Cast: Prithviraj, Biju Menon
Like Sachy's most recent film Driving Licence, Ayyapanum Koshiyum is very much a duel between two men and their egos. And like the former, what separates the men in AK is the thick line of law, which is ironically, meant to be the same for all.
Koshi (Prithviraj) is someone you'd say lives above the law, while Ayyappan (Biju Menon) lives below it, deriving all his power and status (he was to win an award for his honesty) for the way he lives by and enforces the law. In a generic mass movie, the scene where a police officer looks through Koshi's contact list might have played out like the HERO INTRODUCTION scene. Scrolling through the names (in alphabetical order, ascending power structures) the contact of a filmmaker comes up first, followed by a popular journalist's, a local politician's, an ex Chief Minister's and a name that may be that of the present Chief Minister. Within a few minutes of this inspection, the lines of law get redrawn again. Koshi isn't just the rascal who broke the law by smuggling alcohol through a prohibited area. He also becomes Koshi "sir", with a cup of black tea being offered to him first before it goes to a police officer.
The crime he commits itself is interesting. We're never really told why Koshi's driver Kumaran was instructed to take this roundabout route to get to Ooty, except that Koshi "enjoys the forests and animals". Of course, he does break the law, but you can clearly see how things escalate, first because of how a sleeping Koshi falls, and later, because of the way he gets stripped.
The case is equally confounding even when you look at it through Ayyappan's point of view. For one, Ayyappan doesn't see this as an opportunity to bring a spoilt bourgeois (his wife's words) to his knees, nor is he someone incapable of seeing the greys through the blacks and whites of the law. But this doesn't mean the question of WHO is right is left to our interpretation. So when Koshi confesses to feeling a certain degree of fear, he's also admitting that what's right isn't by his side. This is what makes Ayyapanum Koshiyum so different from the average two-hero masala film. In our minds, we know whose side to pick. Yet the story gives us just as much room to see Koshi's side too, even though this brash and arrogant alcoholic would have been the villain in any other movie.
Look closer and the film's design is that of a modern-day Western that begins with an outsider breaking the law as he passes through tough, hostile terrain. Even within this mould, the writer speaks the politics of the land that separates these two. Koshi insists that he's worn the uniform just like Ayyappan has, claiming that he has killed people in the line of duty. But having retired at just 28, he can longer claim the hardships of the soldier, says his father. He's now a landed well-connected planter with over 50 acres of land.
Ayyappan, on the other hand, is just a few years away from retirement, but he still hasn't realised his dream of building a home on the two acres his wife, a tribal woman, was given by the Government. The thick line that was drawn up by law, slowly starts to disappear, especially after Ayyappan is asked to remove his uniform as a result of Koshi's revenge. This land now becomes as good as lawless, with the boundaries and moral codes being redrawn between Ayyapan and Koshi. The hills of Attappady, where the film is set in, is now the Wild West, becoming a place "where life has no value" (in Sergio Leone's words).
What follows is a long and exhausting game of one upmanship, with one trying to outdo the other. But it is the political commentary through this duel that keeps things fascinating. The plight of the women on either end of this line is one of them. Despite Koshi's access to wealth, power and education, the women on his side remain far weaker than those around Ayyapan, and even though we're told of Koshi's ailing mother, we don't even see a single shot of her. Koshi's wife is a victim of the patriarchal mindset that runs though his veins and the film makes the case of Koshi himself being just as affected by it as anyone else.
The women at the other end enjoy far more agency and independence. In a terrific scene, the mild-mannered police constable Jessi roars to put Koshi in his place. Koshi's expression suggests that it's the first time a woman may have spoken to him in such a manner. Later, when both (Koshi and Ayyapan's) wives are faced with similar situations, we never see Kannamma (Ayyapan's wife) cry or look helpless, despite being homeless and with a newborn baby.
Does this duel eventually lead us to an exciting conclusion? Not really. It settles for the safest of options, giving us the impression that both their struggles and causes were somewhat similar. But the journey until then, backed by some amazing performances by Prithviraj and Biju Menon (watch out for his uniform lack of expression as he bulldozes an entire building), great music by Jakes Bejoy and atmospheric cinematography by Sudeep Elamon, is surely rewarding.