Range is one way to tell how talented a screenwriter is: he can dish out a four-handkerchief melodrama, he can also dish out a serial-killer thriller. The lack of range is another way to discern a writer's talent. I don't mean this in the "he does not have range" sense. I'm referring to the two final films we got from Sachy: Driving Licence (2019) and Ayyappanum Koshiyum (2020).
A bird's eye view of the "plot" will suggest that these two are essentially the same movie: a privileged brat locks his privileged horns with a paavam government servant, who exists several rungs below in the class ladder. In other words, if Sachy had narrated this "one line" to you (and if you didn't know his earlier work, like Chocolate or Run Baby Run or Ramaleela), you'd have thought he "lacked range".
But this is where a special kind of talent shines through: to make the same "story" seem different. Driving Licence is directed by Lal Jr., but this is not a film you watch for its filmmaking. Like many mainstream Malayalam films from the 1980s, this is a pure "writer's movie", in the sense that the screenplay is so rock-solid that you brush aside the lack of cinematic aspects like framing and lighting and camera movement. For a while, I did find the generic staging a bit of a bummer, but once the plot took off, I was riveted, moved, roused, thrilled. I felt everything I want to feel as a movie unfolds before me. The actors are fantastic, but Driving Licence is a Sachy show from start to finish.
In Ayyappanum Koshiyum, the two men met by accident, and the conflict was established right away. In Driving Licence, the two men "meet" very differently: they are on either side of a movie screen. Hareendran (Prithviraj) is the macho star in the film being projected, and we see a macho scene with guns and grenades, the typical action stretch where the hero single-handedly routs a whole gang of bad guys. Kuruvila (Suraj Venjaramoodu) is Hareendran's No. 1 fan, the kind of man who pastes every ticket he bought for a Hareendran film in a special album. He is cheering from his seat at his hero's heroism. The two men have been "meeting" in another way, too. Kuruvila has been sending appreciative phone messages to Hareendran, a few of which the star appears to have acknowledged.
How the men actually "meet", i.e. come face to face, is the first great writing decision in a series of many. Hareendran has lost his driving licence due to a series of bureaucratic missteps. He needs this licence to get permission to shoot an action scene. Now, let's look at this from the writing point of view. "I need a driving licence" is the event, and a lesser writer would be satisfied just letting this event drive the story. But Sachy makes this event personal to Hareendran, so that we, the audience, see how much it means to him.
WRITING DECISION 1: Early on, Hareendran is established as a man of integrity. His producer tries to sneak in a product-placement kind of line into a dialogue, and he refuses. So we see that with the matter of the driving licence, too, Hareendran will not do anything that compromises his integrity — even if he feels it's a pain to put himself through the hoops (driving test and so forth). An aside: This producer is a pain, yes, but we also see his pains, due to a film that has gone over-budget. Again, it's the writing.
WRITING DECISION 2: Due to his hectic career, Hareendran has not been able to spend much time with his wife. And she is now headed to the US for some medical tests. He has scheduled his shoot so that he can accompany her. This will be the first time he will spend 30 days with her, and to do this, he needs to complete that scene, and to complete that scene, he needs the driving licence.
WRITING DECISION 3: There's also the way Hareendran feels about driving. It exhilarates him as much as acting does. (In an early scene, he talks about getting an expensive sports car.) So a life without a driving licence is like a life with an arm cut off. You may ask: If this man has so much integrity (WRITING DECISION 1), then why does he continue to drive around without a licence? This is the kind of touch that makes him human. He's not perfect. Plus, he has been trying to get that licence for a while, and it's not his fault that the damn thing isn't in his wallet yet.
So despite his position of privilege and his enjoyment of the perks of that privilege, Hareendran is not a jerk. (Koshy came across as one, at least in the early portions of that film.) There's certainly some ego involved in his ongoing tussle with Kuruvila, who happens to be the local Motor Vehicles Inspector, but it's not all ego. It's the same with Kuruvila, so let's now look at his transition from the star's No 1 fan to… The Man Who Will Decide If Hareendran Will Get That Damn Licence.
WRITING DECISION 4: The man thinks of Hareendran as part of his family. He has the star's cutout propped up on the chair across him at the dining table. So in a sense, he has every meal with not just his wife and young son but also with Hareendran. Like many fans, he's a nut, but a harmless, lovable one — at least, at the beginning.
WRITING DECISION 5: Kuruvila and his supervisor decide that granting Hareendran the licence is just a formality. But just for kicks (selfie opportunities, etc.), they think the star should come by and collect it himself. A passing shot shows Kuruvila carefully arranging a laddoo pyramid. This is possibly the biggest day of his life, possibly even bigger than the day he got married or the day his son was born. (Obsession over stars often predates certain life events, so Hareendran has perhaps "been in his life" longer than his wife and son.)
WRITING DECISION 6: This is something applicable to both characters, for here's how the face-off begins. Someone leaks information to the media that Hareendran is due to arrive at this humble government office, and this sets off a frenzy. And when Hareendran comes there, he is understandably mad. He thought it would be a simple, quiet matter, and now he thinks Kuruvila is publicity-hungry and has stage-managed this whole show.
We can see his anger build as he strides into Kuruvila's office and gives the man an awful shelling. Kuruvila's son cowers in fright. Kuruvila is humiliated not just in front of his colleagues but also the boy who thinks (like all boys do) that his father is a "hero". Plus, it's not just a powerful, privileged man who is yelling at him. It's his idol, a part of his "family", the man across him at his dining table. (You may find shades of Maneesh Sharma's Fan, hereon.)
WRITING DECISION 7: And all this makes Kuruvila adopt a facade as macho as the one Hareendran adopts on screen. Like any self-respecting "hero" in an action movie, Kuruvila wants revenge. Making Hareendran run around for that damn licence is Kuruvila's equivalent of single-handedly tackling an enemy posse with guns and grenades, like in that movie scene we saw him enjoy at the film's beginning.
Sachy's writing underlines that oldest of writing clichés: You have to know the people you are writing about. You have to get under the surface, under their skin. You have to make the audience understand that Hareendran is not some privileged prick. One of the best writing touches comes when Kuruvila, later in the movie, gulps down a drink from a neighbour because he is now a "star", thanks to constant media attention, and he cannot go stand in line at the local liquor shop. He'll get mobbed. He gets a first-hand taste of what Hareendran's life is like. We do, too.
Sachy's writing underlines another writing cliché: An actor cannot deliver a great performance in a vacuum. If Prithviraj is able to bring so many stunning shades into a character that could have just been "a big star", it's because the writing gives him these vulnerabilities to play around with, this inner life to project and make a "template character" come to life.
I've been puzzled by the praise Keerthy Suresh has been getting for Penguin. She isn't bad at all, in the sense that she's perfectly competent: she doesn't do anything to wreck the film. But she is never able to transcend a default mode of expression ('look happy', 'look thoughtful', 'look scared', 'look sad') because the writing gives her nothing to work with. The screenplay is all event, event, event. There is very little inner life to this character, just a series of broad plot points she is put through.
As contrast, see what Suraj Venjaramoodu is able to do in the scene where he stages a pathetic little "satyagraha" outside Hareendran's mansion. As always, the media is present, and Hareendran manipulates them into thinking that Kuruvila is a stalker. He even shows them the numerous phone messages from Kuruvila. You don't need me to tell you what a great actor Suraj Venjaramoodu is, but here's where we see how much greater he can be with the backup of great writing.
Kuruvila's face suggests betrayal ("these messages were between me and him, and he's exposing something so personal") and humiliation ("again, my son is getting to see what a loser I am, and with all this media around") and failure ("this whole satyagraha drama is as big a flop as Bhadran's films"). In other words, it's not just about what happens (i.e., the event) but about how it affects and animates and transforms a character, and how the film conveys that to the audience so that we feel what he is feeling.
Who's Bhadran (Suresh Krishna)? Like many people in Driving Licence, he is a sly caricature of someone in the Malayalam film industry. (An opening credit spoofs Malayalam cinema's tendency to thank everyone under the sun with a thank-you note to… Leonardo DiCaprio. Heh! Even AMMA, the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists, plays a part in the proceedings.)
Bhadran is an aging star whose glory days are behind him. Along with Kuruvila's impulsive wife (Miya George), Bhadran could have just been the comic relief, given his silly attempts to sabotage Hareendran's stardom. But even he gets some writing that casually makes him human. He struggles to pull off action scenes. He knows that his films get second-rate theatres when compared to the ones Hareendran's films are screened in. Even when doing buffoonish things, the man isn't (entirely) a buffoon.
This is another way the "same" story is made "different": the tone here is broader and more comic than that of Ayyappanum Koshiyum, which played out like a sombre epic. There's a gloriously silly song, early on, that shows Kuruvila imagining his family being besties with Hareendran's family. (Like in Ayyappanum Koshiyum, you wish the women had also been the beneficiary of the great writing elsewhere.) And this comic tone takes on a surreal edge in the second half, which simply soars.
Driving Licence opens with drums and dancing outside a theatre playing the latest Hareendran blockbuster, and this fandom is spoofed outrageously as the "rivalry" between Hareendran and Kuruvila heats up. The sensation-hungry media isn't spared either, and the steps to obtain that damn licence begin to resemble a full-blown circus. The "live telecast" of the written test, imagined like a television quiz show, is one of the most stupendous writing decisions I have seen in a while.
I wish Sachy had gone all the way, with Kuruvila now having a bunch of fans as rabid as Hareendran's — but even this is simply a reflection of how star power (or any kind of power, really) trumps everything. In a cinema-crazy country like ours, where stars are worshipped like gods, it's only natural that they become the Saviour at the end. The power imbalance can never really be corrected. Hence the scene towards the end where a sheepish Kuruvila, despite his "defeat", asks for a picture with Hareendran. It melted my heart.
Driving Licence and Ayyappanum Koshiyum suggest that, despite his earlier successes, Sachy was just beginning to find a strong voice of his own. These two films are a great parting shot, but as Prithiviraj's moving note upon Sachy's passing said: "There's one thing most of them told me that I had to silently refute. That you 'Went on a high!'. As someone who knew all your ideas and dreams, I know 'Ayyappanum Koshiyum' was not your 'high'. It was the beginning that you always wanted. Your entire filmography was a journey to get to this point, from where you would unleash. I know." Now, we'll never know.