After Mr and Mrs Mahi, watch Kony: Excellent sports drama starring Soumitra Chatterjee - Hindustan Times
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After Mr and Mrs Mahi, watch Kony: Excellent sports drama starring Soumitra Chatterjee

Jun 03, 2024 06:08 AM IST

Weekend Ticket: This Bengali film classic stars the great Soumitra Chatterjee as Khitish Singha, who trains a titular slum girl to become a swimmer.

Bollywood and its obsession with sports drama is a combination that has given us many films. The defining common ground between them is the underdog story where there is the discovery of talent, the preparation, and then the rise. Last week's release Mr and Mrs Mahi still tries to run some steps ahead but falls on the no ball of predictability. In this regard, take a look at remarkable Bengali film titled Koni, which was released in 1984. Directed by Saroj Dey, and starring Soumitra Chatterjee and Sriparna Banerjee, this adaptation of the Moti Nandi novel still thrives in the cultural memory of middle-class Bengali households. (Also read: After Srikanth, watch Ship of Theseus: A complex portrayal of disability and creative confidence)

Soumitra Chatterjee as Khit da in Kony.
Soumitra Chatterjee as Khit da in Kony.

'Fight, Koni. Fight!' This one dialogue is perhaps one of my most memorable recollections of film watching. Nestled in front of the small television in my grandfather's room, I remember watching Kony, and spotting Soumitra Chatterjee in the role of a strict and idealistic Khitish Singha (or Khit da). This was early 2000s, when I was in school, barely aware of the actor's body of work with Satyajit Ray. It is one of his most indelible creations, at par with Apu or Feluda. Kony is the prime example of a sports drama done right. It revolves around an impoverished slum girl named Kony, whom we first meet when she is swimming her way to grab the fruits offered in the Ganges by devotees. Her raw talent for swimming catches the eye of Khit da, a swimming coach who is ousted from the training club due to dirty internal politics. 

Kony has talent but lacks skill and technique. Khit da follows this girl and learns about her family. He proposes that she train under him. From hereon, it is a training for the two: one who must continue to practise in water, while the guru who faces uglier battles outside of it; for simply wanting a space for this young talent to grow.

The unquestionable power of Kony is how the film stays clear from sympathizing with its protagonist. There are melodramatic moments when the camera enters the hut where Kony stays with her widowed mother and brothers. Yet, there is no dwelling on this very lack of access. Kony gets the socio-economic context of its titular protagonist and provides a strikingly realistic portrait of the hierarchies of power that exist beyond her control. The club members decide not to enter Kony into the committee and practice with the other girls. Somehow Khit da makes a case for her in the nearby pool. It is his idealism that gets hurt the most- the rampant social stigma, the shunning of his principles, and the costs of training pile up on him. Yet he survives to see Kony improve her skills in swimming and sharpening her technique.

Kony is undoubtedly talented, yet the question which the film asks repeatedly is whether just talent is enough. The internal politics of the decision makers, the lack of inspiration and necessary resources- there are so many obstacles that our protagonist has to cross. Some are indoor conversations already made. She does not even have access to these rooms. It is Khit da who remains her sole ally, carving her day in and day out to face the world like a warrior.

The film keeps Kony as an observer of the unfairness of the deeply prejudiced and opportunistic society of the haves and have-nots, one which thrives in mediocrity and refuses to see the collective goal of the nation before their singular differences. How long can Kony endure? For how long can Khit da stand beside her and raise his voice? It is the viewer who gets access behind these close-door calls; where favoritism, and gatekeeping thrive within an unruly management. These details fill in the gaps, gaining momentum until the last minute for our protagonist to avenge them all on the sheer force of her talent.

The high point of Kony is that it does not necessarily culminate these narrative conflicts into one last game for her to win. The film does not end in a finishing line. It recognizes that Kony has to fight so many more battles, beyond the walls of a feature film, and this is just her first step in the inevitable ocean of life. It is this recognition that provides Kony with such force and power. There is no doubt that the film has aged remarkably well even five decades after its release. Its thematic underpinnings reverberate across generations and languages, and strike a meta-textual mirror to the Bangla film industry itself, where nepotism and the insidious nature of a once-renowned space have seen a sharp decline in the last few years.

What else does Kony have other than her willpower and talent? She must fight not just for a national competition, but for herself first and foremost. She must fight because that is her only language of survival in a relentlessly unfair world.

Kony is available to watch on YouTube.

This is Weekend Ticket, where Santanu Das talks about similar films and shows based on the most recent releases.

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