For a while now, Malayalam cinema has been hungry for new markets. The industry, which traditionally made small, critically acclaimed films, mostly set in villages and towns, had in the last few years grown ambitious and sensed an opportunity for its cinema to reach new territories. Although Malayalam cinema had built a reputation among niche non-Malayali audiences, it was yet to reach the popularity levels of mass Tamil and Telugu films which are routinely dubbed and released in multiple languages.
While the industry continues to have filmmakers who prefer focussing on stories with modest ambitions but exquisite craft, there are quite a few stars and directors who are consciously trying to make larger-than-life films which will immediately appeal to audiences with varied sensibilities. From hiring actors across industries to including over-the-top stunt sequences, item numbers, slapstick comedy and "mass" punch dialogues, filmmakers have been trying to arrive at a formula that will click with audiences outside Kerala, too. Some of these attempts have been wildly successful -- like Pulimurugan in 2016, which became the first Malayalam film to enter the Rs 100 crore club, and was later released in Telugu in over 500 screens in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
But, these films also left one with the niggling feeling that the trade-off for big bucks was quality cinema. That, in the quest to be "mass", filmmakers would eventually move away from telling the small stories that deserved their time in the sun. This is why Sachy's Ayyappanum Koshiyum, which was released in February this year, came as such a breath of fresh air. Those who'd watched the director's previous film Driving License, would be able to trace some similarities, but this version was much more evolved and displayed a strength in writing that was surprising. It married "mass" with subversive politics, creating a product that excited different sections of the audience for different reasons.
At first glance, Ayyappanum Koshiyum is like many other mainstream films that we've watched in the past. A hero and a villain indulging in a head-on clash. But, by casting two actors who are known for playing lead roles, Sachy effectively wiped clean the audience's presumptions -- which of them would win, which of them would eat humble pie? Till the end, the screenplay keeps us guessing, manipulating our feelings for both characters.
Prithviraj played the rich, influential Koshy, and Biju Menon played Ayyappan Nair, an honest police officer from an oppressed caste. The ego battle between the two forms the crux of the plot, with each trying to outsmart the other. By placing the characters within specific sociocultural locations rather than writing them generically, Sachy managed to overturn the audience's predictions about what would happen. Among the Nair-dominated narratives on screen, Ayyappan's defiance and explanation for his caste name, is a break away from long-celebrated traditions. What's more, the credit for the act belongs to a woman -- Ayyappan's mother, who sees no shame in declaring that she was sexually exploited by upper caste men, and making it known to the world by giving the Nair caste name to her son. Though we don't meet her, her legacy is alive in Ayyappan.
Women characters in most "mass" films are disappointing to say the least. They only appear in decorative roles and hardly leave an impact. In Ayyappanum Koshiyum, though the women characters are in the margins, they are still memorable, particularly the fiery Kannamma, played by Gowri Nandha. Sachy even gives her a scene where she confronts Koshy and the latter is left dumb-founded by the adivasi woman's stinging rebuke. Koshy's wife, Ruby (Anna Rajan), is clearly living within the constraints of a patriarchal household but she too gets a moment to vent out her feelings. Jessy (Dhanya Ananya), a woman constable, has a minor role but again, you don't forget her character.
What's most interesting about the film, however, is that in the man vs man battle that Sachy pitches, he also manages to make the audience see the absurdity of the situation. It's a celebration of masculinity but not without a commentary on how it can turn toxic -- a space that "mass" films seldom explore. Koshy is pushed into trying to prove himself for the sake of his father, Kurien John (Ranjith). Even when he wants to back off, his father's taunts lead him into digging the pit deeper. On the other hand, Ayyappan's anger seems righteous but we find ourselves wondering if the sacrifices he's making are worth the end result.
Though the film boils down to two men who are having a go at each other, Sachy stages these battles brilliantly. From having the warriors ride a bike together to having them roll around in a fight to the death, the scenes steer clear of repetition though the idea remains the same. Each fight scene is choreographed to bring out the strengths and weaknesses of the two players, and the higher the stakes, the greater our excitement.
Urban films like Bangalore Days have the advantage of appealing to wide audiences because the landscape and culture are familiar to outsiders too. However, most of Ayyappanum Koshiyum is set in Attappadi, a mountain valley below the Western Ghats, which is home to adivasi communities. Despite this, the film went on to become a blockbuster and after it was released on Amazon Prime Video, Sachy became a household name outside Kerala, too. It's no wonder that the Tamil, Telugu and Hindi industries are interested in remaking the film -- it has all the elements of a commercial thriller but in a much more intelligent script. One can only hope that the remakes will not mess with the spirit of the original.
Sachy passed away on Thursday, leaving behind inconsolable fans and friends in the Malayalam film industry. Just 48, the director had within him so many more stories to tell; but though we will never see another film from him, it has to be said that he has lit a new path for the "mass" Malayalam film. Where there is noise and fireworks, but also a soul.
Watch the trailer here: