Since the 1980s, Kerala has had a morbid fascination for Sukumara Kurup. The prime accused in the cold-blooded killing of a man named Chacko, Kurup has been on the run for over 30 years, and has grown into an urban legend.
Kurup disappeared so successfully that he may even have the grudging admiration of the very people who are disgusted by his action. There’s not a chance that Malayalam cinema misses to remind its audience of the elusive ghostly figure that still haunts the popular imagination. So much so that even a leading star from the Malayalam industry like Dulquer Salmaan is willing to play him in an upcoming film.
Who is Sukumara Kurup?
Sukumara Kurup, born Gopalakrishnan, had a short career as an officer in the Air Force, before changing his name and becoming an executive with a marine petroleum company in Abu Dhabi. In 1984, he decided to kill a man – someone who had no connection to him other than a certain physical resemblance – after he came upon a financial embezzlement case that took place in Germany.
Perhaps because it looked so easy, the idea took root in 38-year-old Kurup's mind and he convinced his brother-in-law Bhaskara Pillai, driver Ponnappan, and his friend Shahu to be part of a bizarre attempt to fake his own death in order to claim insurance money.
The princely sum at stake was Rs 8 lakh. According to officers who investigated the case, there were no urgent financial compulsions weighing on him, and the entire episode was motivated purely by greed. Some reports allege that Kurup was in search of more funds to pump into a massive, luxurious bungalow he was constructing for himself and his family.
On January 22, 1984, a bystander in Kunnam, Mavelikakkara, would see an Ambassador car burning on the road in the wee hours of the morning. At the wheel was the charred body of a man. Preliminary investigations led the police to believe that the man was Sukumara Kurup. However, the facade didn't last for long. A post-mortem on the body revealed that the person was not Kurup. Besides, there was no trace of charcoal in his respiratory system despite the cause of death supposedly being the fire.
Speaking about the case in 2014, three decades after the cold-blooded crime, Haridas, who was then the Chengannur DYSP told Deccan Chronicle:
"I reached the spot of the crime by 5.30 that morning. I suspected foul play from the very beginning as I noticed a match box, a hand glove and stains of petrol in the area. I found out that the car belonged to one Sukumara Kurup, an expatriate. But in the investigation that followed we found that the body was not that of Kurup."
Even though forensic science in the '80s was not what it is now, Sukumara Kurup had clearly underestimated the police. It took them three days to see through his elaborate drama. In the stomach of the dead man was the stench of poison. The police concluded that he'd been killed and then planted in the car.
A veteran journalist who had closely followed the case at the time, reveals how quickly the tables turned. “I distinctly remember that the day after the death, all the newspapers said, ‘Gulf Malayali dead’. A day later, they reported that the identity of the corpse was doubtful. And by the third day, everyone knew that something was very wrong.”
But who was the dead man?
On January 21, Chacko, a film representative, was coming out of the Hari Theatre in Karuvatta – then the only theatre between Haripad and Thotlapulli on the NH-47 – after a late show. Married less than a year ago, Chacko's wife Santhamma was pregnant with their first child.
Looking for a ride towards Alappuzha, Chacko ran into Kurup, Bhaskara Pillai, Ponnappan and Shahu. Although the foursome had been travelling in the opposite direction, towards Haripad, they changed directions to offer Chacko a ride.
Chacko got into the Ambassador without a second thought. He had no idea that his travel companions had spent hours trying to locate a dead body who'd resemble Kurup and had failed. They'd then decided to find a living person who'd fit Kurup's physical description, and had even found a beggar who did so. However, the beggar had jumped out of the moving vehicle to escape them.
Just as their anger and frustration was hitting a peak, Chacko fell into their laps.
The men gave him a spiked drink, which left him unconscious. And then, one of them, allegedly Bhaskara Pillai, strangled him to death. The gang took the dead man to Pillai's house in Cheriyanadu where they undressed him and burnt his face to distort his identity.
Later, the men took the dead body and placed it on the driver's seat in the Ambassador car which was parked in a field in Mavelikkara. They set the car on fire and left.
According to the veteran journalist, Bhaskara Pillai’s hand accidentally got burnt in the process. And this would eventually turn into one of the crucial pieces of evidence in the case.
Chacko’s absence was not noticed initially by his wife Santhamma as she was used to her husband going away for days together on work. It was when she read about the murder in the newspaper that her suspicions were aroused, and Chacko's brother filed a missing persons’ complaint.
While Chacko’s body was completely burnt, Santhamma reportedly identified him by his underwear, which was the only item of clothing on his body that was not completely destroyed.
The police had already grown suspicious of Kurup’s family, since they did not seem to be behaving live a bereaved family. Plainclothes policemen keeping a watch on them noticed that the family had a grand meat meal just two days after Kurup’s ‘death’, contrary to the social practice of the time. Armed with the identification of Chacko, the police soon joined the dots.
At some point, the Crime Branch took over the case. During the course of the investigation, Shahu, Kurup's friend, turned approver. The other accused, Bhaskara Pillai and Ponnappan, would receive life sentences.
Where is Sukumara Kurup?
But what of Sukumara Kurup? Though the police acted quickly, Kurup had a 72-hour headstart on them, and vanished completely. Despite news of his sightings occasionally, he remained a ghost to the police across states. They looked for him in Mumbai, near Santa Cruz Airport, from where his family received a postcard in 1990. They looked for him in Bhopal where he visited a relative. They looked for him in Gujarat after they received a tip-off from the Air Force about a possible sighting.
And they'd keep looking for him every time the old case made it to the news for some reason and someone called in to say that they'd seen Sukumara Kurup.
Sukumara Kurup's family had to pay the wages for his sin. His wife, Sarasamma, lost her job as a nurse in Abu Dhabi and they were ostracised by the community. At one point, Sarasamma was also an accused in the case, as was her younger sister. With the Kerala police becoming the butt of jokes, many relatives have also allegedly been thrashed by the police over the years in the search for Kurup.
And yet, in 2010, when his son Sunit Pillai was getting married, the invite read "Son of Mr Sukumara Pillai" (an alias that Kurup used).
The police, who've always suspected that he was still in touch with his family, believed that this was a sign that Kurup was still alive. After all, the invite did not call him "late". They kept a vigil outside his house, hoping to catch him at last. But ghosts don't appear when you're on the alert. Sukumara Kurup did not turn up.
However, Bhaskara Pillai, who'd finished serving his sentence, was a guest at the wedding in Sree Vallaba Temple, Tiruvalla.
“The Kerala police still remain on the lookout for Kurup. And the case has become something of a fetish for journalists too. Even some years ago, there was a rumour doing the rounds that Kurup was working in a mosque in the interior of Saudi Arabia, because his wife and family members had visited the country regularly,” narrates the veteran journalist.
Like a grungy, criminal version of “Where’s Waldo?”, seeking Sukumara Kurup has remained a popular game for many. He's inspired films like NH47 and Pinneyum in the past and it would seem that his story still holds an inexplicable draw for the average Malayali.
Justice may never catch up with Sukumara Kurup but the footprints he's left behind are a chilling reminder of the darkness that resides within ordinary people and the seductive powers of human greed.