Cast: Prithviraj Sukumaran, Biju Menon
Finally, here is a Malayalam mass/thriller movie that doesn’t rely on formula and our biases about what makes heroes and villains but prods the viewer to reassess her/his moral compass.
Writer-director Sachy’s sophomore film uses a mix of the aesthetics of Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum and vintage dramas like Spadikam to narrate the tale of a ‘war’ that unfolds in Attappady tribal belt, between an outsider, Koshi (Prithviraj) and Ayyappan (Biju Menon), a local policeman.
War, because even though it might seem from the outside like an inconsequential feud between two men with a violent streak, the clash turns out to have far deeper layers. A lot of elements—Ayyappan’s past, the history of violence and oppression his people endured and resisted, the wounded morale of ordinary policemen, and Koshi’s sociopathic father—come into play. At some point, it transforms into a clash between the forest and the settlers from the plains who exploited the natural and human resources of the mountains.
Sachy positions himself a little away from the chaos to make an objective study of the characters and the situation.
The result is a gorgeous first half which proceeds like a richly textured novella, and a second-half where Sachy plays to the gallery, puts expository dialogues in the mouth of his characters to win over that distracted viewer who is against the concept of thinking, and brings the film to a populist conclusion.
Koshi is right within Prithviraj’s comfort zone—a variant of Superstar Hareendran, the character he played in Driving Licence (2019) which was scripted by Sachy. The actor who had been groping in the dark in vaporous science-fictions, horror-thrillers and misfired comedies, finds his foot in these characters into which he projects some of his off-screen qualities, especially a confidence that could easily be passed for haughtiness.
Ayyappanum Koshiyum is also an unusual coming-of-age drama. Koshi lands in Attapady as a former soldier and the pampered scion of a wealthy Christian family in Idukki highlands. His father is a patriarch who changed into the clothes of a politician to fit into the present age.
Over its course, the narrative slowly strips Koshi down to his bare essentials and reveals the boy beneath that tough physique and thick facial hair, who hasn’t had the chance to grow up and have his way in life. The long shadow of his father, Kurien (Ranjith Balakrishnan), which Koshi has always borne like a cross on his shoulder, starts to show.
Sachy’s screenplay is poetic; it understands that human nature isn’t easily comprehensible, and it is sensitive to every action, big and small, of its characters. In a scene in the initial part of the film, Koshi admonishes his old chauffeur who acts as his Man Friday and conscience-keeper, for pleading with a police constable. The screenplay traces it back to the man’s upbringing; he was taught that empathy is a sign of weakness, and to be a real man is to completely detach oneself from the feminine.
In the terrific opening sequence set inside a crowded police station in Attappady, the screenplay finds a story—sometimes just a flash of rage on their face or a movement of their hand—in every cop rather than looking at them as a collective. The rise and fall of tension in the scene are palpable. The viewer starts to empathise with the policemen standing alert outside Ayyappan’s cabin, to see what the next move of the new detainee (Koshi) is.
Sachy’s writing, like a torch shone into a dark room, slowly reveals the details of the characters. Close to the interval point, Koshi, who looked like an invincible giant in the opening sequence, shrinks to the size of a worm, terrified by the looming mountains and forests of Attappady. Parallelly, Ayyappan assumes an intimidating size, like a beast liberated from his leash. At one point, the trumpet of an elephant fades into the sound of his Royal Enfield which tears into the mortifying silence of the forest.
The former half of Ayyapanum Koshiyum also does a phenomenal dissection of power. It notes that power isn’t monochromatic, but has many shades and shapes. The power that a government job vests in Ayyappan and Jessi is deeper than the power Koshi inherited. When Ayyappan’s wife, Kannamma (a fabulous Gowri Nandha), breaks it to Koshi that he hasn’t really seen what needs to be seen from close quarters, he shivers. The man goes on to see that power, like gold, isn’t just an object to flaunt, but an investment in people and time.
Jakes Bejoy’s background score is overdone, although his use of tribal songs performed by native artistes is commendable. Sudeep Elamon’s sensitive cinematography is minimal in the right parts and dynamic in the latter half, ably backing Sachy in keeping the audience on edge.
The film has a fine set of supporting cast. Anil Nedumangad’s empathetic superior police officer who can’t seem to shake off the feeling that he started this mess, and the actor who plays Kumaran, the driver who is torn between protecting his master and his conscience, are well-etched out and enacted characters.
Is there another actor in Malayalam who is sensitive to the unexpressed like Biju Menon? The actor has a talent in grasping the vacuum between the lines in the screenplays that come to him. He lends to Ayyappan several signs of a man who’s come a long way, who has seen a lot of darkness. Look at the scene inside the police station where he realises that he has been deceived by Koshi. He lets out a sigh and admonishes his colleague for breaking down. There is rage and above that, a disappointment in human beings.
The prime difference between Ayyappanum Koshiyum and the many mass-thrillers that preceded it is its unwavering faith in the power of writing. It must be the same faith that stopped Sachy from going for a style overkill. There is no “Hollywood” touch that Malayalam’s new-age directors and young audience are obsessed with. Instead, it finds an immensely gratifying language closer to home to make a film that not just thrills but lingers in the mind.
The Ayyappanum Koshiyum review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.