Revisiting 'Koode', the many layers in Anjali Menon's moving film

There are two ways to watch 'Koode' — believe that Jenny (Nazriya) is really back as a ghost or not.
Revisiting 'Koode', the many layers in Anjali Menon's moving film
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It's been two years since Anjali Menon's Koode, based on the Marathi film Happy Journey, released. Unlike the director's previous outing Bangalore Days, Koode is a much more sober film. Set in a quiet hill town, the film explores the relationships in a family of four torn apart by circumstances.

When we meet Joshua (Prithviraj) for the first time, he's covered in oil and grease, the shadows under his listless eyes clearly visible. He lives and works in an arid Gulf country, his life as barren as the landscape that surrounds him. A phone call from his father (Ranjith) summons him home — and en route, he dreams that he's picking up a fallen nest and protectively placing it back on the tree. That has been Joshua's function so far in the family, the boy who left home at 15 to keep his family afloat.

As he goes home for the funeral of his sister Jenny (Nazriya), the endless desert gives way to the rain-filled, lush green of an Indian countryside. It is a turning point of sorts for Joshua, whose life as a child had come to a rude and sudden end because he had to grow up too soon in order to keep Jenny alive. The baby, who's much younger than Joshua, was born with a congenital heart condition. To continue paying her hospital bills, his parents had to take the difficult decision to send him abroad with his uncle.

Jenny arrived on Christmas day, with Lilly (Mala Parvathy) going into labour during the midnight mass. But now she has left them forever. Or has she? Joshua soon finds Jenny 'resurrected' in the old van that was used by the family as her ambulance. No person other than Joshua can see Jenny, but she's real, she assures him.

Joshua, the boy who grew up too soon

There are two ways to watch Koode. One is to accept at face value that Jenny has indeed come back as a ghost with her personality intact. The film then becomes a light-hearted journey of a brother-sister pair who are getting to know each other properly as adults. The other is to unravel Joshua's complex story and see how Jenny can fit into the puzzle.

The young Joshua (Zubin N) is almost never without an eager grin. He loves going to school and playing football. He has a crush on his schoolmate Sophie (Mithuna Rajan playing the younger version). He's excited about the birth of his baby sister. He is ready to love and be loved.

But, when he's sent away with his uncle, all that changes. Though Anjali does not show us his childhood in the Gulf, there is enough to suggest that he was sexually abused by his uncle. Joshua's smile shrinks, he stops looking people in the eye, his body language is uncertain and lacks confidence. The adult Joshua is broken inside.

Joshua is like a third parent to Jenny although he only visits his family every four or five years. Forced early into the role of the provider, Joshua resents his lost years but is still a dutiful son and brother. During one of their conversations, Jenny also mentions that though he'd bought her a phone, he'd never once called her. Jenny is just 20 when she dies, so Joshua would have hardly met her more than four or five times. This is a sister he never knew.

When we meet Jenny, Nazriya plays her as a childish young woman. Some might even call her the annoying 'loosu ponnu' heroine of mainstream cinema. But what if this characterisation is not just deliberate but also literal? Because Jenny is a child in Joshua's mind and what we're seeing is a figment of Joshua's imagination?

The first clue to this comes from Joshua's maternal grandmother who has moved in with them after years of living alone. As Lilly is plaiting her hair, she makes a comment about her mother having lived alone for so long. But the elderly woman merely says, "But I was not alone." It's an offhand remark that assumes more and more significance as the film unfolds.

Grandmother and Joshua

The grandmother in Koode does not have much to do. She and Joshua barely speak, but it is the grandmother who understands what Joshua is going through. Later in the film, when she makes a loud exclamation out of context, Kochuthresiamma (Pauly Valson) who helps around the house, explains to a neighbour that she hears voices in her head.

What if Joshua has inherited this troubling 'gift' from his grandmother? We can interpret it as a mental health issue or a supernatural ability to communicate with the dead; the film does not force us to choose but gently guides us into the dual possibilities.

After all, it is because Joshua 'sees' Jenny that he's able to emotionally heal not just himself but also those around him. It is because he's able to talk out his repressed feelings with his sibling that he's able to place his parents in kinder light, and even make daring choices like arriving at Sophie's (Parvathy) house and asking her to leave with him in the presence of her oppressive family. He also goes out of his way to help their former football coach, Ashraf (Atul Kulkarni).

Towards the end, however, Joshua suffers a breakdown; when his condition becomes apparent to his shocked parents, it is the grandmother who takes his face in her hands and looks into his tortured eyes with understanding. They don't exchange a word but she knows. Sophie stands by Joshua as he works himself out of his issues. The illusion has helped him thus far but the illusion needs to dissolve for Joshua to become whole.

