Telugu has tonnes of them. So does Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Bengali and Marathi. What Malayalam cinema apparently needed was its own “mass movie”, led by a retro-hetro hero who single-handedly conquers the world for reasons that range from a wronged mother to a dead wife.

Dulquer Salmaan plays Raju in Abhilash Joshiy’s Malayalam crime drama King of Kotha, which been dubbed in Hindi. King of Kotha is set in the kind of place where posters of old films are plastered on walls and there is at least one wise tea seller.

In the 1980s, Raju lorded it over Kotha but has since disappeared. Despite employing brutal means, Raju is quite saintly. He is the only force that can prevent drug addiction from ravaging Kotha. For this bent of mind, Raju has the approval of Tara (Aishwarya Lekshmi), an anti-drug activist who says she doesn’t need the help of men and then waits for it.

In 1996 in the present, Shahul (Prasanna) is Kotha’s new circle inspector, keen on stamping out Kotha’s reigning boss. Kannan (Shabeer Kallarakkal) wears dandy three-piece suits in the Kerala summer, smokes incessantly, and fixes his one good eye on Shahul. Forced to bend to Kannan’s diktat, Shahul and his deputy Tony (Gokul Suresh) come up with a plan to defeat Kannan.

Shabeer Kallarakkal in King of Kotha (2023). Wayfarer Films/Zee Studios.

Kannan and Raju were thick in the old days, which is meant to explain why Kannan refrains from killing Raju when he has the opportunity. Why blame Kannan alone? In the 1980s, Raju goes up against the English-mangling thug Ranjith (Chemban Vinod Jose), who is so awed by Raju’s prowess that he lets him get away.

Abhilash N’s Chandran’s screenplay is forever looking for excuses to drag out a mostly formulaic movie to nearly three hours. With lodestars as wide-ranging as The Godfather and Vada Chennai plus nearly every mass film made in the past few decades, King of Kotha soon loses its way. The violence is as gratuitous as shots of Raju or Kannan striding in slow motion are mandatory. Despite slick production values and a bunch of fine actors, King of Kotha adds little to this kind of film.

Some of the interesting plot developments are barely developed. The heart of the movie is supposed to be the bond between Raju and Kannan. Although Raju uses a homophobic slur, there is a subtext in his friendship with Kannan that is lost in the punching and punchlining and the bone-brunching action.

Shahul disappears for much of the film, ceding ground to the scheming and apparently ageless Manju (Nyla Usha). Having kick-started the plot, Shahul neatly steps out of the way – which benefits at least two other actors.

Chemban Vinod Jose is a delight as Ranjith, who is just this side of farcical. Shabeer Kallarakkal, who was magnificent as the boxer named Dancing Rose in Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai (2021), is impressive here too as the dapper Kannan. In a movie constantly drawing attention to its seemingly infallible hero – Look how cool he is! See how he defuses a situation! Who needs a posse when the cowboy is a bullet-dodger! – Kallarakkal leaves a mark.

Dulquer Salmaan channels his considerable charm to play Raju, who is supposedly a complex character. But Salmaan’s innate affability comes in the way when he is supposed to slay his enemies with a single look.

King of Kotha (2023).