While watching Driving License (2019), I thought about how gutsy it was of the writer to focus all of his energies on just two characters and the (heated) play between them. A month later, I was surprised to find the same writer-actor duo (the late Sachi and Prithviraj) come up with a fiercer take on the same idea: Ayyappanum Koshiyum (AK). Driving License, while it was entertaining, still had its tonal inconsistencies; but Ayyappanum Koshiyum almost flawlessly achieved what it set out to achieve: a gruesome ego tussle between two macho men (in a more raw sense, a “d*ck-measuring contest”), which felt intense when we were in on the drama, and yet silly when we were out of it.
Making an engaging ego-driven drama centred on two leads is challenging enough. How about fleshing out these characters more (through extended conversations, flashbacks et al.) and bringing more of their personal and professional lives into the canvas? This is what Netflix’s latest series, “Beef“, brings to the table. The A24 production, created by Korean director Lee Sung Jin and starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, is about a man and a woman who develop a beef over a road rage incident that proceeds to alter their lives in unthinkable ways.
Now, coming to the clickbaity title…No, I don’t mean to rank one above the other. The social and cultural contexts (and the budgets!) are fairly different, so it’s not that. Instead, I was constantly in awe of the wild possibilities of a simple ego clash that this series deftly explored. The ego of characters in AK stems from just one thing: their will to prove their masculinity (rather, what society perceives as masculinity). Hence, their actions are mostly easy to explain. This is one aspect Beef significantly improves upon from the AK template. Here, the characters’ actions are, on the face of it, pretty inexplicable because the roots of their ego are more… fibrous?
Attaching a pic of the fibrous root as a reference to the 7th std science joke I just cracked.
Danny (Steven) and Amy (Ali) were raised in the States by their Asian-origin parents, hoping to make the best of the American Dream. But as fate would have it, both of them grow up with generational trauma (of different kinds) and find themselves in dire situations that eventually push them into a bad mental space. The inciting incident of the beef – the road rage day, when Danny almost bumps into Amy’s car at a parking lot, and Amy flashes at him the finger, following which they engage in a nasty chase – feels diabolical at first. But as the series unfolds, and we get a deeper insight into the various problems plaguing the two, we realize why they were probably at the tipping point on that fateful day at the parking lot.
The “you messed with me, now watch how I mess bigger with you” interplay is the most entertaining aspect of this ‘genre’ of films. AK had everything from mind games to dirty tricks to even physical fights..and not to mention the nuanced performances from Biju Menon and Prithviraj that kept us invested for the most part. However, the ‘game’ felt a little monotonous after a point; because everyone except the two titular men were mere bystanders. They were kicked out if anyone tried to step in – like Koshy’s dad (played by Ranjith). AK, as the title suggests, would always be about these two men – and these two men alone.
Beef, while also having a wide range of interplays like AK, goes one step ahead thanks to its layered characterisation and broader canvas of characters: Beef is not just the story of Danny and Amy but also George (Amy’s husband), Jordan (Amy’s boss), Paul (Danny’s brother), Isaac (Danny’s cousin) etc. Bringing these characters directly or indirectly into the beef adds an element of unpredictability to the proceedings. And all the actors do a fantastic job of making their characters real and believable. [Oru Emmy nomination engilum njan pratheekshikunnu]
Another factor that ups the interest factor is the relationship that the two protagonists have with this beef – and with each other – changes over time. Initially, they see the “brief beef encounters” (xD) as a stress-busting, albeit discreet, part of their life. But as the conflicts begin to eat into the quality of their lives, they see the beef as something they have to settle once and for all. But will they be able to? You watch and find out!
There are a few random but exciting parallels between Ayyappanum Koshiyum and Beef, like how the feud starts with one character in a car or how one party is the more wealthy and influential (on-the-surface-shittier). At the same time, the other is the (on-the-surface-paavam) economically weaker one. Bonus: A setting-on-fire scene also puts things into crescendo mode in both works!
If you’re someone like me, who’s voyeuristic enough to revel in the pain and agony that one party causes the other (and vice-versa, and again vice-versa… okay, sounds horrible when I put it like this), you’ve already checked out Driving License and Ayyappanum Koshiyum, and you’ll have a ball binging this new 10-episode series. Let us know in the comments about your thoughts after the watch!
PS: Sincere apologies to those who clicked on this expecting an article on beef fry.