It’s been 30 years since this soft-spoken, Tamil speaking CBI officer walked into Malayalam cinema. Sethurama Iyer, with his plain white shirts, brown trousers and a thin saffron tilak on his forehead, broke every cliché associated with a celluloid cop. We try to analyse the iconic CBI series, which has the enviable record of a character in Malayalam cinema, with the same director, writer and actor reappearing on screen in a span of 15 years.
Sethurama Iyer’s introduction is technically that of a superstar—a striking background score ushers in his footsteps, the door snaps open and he enters briskly. But the starriness stops the minute he shakes hands with his superior, smiles gently and gets on with the investigation.
Iyer is deceptively calm, thinks on his feet, rarely raises his voice, yet gets things done his way, walks briskly and is ordinary to the point of being dull. There is nothing flamboyant about the man or his lifestyle (a sort of counterpoint to James Bond). In fact, in the second installment, Jagratha, he is introduced while playing a chess game with his son, clad in a vest and mundu, chewing pan in their staid home. He is a teetotaler, vegetarian and a God-fearing, devout family man. There are no attempts to peek into his personal life or the man behind that disciplined cop.
Yet the film really picks pace on his energy—there is an urgency in his movements and a twinkle in his eyes that livens the proceedings. Mammooty’s performance echoes what Jabbar Patel, who directed him in Babasaheb Ambedkar, observed about the actor— “To show emotions is easy but how do you look intelligent?”
There is a certain wisdom in his act, a body language that lets you believe the actor has been in the CBI for a long time.
Iyer is more a picture of practicality and righteousness than a typical hero—there is no one-upmanship about his methodology. Though he remains the primary brain, he is open to suggestions from his subordinates (Harry, Vikram and Chacko), is ready to listen to anything that helps in reducing the complexity of the investigation. He is that popular teacher whose classes you always looked forward to in college. When the drunk Narayanan throws abuses at him, Iyer only smiles, cautioning his subordinates not to react.
The first edition, released in 1988, was a breakthrough film in terms of novelty; as a film in the investigative genre it imbibed from western sensibilities. It was very scientific, systematic and unfussy in format—with new (and later unproven) theories like using humanoid dummies (which was later used as trolls and satires in various movies and social media platforms) to disentangle the crime.
The plot was crafted around the real-life Polakkulam case where a hotel employee was murdered and dropped from the terrace to make it look like a suicide. The first sequel, Jagratha (1989) was woven around the suicide of a woman actor, and Sethurama Iyer CBI, which came 15 years later (2004) had triple murders. The last one, Nerariyan CBI (2005), centered around the murder of a young lady in a haunted bungalow.
Directed by K Madhu and scripted by SN Swamy, the surprise culprit remained a trope in all the four films. Also, how the narrative always casually mentioned him/her (Vijayaraghavan, Babu Namboothiri, Jagadish, Bindu Ramakrishnan) without ever drawing aspersions on his/her intentions.
Another captivating character in the first two editions remained DYSP Devadas—the loud, menacing, sneering, irredeemably corrupt and hugely entertaining cop who was always pitted against Iyer’s serenity. Their verbal duels, where Iyer invariably won, were always a big draw—be it his snide remarks against Iyer’s caste, his shyness or his vegetarianism. There are also broad instances about the open rivalry between the state police and CBI.
Shyam’s background score, in the first two films, added the necessary intrigue, suspense and excitement to the frames.
All the four stories were built around a core message—the derailing of morality and its repercussions. While the first one dealt with lust, greed and a middle-class Christian woman trapped in a patriarchal family, the second one was more revolutionary. Jagratha had illegitimacy and false ego as a motive—a father who kills his illegitimate daughter to save his face from the society. The third was plain lust. And the fourth was a curious blend of morals and superstition. Although they are shown to go about their investigation with clinical precision, in Jagratha, we see Iyer in a rare show of emotion vent his distaste against the accused.
Oru CBI Diary Kurippu also broke the conventional characterisation of one-note villains in Malayalam cinema. Prathapa Chandran and Janardhanan (whose career took a turnaround with this humour-tinted villain) are painted grey more out of circumstances. Their reaction to situations also resulted in some unplanned humour.
Despite the intriguing plot (inspired from Arthur Hailey’s Detective) Sethurama Iyer CBI failed to recreate the flavour of the first two versions. The film chose to include a needless romance, thereby diffusing the investigative mood of the film to an extent. The sub-characters were also carelessly written (we recall every small and big supporting actor in the first two films) bringing in a lot of forced humour. And the move to bring back the iconic Devadas through his son (played by Saikumar) just ended up as a bad mimicry.
Nerariyan CBI tried to exalt the gentle Iyer, with an IQ Test and let’s just say the outcome wasn’t pleasant. With the last two films, Mammootty also seemed to have lost his steam—the dynamism which remained the trademark of Sethurama Iyer was missing.
We hear the trio are planning another edition, on a bigger scale and the ground work has already begun. In CBI 5, sources say that he will be appearing as a retired CBI official while a younger hero may be roped in to play an important role. Looking at it that way, the deal sounds promising. Now let’s wait for the real picture.