what's transpiring in Kodaikanal and what's shown in the film? Speculating on the reasons, I could come up with the following:
a) The critics were not among the nearly 4 million people who watched the rap video “Kodaikanal Won't” that was going viral around this time last year.
b) Media outlets did not want to highlight the connection. Unilever has an $8 billion advertising budget, and considerable political clout from the United Nations to the Government of India.
c) In trying to side-step controversy, Durai Senthilkumar was too subtle in his references to the case in his film.
I can't analyse a) and b) as that would lie squarely in the realm of speculation. But I have seen Sofia Ashraf's rap video – actually, the video was integral to our campaign to make Unilever compensate mercury-affected workers, and clean-up their contamination. Last year, around the time Sofie's song was going viral, Senthilkumar's assistants visited us for a briefing on the mercury contamination case. “Dhanush sir has agreed to do the role. It is a double-starrer political thriller. We want the mercury issue to be an important part of the story,” the assistant said. They then went and spent a week in Kodaikanal visiting workers' families at their homes and in hospitals.
Having seen the film yesterday, I feel ready to comment on c). All characters in the film may be fictional. But the similarities between Scorpion Mercury Factory and Hindustan Unilever's thermometer factor are not coincidental. They are totally intended. The only review to get it right was YoutubeTV channel Red Pix, that interviewed director Senthilkumar. See the segment starting 05.17.
Kodi is not a message film like “Prayer for Rain” or “Bhopal Express” were. Both were built around the Bhopal disaster. I didn't like either. Here, the associations are more tangential. Entertainment and mass appeal are clearly prioritised, thankfully. I don't like paying entertainment tax for preachy films. Barring the let-down climax, Kodi moves well and is certainly worth a watch.
Nityanand is a Chennai-based writer and activist.
Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.