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‘Iratta’, ‘Kuttavum Shikshayum’ and more: How the cop film has evolved in Malayalam cinema

While old-fashioned ‘saviour’ cop films continue to be made occasionally, the Malayalam film industry seems to be moving away from narratives that are typical of the genre.

March 18, 2023 / 07:22 PM IST
Increasingly, the protagonist of the new Malayalam police procedural isn’t a superhero but a fallible individual in a flawed system. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

Increasingly, the protagonist of the new Malayalam police procedural isn’t a superhero but a fallible individual in a flawed system. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

A dark, twisted tale about twin brothers who also happen to be policemen, Iratta (2023) is the latest offering from Malayalam cinema that’s redefining the genre of the cop film in the industry. Directed by Rohit MG Krishnan, the film was released in theatres in February but won much wider acclaim after it came out on Netflix a couple of weeks ago. The film revolves around one twin investigating the mysterious death of the other (both played brilliantly by Joju George). Such is the impact made by the film – particularly its shocking climax – that Krishnan received a call from Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment, and will soon be making his debut in Hindi.

Traditionally, the cop film has been an opportunity to showcase the hero’s masculinity, and glorify the power and authority of the force. There have been many such films made across industries – from Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer (1973) to Suriya’s Singam (2010) franchise that was remade in Hindi with Ajay Devgn in the lead. In Malayalam, too, superstars Mammootty and Mohanlal have acted in a number of films as police officers, be it Moonam Mura (1988) or Kasaba (2016).

But the new wave of Malayalam film directors appear to be keen to rewrite the rules of the genre. What we’re increasingly seeing in Malayalam cinema is the emergence of the police procedural where the protagonist isn’t a superhero but a fallible individual in a flawed system.

In Saheed Arafath’s Thankam (2023), for instance, a police team from Maharashtra investigates the death of a Malayali gold dealer. The investigation takes them across states, and they have to deal with a number of issues, ranging from corruption in the local police force to linguistic challenges. Girish Kulkarni plays Inspector Vijay Sakhalkar, the officer who puts together the clues and arrives at the truth, but he isn’t glorified as an exemplary person. In fact, he gets beaten up pretty badly by a gang and has to be rescued by others.

Rajeev Ravi’s Kuttavum Shikshayum (2022) is another police procedural where officers travel from one state to another. Here, it’s the Kerala police that goes to a village in Rajasthan, searching for a gang of jewellery robbers. The title – which translates to ‘Crime and Punishment’ – is clearly inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel by the same name, and is as much about the internal conflict of its lead officer Sajan Philip (Asif Ali) as it is about the drudgery of police work. Far from glorifying police violence, the film’s ‘hero’ is haunted by a shooting in which he was involved, and he has to grapple with his error even as he chases after the culprits. The film may have drawn comparisons to H. Vinoth’s Tamil thriller Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru (2017) for the similarity in the nature of the crime, but both films are very different in tone and approach.

Nayattu (2021), directed by Martin Prakkat, is a survival thriller where a police team goes into hiding, fearing that they will be framed for the murder of a Dalit man that they did not commit. Starring Joju George, Nimisha Sajayan and Kunchacko Boban, the film exposes the fact that the police does not always function as an independent force, and is often pliable to political will. The film won critical acclaim even as it was slammed by a section of viewers for its questionable representation of Dalit politics. Still, it won three awards at the Kerala State Awards that year, including Best Actor for Joju George.

Salute (2022) is another police procedural which throws light on the lapses within the system – here, too, the most convenient person is framed when the police come under pressure to solve a crime. Starring Dulquer Salmaan in the lead, the Rosshan Andrrews directorial revolves around a policeman with a conscience, and his dogged determination to crack a case. Surprisingly, though, the big reveal doesn’t happen in the way the audience would have expected, thereby puncturing cinematic traditions associated with the genre.

Many of the new wave police films aren’t focused on an individual officer but on the whole unit, and as far as police procedurals go, Dileesh Pothan’s Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017) has to be the most unusual of the lot. In this film, a thief (Fahadh Faasil) snatches the gold chain of a woman (Nimisha Sajayan) on a bus and swallows it when caught. The cops now have to wait for him to excrete it. The film sparkles with absurdist humour, as the police station becomes the site for this bizarre drama to unfold. The personalities of each of the cops is superbly sketched, with quite a few real life police officers acting in the film. Thondimuthalum won a slew of awards, including three at the National Film Awards.

Tharun Moorthy’s Operation Java (2021) is about the cyber cell police unit which tracks all kinds of cases, from film piracy to cheating and murder. Starring Balu Varghese, Lukman, Shine Tom Chacko and others, the film is a realistic delve into the challenges on the job where the criminal’s identity can be so easily hidden behind a screen.

In Khalid Rahman’s Unda (2019), a police team from Kerala is stationed for election duty at a Maoist-prone region in Chhattisgarh. Led by Mani Sir (Mammootty), an officer who is far from being a know-it-all superhero, the team has to confront their fears and perform their duty. In the process, cracks within the unit are also exposed, and the team has to work together to survive the difficult situation.

Speaking of cop films set in remote locations, Shahi Kabir’s Ela Veezha Poonchira (2022) has two police officers (Soubin Shahir and Sudhi Koppa) who are stationed at a windy, isolated hill-top. They have to confront certain uncomfortable truths if they’re to unravel the mystery behind a killer who has left the body parts of an unidentified woman in several places. The inclement weather has an integral role to play in this slowburn thriller that has an unexpected climax. Kabir, who scripted Nayattu, was also the writer of another critically acclaimed police procedural, Joseph (2018), directed by M Padmakumar.

Starring Joju George again, Joseph is about a policeman with a troubled and tragic past who uncovers an organ transplantation racket.

Both Sachy’s AK Ayyappanum Koshiyum (2020) and Lal Jr’s Driving License (2019) are not police procedurals but are about battles between a police officer and an individual. In the first, the policeman (Biju Menon) is at loggerheads with an upper caste, upper class brat (Prithviraj) while in the second, the policeman (Suraj Venjaramoodu) is the underdog who’s up against a film star (Prithviraj). Both films are ultimately ego battles between men, but don’t mindlessly glorify toxic masculinity in the traditional way of the cop film; they are conscious of the shifting nature of power and privilege, and also interested in understanding the consequences of such behaviour.

Abrid Shine’s Action Hero Biju (2016) was among the early films to have ruptured the cop film mould in Malayalam cinema. Starring Nivin Pauly in the lead as a police officer, the film has an episodic plot and isn’t focused on the hero cop solving that one big case in his life. Instead, the film is about the numerous minor and major cases that come up before a cop – from an incident of dog bite to theft. The title is perhaps a potshot at all the cop films we’d seen until then where the hero swings into action and saves the day. The film also has plenty of comedy though it occasionally glorifies police violence and has an unnecessary scene that mocks a queer person.

While old-fashioned ‘saviour’ cop films like B Unnikrishnan’s Christopher (2023) continue to be made occasionally, the Malayalam film industry seems to be moving away from narratives that are typical of the genre. Not all of these films have been successful, but they nevertheless point to an evolution within the industry as far as its understanding of the genre is concerned. And perhaps, acknowledging the fact that wearing khaki doesn’t make anyone a superhero is the greatest tribute that cinema could pay to the force.

Sowmya Rajendran is an independent film reviewer. Views expressed are personal
first published: Mar 18, 2023 06:53 pm