TNM caught up with CBI series writer SN Swamy for a chat, as the fifth edition of the movie, titled ‘CBI 5: The Brain’, gets ready for release on May 1.

Malayalam screenwriter SN SwamyFacebook
Flix Interview Monday, April 25, 2022 - 17:37

When SN Swamy was planning to write a police story, it was Mammootty who felt that another cop might struggle to outshine the brilliance of the fiery inspector Balram in Avanazhi and suggested propelling a CBI officer at the thick of things. And when Swamy had a name like Ali Imran in mind, it was Mammootty who suggested that the character be a Tamil Brahmin. Thus was born one of the most fascinating fictional characters in Malayalam cinema – Sethurama Iyer, the disarmingly calm CBI officer who never raises his voice and thinks on his feet.

Oru CBI Diary Kurippu, which came in 1988, was the highest grosser in Malayalam that year and ran for a full year in Tamil Nadu. A year later came Jagratha, which revolved around the suicide of a female actor. Fifteen years later, the same team came out with Sethurama Iyer CBI and Nerariyan CBI back-to-back, and exactly 17 years later, the very same team (director, writer and actor) is presenting the fifth edition of the CBI series to the world, titled CBI 5: The Brain. TNM caught up with writer SN Swamy for a quick chat, as the movie gets ready for release on May 1.

For a journalist, Swamy is a baffling contradiction. He is brutally candid yet speaks in monosyllables. He hardly recalls the route of his stories. He doesn’t really like to elaborate on his writing process either, as he “can write anywhere and there is no set pattern”. So when I begin wondering why a title like ‘The Brain’ alongside CBI, he quickly tells me: “That’s the job of the brain.” Yes. But isn’t that pretty obvious right from the start? “Nothing like that. We just thought of something and had no intention of making it different or stand out.”

CBI 5: The Brain expectedly sticks faithfully to the murder and mystery genre but will be more ‘scientific and advanced’. Swamy took 5-6 years to complete the script, while dabbling in many other things in between. As for the actor who immortalised Sethurama Iyer on screen, Swamy finds no difference in his appearance or acting. “Mammootty is still young and energetic. One can’t really say it has been over 15 years now,” he laughs.

He refuses to pick any favourites in the CBI series. “Audiences can pick, I don’t have that luxury,” he says.

Watch the trailer of CBI 5: The Brain:

Master storyteller

Though Swamy has scripted some of the finest murder mysteries in Malayalam cinema, in the early 80s he started with family dramas (Chakkarayumma, Koodum Thedi, Oru Nokku Kaanan, Kandu Kanderinju, Geetham, Snehamulla Simham). His first association with director K Madhu turned out to be a gamechanger for Malayalam cinema. “It was post the emergency that we started realising this entity called the underworld,” he says.

“Earlier we were only sparingly aware about Mumbai dons like Haji Mastan and Yusuf Patel. Media started publishing many features on them. I happened to see an India Today cover that had Dileep Kumar and Saira Bhanu touching Haji Mastan’s feet in reverence. That image stuck in my mind. I started following his life. Despite being an outlaw, he had a steady stream of followers who believed in him,” says Swamy about discovering Sagar Alias Jackie in Irupatham Nootandu.

There is a fascinating thrill about a man who comes out of nothingness and finds himself playing hide and seek with politicians and police officers. He befriends a minister’s son to forge a profitable liaison. Sagar is an unlikely crusader of justice, an underworld don and smuggler who believes that “even in this trade, there is right and wrong”.

“His real name is Sagar and his name in the underworld circuits is Jackie. It was Mohanlal who coined the name Sagar Alias Jackie. It is a made-to-order role for him,” says Swamy. And he admits that he wasn’t really happy with the remake that came a decade later directed by Amal Neerad. “I can’t really point them out. But there were a lot of faults.”

After Irupatham Nootandu and Oru CBI Diary Kurippu, he never went back to family dramas, sticking to a genre that he sincerely believed had no competition at that time. But there should be a film that is closest to his heart? “How can you ask me to choose from my 50-60 scripts? All I can say is that I liked some of my unsuccessful films than the successful ones.”

The 1989 film Adikkurippu is one such. A ship brings a castaway (Jagathy Sreekumar) to the shores of Kochi and the captain is eager to find his relatives. That’s when advocate Bhaskara Pillai (Mammootty) steps in to help, only to discover that there is more to it than meets the eyes. But Swamy doesn’t recall what led to the story, though there were rumours that the film was based on a missing ship owned by the Kerala shipping corporation.

He admits that he writes very little, most of it is in his mind. There is no specific time or place. Though there will always be a bound script, he might make some last-minute changes. He doesn’t go to the sets much, but admits that actors can’t really improvise and often have to go with what he has written.

Earlier he used to read a lot of detective novels and crime thrillers. “But I can’t remember the names of the authors.”

Right. But it has to come from somewhere, I prod gently. “Imagination has no constraints. I don’t think you need to read a book or watch a film to get inspired. Usually a small thread is expanded using my imagination.”

He used to watch a lot of Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil films earlier. Now that has also reduced.

Kalikkalam’s one-liner from director Sathyan Anthikad was about a handsome and witty thief. Swamy developed the story with some subtexts from Kayamkulam Kochunni and Robin Hood. “Sathyan really liked Adikkurippu’s Bhaskara Pillai, especially his wardrobe and personality.”

The writer isn’t able to really recall where he found a character like Narasimha Mannadiyar (Dhruvam). “Maybe it was my imagination, or I don’t know if such a character existed in my mind. Can we find someone like that from our generation? Not at all.” In AK Sajan’s story, Narasimha Mannadiyar wasn’t even there. There were only Kashi and Hydar Marakkar. Mannadiyar was developed later as the hero.

Was Naaduvazhikal inspired by Godfather? “Maybe stories from the underworld fascinated me. But yes, Arjun was written keeping Mohanlal in mind.”

I then bring up Thilakan’s most underrated performance as Sankaran in Naaduvazhikal, who is that standard name-dropper, who claims to know every VVIP. “Again I can’t recall. But definitely not someone I have met. When I feel the need for a different character, I work around it.”

Swamy writes about a character’s mannerisms and body language. However, if an artist cannot pull it off, he will make the necessary changes.

“Earlier when I used to write, I could decide an artist beforehand and then visualise the story with him in mind. Be it Mammootty, Mohanlal or Suresh Gopi, we know how much they can be pushed.”

Parampara, a film which he wrote for Sibi Malayil, was suggested by Mammootty after watching an English film.

And Munnam Mura? “They have remade it as Beast now,” he chuckles.

But Munnam Mura isn’t based on any real-life incident. “God knows where it came from. You can imagine anything if you have the guts. Please don’t ask me how I think up such stories.”

Even Oral Mathram, an otherwise Sathyan Anthikad staple, was turned into a murder mystery in Swamy’s hands. He admits August 15, the sequel to August 1, was not up to the mark. But yes, at least he recalls where Nicolas (Captain Raju) came from. The hired assassin who takes his job very seriously and unnerves you with his unflappable cruelty came from a character in the book The Day of the Jackal.

Swamy is appreciative of the new generation of filmmakers and especially loved Operation Java.

Surprisingly, he isn’t too concerned about the success and failures of his film. “I like critics and fans alike.”

In fact, he has already left CBI 5: The Brain behind.

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to and She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

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