The last time Prithviraj and Biju Menon got together with writer-director Sachy, we got the underwhelming Anarkali, a love story with epic ambitions but unremarkable storytelling. Ayyappanum Koshiyum, the second outing of this trio (and Sachy's second film), is much, much better: here, the storyline is unremarkable, but the treatment is epic. As the title suggests, the film is about Ayyappan (Biju Menon) and Koshy (Prithviraj), who meet rather unfortunately in the Attappadi forest area, near Palakkad. The former is an SI. The latter is found drunk in his car. (He's headed to Ooty for a bit of business that's explained so nonchalantly, it comes off like a MacGuffin.) It's a dry area. Koshy is hauled off to jail. His ego is bruised. He concocts a plan. Ayyappan loses his job. Koshy gets his revenge.
This is just the set-up, which makes us sympathise with Ayyappan and despise Koshy. From his posh car to his mansion to his silk kurtas to his connections to the contempt and arrogance he displays to the cops at the station, Koshy is what Privilege would look like if the Blue Fairy made it a man. (Prithviraj's "you know I'm better than you" resting face adds fantastic layers to the character.) Ayyappan, on the other hand, is a modest bloke, with two remaining years of service. He's married to a tribal named Kannamma (Gowri Nandha), and they have a baby boy, who's forever on his mother's hip. Looking at his house, Koshy sneers that it is the house of an "honest man". "Pick someone your own size," we want to scream at Koshy.
But the surprise of the film is that, in a manner of speaking, Ayyappan and Koshy are both… the same size. They're more similar than different. Yes, on the surface, Koshy is upper-class, dominant-caste — Ayyappan is a "Harijan", as the film calls him. Koshy is an outsider, Ayyappan a local. Koshy is urban, while Ayyappan is from the forests: he's introduced to us while performing a folk dance form called "Mundoor Kummatti". Koshy's emotions ripple across his face. Biju Menon is so marvellously contained that he makes it hard to read Ayyappan: the only thing that comes out of him is the occasional stream of betel-leaf juice. Whether speaking to his wife or gazing at his child or issuing a threat, his inscrutability is part of his armour. You just don't know what's going on inside that head.
And after that set-up, we wonder what's going on inside Koshy's head? Surely, he cannot be as "evil" as he comes off. (And surely, a top star cannot be playing someone so devoid of human decency!) And then a skeleton tumbles out. It's a scene between Koshy and his very masculine father (a superb Ranjith Balakrishnan), who smokes big, phallic cigars. Koshy cowers in front of the man, and you see where at least some of his rage against Ayyappan comes from. All that pent-up frustration from home has to find a release valve somewhere. There has to be someplace Koshy can prove he's as manly a man as they come, especially after being slapped around by Ayyappan.
Something similar is going on with Ayyappan — only, with him, it's not a father as much as a father-figure who advised him to contain his rage inside a policeman's uniform, and do things the right way. And now that that uniform is off, thanks to Koshy, the beast is back. This isn't just a mode of expression. The film clearly underlines the animalistic nature of the two men: when Koshy resists arrest, a cop observes that he's as strong as a "wild bull". And now that he's no longer a cop, Ayyappan, too, is back to being "wild", the way he was in the forests he was born in. Another similarity: Koshy, too, wore a uniform. He was in the Army. Another similarity: If Ayyappan was oppressed due to his caste, Koshy was oppressed by his father. Another similarity: Both are former killers, Koshy in Kashmir, and Ayyappan before he became a policeman.
These psychological flourishes make Ayyappanum Koshiyum a very different kind of masala movie about similar-yet-different, different-yet-similar men. The "template" is so familiar that various earlier films kept running through my head. The relationship between Koshy and his tyrannical father brought to mind the John Wayne-Montgomery Clift dynamic from Howard Hawks' great Western, Red River: a movie about macho-ness if there ever was one. The Ayyapppan-Koshy clashes and the constant one-upmanship took me back to Mani Ratnam's Agni Natchathiram. (Like in that tale of warring siblings, there's only one big action set piece, and it takes place on dry land and slush.) But as the film progresses, it becomes a very textured thing, with a bubbling undercurrent that keeps questioning a very specific kind of masculinity. It's almost as though Syam Pushkaran had written a masala movie.
Consider the scene where Koshy's father sends him supplies. Inside the bag, there's money, booze and a gun. It's almost like the old man is saying: I know YOU don't have the guts, so at least drink up, hire some men and kill the fucker. Now, consider the scene where Ayyappan beats up some of the men guarding Koshy. (There's a whistle-worthy mass moment in how he coolly gets to the first floor of a locked-up hotel.) Like elsewhere, composer Jakes Bejoy unleashes a folk song that takes us back to Ayyappan's Kummatti days. It feels like he's "performing" all over again. And yet, see how both men are imbued with a softer (dare I say… feminine) side. If Koshy protests when his father slut-shames his mother (and also, later, when someone verbally cheapens Kannamma), Ayyappan has a fatherly soft spot for the cops under him, whom he calls his "kids".
The actual women, though, have very little to do. That's usually a given in this sort of movie, but the problem is that the women are shaped as though there's something else to them — so when they become mere props, we feel more cheated than we would had they simply been hangers-on. There's constable Jessie (Dhanya Ananya), who vanishes after a significant character arc. There's Koshy's wife Ruby (Anna Rajan), who tries to be both comic relief and someone who helps her husband finally spine up in front of his father. And there's Kannamma, who's labelled a Maoist and promises interesting things. But a couple of fiery lines don't make a character. Given that the film runs three hours, I kept wondering why these women weren't seen more by their men's side. It might have given us small breaks from the relentless testosterone swagger.
But then, that's what the second half essentially is. It plays like a series of ultra-charged high points, each of which could be its own interval block. I wished I'd gotten into the heads of these two headstrong men a little more but there's no denying the sheer entertainment value, especially when the mythical angle kicks in. Ayyappan has a signature move, like the great fighters in our epics. He reminds you of Bhima, while his ongoing war with Koshy recalls the oppressed Karna's equation with the cocky Arjuna. For Ayyappan, this is not about ego. This is about punishing influential people who think they can get away with anything. That's why one part of Koshy fears him: he knows dharma is on Ayyappan's side. (The man's very name is that of a god.)
These thoughts and actions humanise and un-demonise Koshy. Consider the scene where he's stranded in the ghats. Sudeep Elamon's camera pulls back and we get a visual of a puny man dwarfed by ridiculously difficult terrain. But we don't laugh, as we would in the case of a villain who's got his just deserts. I didn't feel sad, either. At this point, Koshy is reduced to an "Ayyappan". He takes off his kurta and walks bare-chested. His mundu is folded up for the first time in the film. From a distance, he looks like a son of this soil. That's the wonderful tightrope this film walks, treating these characters with just enough closeness for us to want nothing bad to happen to them, and just enough distance to keep us from favouring either one.
Prithiviraj really knows his way around such men. He has a thick beard, which comes off like his disproportionate rage against Ayyappan: another bit of masculine overcompensation to display to the outside world. He plays Koshy like a hero who realises he's probably going to be humbled, and yet, who can't see sense and give up — because Ayyappan keeps aggravating him. (Anil Nedumangad is excellent as the exasperated cop caught between the two men.) He gets a great echo moment when he bulldozes Ayyappan's house. But think back to an earlier scene, and you'll see it's more than just the usual echo that's an integral part of masala-movie screenwriting.
In this scene, Ayyappan is addressing a man (possibly a tribal, like him) who's been brought to the station for stealing explosives. He hears the man out. The explosives were to blow up stones, which would be used to lay the foundation for a house, because without the evidence of that foundation, no bank will give the man a loan to complete the rest of the house. Ayyappan lets the man off because he knows himself what it is to want a home. So when Koshy is on that bulldozer, right after Ayyappan has paid a threatening visit to Koshy's house, we're seeing two men strike each other at the heart of "civilised" life: the home. Without it, we're just animals at the mercy of the laws of the jungle. The ending hints that these animals have become men again, but there's also a clause that says… for now! It doesn't feel like the promise of a sequel. It just feels like the end of this particular cockfight, for now!
In my book, the difference between a great film and one that's merely good is that the former breathes. It's not airtight; it has spaces. It transcends mere "plot" and lends itself to readings. When I heard Ayyappanum Koshiyum is getting Hindi and Tamil remakes, my first thought was… why! Because those industries are much more commercial. (A mainstream Malayalam movie would probably pass for an art movie in the greater Tamil Nadu area.) So, again… why! Because if you reduce this film to just "plot", you get something you've seen a hundred times before. I want to be open-minded. After all, a sweeping and layered epic like Seven Samurai did get a solid Hollywood makeover in The Magnificent Seven, rousing theme music and all. But I'm not holding my breath.