How Jenny changes

But is Jenny really not there? She wolfs down plates of food and even orders gifts for Joshua without his knowledge from his phone. And what about Brownie, the adorable Labrador who senses Jenny's presence?

The dog barks at Joshua when he first enters Jenny's room (Joshua doesn't even have a room of his own in their house because he's never been around), and follows him around everywhere after they become friends. When Joshua asks his mother what Brownie eats, she tells him that he eats just what the family does. Joshua makes it a practice to take an extra plate of food for Jenny, which she 'shares' with the dog. It's possible that Jenny was never there at all and the food was just for Brownie.

We also see how Jenny changes through the film as Joshua gets to know more about her. When they fight for the first time, it is over the expensive gifts that she has ordered for Joshua. He'd denied himself any kind of joy all these years, but as he begins to find himself again, Joshua slowly starts to prioritise his own needs and happiness. But it still does not come naturally to him and his mind needs to blame it on Jenny. When he shouts at her, Jenny's face falls and Nazriya actually manages to snivel like a toddler, the baby that Jenny is in Joshua's head.

As the narrative progresses though, Jenny cries differently. She becomes quieter, more thoughtful and less exuberant. And this happens as Joshua discovers Jenny's diary and reads about her feelings for Krish (Roshan Mathew), a senior in her college, and their short-lived romance. From the bubbly toddler, Jenny becomes a more grown-up person in Joshua's mind, someone with whom he can have adult conversations.

There are other subtle hints in the film to suggest that Jenny isn't really there. For instance, Joshua goes to meet Krish at the college after reading Jenny's diary. He has also seen her college photographs but he doesn't know which of the boys is Krish and needs someone to point him out. Jenny does not identify Krish for him although she's there in the van and could have done so.

But perhaps the biggest evidence for Jenny being Joshua's subconscious rather than a 'real' ghost is that she knows he was abused. Though Joshua shares some stories from his schooldays with Jenny, especially about Sophie, he does not say anything about his years in the Gulf with his uncle. That is a chapter shrouded in silence. However, when Sophie's family drags her away from him and a defeated Joshua plans to go home, Jenny reminds Joshua that he had nobody in all those years when 'things which should not have happened' took place. Does he want to leave Sophie alone like that too? It is then that Joshua turns the van around and goes in pursuit of Sophie.

Joshua and Sophie

When Joshua and Sophie elope in the van, Jenny and Brownie also travel with them. The morning after Joshua and Sophie spend the night together in a forest, the dog wakes him up and takes him to the van. Joshua discovers that Jenny has disappeared from his life; he is devastated and Sophie wears a stricken look, as her suspicions about Joshua's state of mind are confirmed. 

Interestingly, the last conversation that Jenny and Joshua have is about Joshua becoming a father. It happens right before Joshua is about to follow Sophie into the forest, presumably to consummate their relationship. As if Jenny senses Joshua's insecurities about the life that is to follow, she assures him that he will make a great father. Why? Because Joshua knows what it is like to be let down by parents and the weight of that knowledge is not something he can comfortably bear. Jenny, his subconscious, tells him that it will be all right.

With Sophie, Joshua does very un-Joshua-like things. He smiles, he confronts people, he asserts himself. He emerges out of his shell. But being touched physically is not easy for Joshua, he flinches even when his mother touches him. But Sophie is his soulmate and like him, she too has been violated and hurt. When they come together in the forest, it is as if the last barrier in his mind has fallen. Jenny's job is done and she 'leaves'.

What about Brownie's reaction though? Depending on how you choose to watch the film, perhaps the dog really did sense Jenny's supernatural presence in the van all along or perhaps he just woke Joshua up because he was hungry and wanted to get going.

The end

The ending of the film too is open to interpretation. We see Joshua as a football coach some years after his breakdown, returning to a sport that he had once loved so desperately. He hears the van honking and turns in disbelief — could it be that Jenny is back? When he goes to check, he sees that his phone is ringing. Sophie is in labour and by the time Joshua reaches the hospital, she delivers a baby girl.

Does the honking mark Jenny's return in Joshua's head or is it only the ring of the phone? Was Jenny there all along or is this Joshua cherishing her memory in a special moment of his life?

The answer perhaps lies in the words painted in Jenny's room — 'What you seek is seeking you'. We choose the reality we wish to see, and sometimes, our choice becomes the truth that saves us.

The film is available for streaming on Disney+Hotstar.

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