REVIEW 769: AYYAPPANUM KOSHIYUM
Kerala: February 7, 2020
Delhi: February 14, 2020
Prithviraj Sukumaran, Biju Menon, Ranjith, Gowri Nandha, Anna Reshma Rajan, Anil Nedumangad, Anu Mohan, Dhanya Ananya, Sabumon Abdusamad, Ramesh Kottayam
Ayyappanum Koshiyum (Ayyappan and Koshy) is Driving Licence with caste inequity added to class differences. Starring Prithviraj Sukumaran and Suraj Venjaramoodu, Driving Licence was released just weeks back and turned out to be an unusual, thoughtful, entertaining commentary on star trappings and star arrogance clashing with bureaucratic power play sparked off by a situation not of either adversary’s making. Writer-director Sachy ropes in Prithviraj and Biju Menon for Ayyappanum Koshiyum, a film about a haughty yet not all-out evil, well-connected, financially well-off former havildar of the Indian Army sparring unrelentingly with a committed even if hot-headed policeman from less privileged circumstances.
Prithviraj’s Koshy Kurian is drunk when his car is stopped by the police late one night in a no-alcohol zone in Kerala’s mountainous countryside. Ayyappan Nair (Biju Menon) is the local SI steering the team on the spot. Following some bombast from one party and roughing up by the other, Koshy is detained and vows to teach Ayyappan a lesson. He makes good on his promise, but soon begins to regret his decision upon realising that his disproportionate response to a slight might destroy the other man’s life. It is too late by then though as Koshy’s arrogant father Kurian John (played by Ranjith) and Ayyappan’s wild temper have already come into play.
The story of Ayyappanum Koshiyum is a fine illustration of how small acts of hauteur – in this case fuelled by social conditioning and systemic corruption – when combined with bursts of temper can lead to genuine grievances and misunderstandings that could cause any battle to spiral out of the control of those who are foolish enough to think they hold the reins of the cosmos. In Sachy’s script, both male leads have character flaws, and each one wants at different points in the narrative to withdraw from the duel, but the small fire that was lit that first night on an isolated road has acquired a life of its own and keeps pulling them back in like a moth drawn to a flame that it knows is likely to destroy it.
The smartness of this film lies in the shades of gray it gives Ayyappan and Koshy, and the believability of the manner in which their war gets stretched on and on. The relationship between Koshy and his father is particularly convincing, as is the facade of bluster Koshy maintains to camouflage his insecurities and fears. In the moments when he lets the mask drop – before the audience and his loyal driver Kumaran – Prithviraj is brilliantly restrained.
Menon too is spot-on as Ayyappan, a role in which he thankfully sheds the (endearing yet kind of repetitive) BijuMenonness that has long been a hallmark of his comedic screen outings, to become this intense policeman brimming with a rage he has reined in for nearly three decades.
In terms of screen presence and acting strength, the two actors are perfect fencing partners.
But Sachy’s film has significant flaws. In the first hour, the testosterone-ridden conversations between the central trio – Ayyappan, Koshy and Kurian – are fun, but I suspect a shorter Ayyappanum Koshiyum might have been a better Ayyappanum Koshiyum because as it stretches from one-and-a-half to two hours and onward to nearly three hours, I began increasingly finding the dialogues somewhat tiring. When these men are together in the second half, Ayyappanum Koshiyum rarely allows us to forget that they are characters in a film delivering filmic lines in carefully modulated, deep masculine voices. The few seconds here and there post-interval when Ayyappan and Koshy do let their guard down with each other come as such a pleasant reprieve that I wish there had been more of those.
Ayyappanum Koshiyum’s other weakness is the portrayal of its women characters. Jessy, the junior policewoman played by Dhanya Ananya, despite being a marginal player has more heft than Koshy’s wife Ruby (Angamaly Diaries’ Anna Reshma Rajan) and Ayyappan’s wife Kannamma (Gowri Nandha) though the latter two get more screen time. Both wives seem to have been written self-consciously (driven perhaps by a desire to be lauded for featuring strong women in the script?) rather than having flowed naturally from pen to paper. Kannamma, for instance, gets one fiery scene of verbal confrontation with Koshy but for the rest is simply a powerful image of maternal strength and the defiance of the marginalised – an adivasi mother with her baby in her arms as she takes on the establishment – instead of a well-written, well-rounded character. She glares at all times, and may as well have been pasted on a poster in the background with the words “strong woman” written across her forehead, because that is what she is for the most part: an impressive visual.
Ruby, on the other hand, is a victim of confused writing. In her introductory scene, she is presented as a frivolous, domesticated woman with shallow emotions – she is visiting her husband in jail and is less concerned about his welfare than whether she will get back the utensils in which she brought him food. Nothing she does thereafter justifies the initial description. (Spoiler alert)Worse, in a scene in which this scared woman comes into her own and finds her voice, Koshy slaps her and the tone of that scene is not critical of his actions at all. I do not doubt for a second that a spoilt fellow like him would be patriarchal and might be violent with his wife, the issue lies with the design of that brief passage – his slap is offered as praise for words she just spoke and, I repeat, the tone of the scene is not critical of his actions. (Spoiler alert ends) The normalisation, even humourisation, of domestic violence is a chronic problem in Malayali society and in Mollywood films, and here is yet another instance of this malaise.
This is truly sad, because the presence of both women is essential to the film. For one, it becomes clear in a late scene that could have turned bloody, that Ruby is aware of and has faith in her husband’s innate decency and sobriety in comparison with her father-in-law’s incorrigible nature. And Kannamma, one-note wonder though she is, adds a layer to the caste equations in an already churning imbroglio. This is important even though a scene showing a group of adivasis meeting Ayyappan is overtly emotionally manipulative and turns the folksy, poignantly earthy music score by Jakes Bejoy into an instrument of its manipulations.
Other satellite characters are given more depth and nuance. The most memorable of them are Ayyappan’s supportive but exasperated immediate boss (Anil Nedumangad), the rebellious young policeman at their station (Anu Mohan) and the driver (Ramesh Kottayam) who seems to know Koshy much better than Kurian.
Sudeep Elamon’s camerawork in Ayyappanum Koshiyum is striking and intelligent. He highlights not just the great beauty of the film’s locales but also, on occasion, their eerie, intimidating vastness. Equally important, he shoots the physical fights such that they appear more natural than the melodramatic stunts we are used to in commercial Mollywood.
Malayalam cinema of the past decade has operated in parallel extremes: the loud formulaic cinema favoured by the two giant M’s and the quiet, gentle variety that has found favour among cinephiles across India. Ayyappanum Koshiyum inhabits a middle ground between these tracks. Its faults are undeniable, but Sachy’s film is unconventional and by and large, both thoughtful and enjoyable.
Rating (out of 5 stars): 2.75
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/PrithvirajSukumaran/