Strangely, she wore a white sari the day she died. The choice of clothes of young female ghosts in fiction or else widows in conservative households. She too was fiction, inspired, it is said, by a real life story. Omana, the woman who died, became the nucleus of Oru CBI Diary Kurippu, the 1988 crime film that introduced Sethurama Iyer, one of the most popular characters in Malayalam cinema.
Iyer, the detective from Palakkad who solves the mystery of Omana’s death, became so popular that three sequels were made in the next 17 years. The music in the background when Iyer walks away with clues is still hummed and whistled and set as mobile phone ringtones.
Mammootty played Sethuramaya Iyer, appearing 46 minutes into the film, when the family has lost all hope of finding the truth behind Omana’s death. Hands interlocked behind him, a distinct vermillion mark on the forehead and speaking English with a Tamil accent, Iyer instantly became an identifiable figure. You’d recognise him even if he didn’t have Mammootty’s face, his ways were set, he seemed real.
So are the others, beginning with Omana, the dead woman. You know her through the accounts of her past shared by the others – her helpless old father Thomachan (Bahadoor) and her sister Annie (Urvashi).
Her husband’s family says she jumped off the terrace and killed herself. The first police officer, Varma (Captain Raju), is nearing the truth when he is sent off on a transfer. Chacko (Mukesh), the young cop and Omana’s cousin, is attacked when he expresses doubts on her death.
It is amazing how tightly made the movie is. K Madhu, the director, packs a whole lot into the film, 2 hours and 10 minutes long. It has three investigations of the same crime, the first honest one by Varma, the second by a corrupt officer called Devadas and the third by Iyer and team. In between are the past stories that make Omana a real person you empathise with and feel for. On the other side, you also see the corruption happening so casually, the money that goes from hand to hand to hush up the crimes of the rich and influential.
With Varma’s investigation, you are introduced to all the major characters in the film – the guilty looking husband’s family and the grief stricken father and the wailing sister. There is Sunny, Omana’s widower, who forever has dark circles under his eyes, played by Sreenath. His father Ousepachan (Janardanan), family friend Narayanan (Prathapachandran) and brother-in-law Joy (Vijayaraghavan) are his pillars of support.
Even smaller characters – the domestic worker with the hearing problem (Adoor Bhavani), the neighbour who can’t help speak the truth (TP Madhavan) and Vasu (Johny), the impassive and strongly built driver – get their due prominence.
Thomachan and Annie understand things are amiss when Varma and Chacko are removed from the investigation and the ruthless Devadas takes their place. Sukumaran paints a neat portrait of a corrupt officer with little regard for justice and no shame to keep demanding bribes.
Iyer does not walk into the screen as a saviour. In fact he nearly brushes Omana’s death off as suicide after hearing the bereaved family but begins the investigation after the attack on Chacko. It is thrilling to watch Iyer speak excitedly to his senior officer that he is taking on the case.
His character is very clearly written out. He is not the one to go sniffing for clues and chase villains on the road. He stands back and lets the provocations pass, stopping one of his juniors from jumping walls to counter attack a threat. He does not ever use a disguise, preferring to introduce himself with his real name and designation every time. To his juniors – Vikram, played by Jagathy Sreekumar, and Harry, played by Suresh Gopi – he is never too friendly, but not bossy either.
Iyer does not show sympathy to the victim’s family either. He remains the distant man on the job, speaking only for getting his answers. The only glimpse of his personal life you get is when he speaks on the telephone to his son who apparently refuses to go to school. Another time, he hails the chappati and vegetable curry that he has with his colleagues.
There, and at a couple of other places, references are made to his caste, which is perhaps the only part that comes off in bad taste.
Director K Madhu also makes sure every action is accounted for. As Iyer begins his investigation, you see his car blocked by another on the way, announcing a blood-test drive for checking malaria. You see him hurriedly read it before honking his way out of there. An important observation that’d help Iyer later in the film.
Humour too has a place in the film, that’s why we have Jagathy Sreekumar and his crooked disguises. But that too is not a deviation, just a bonus.
With that curious mix of everything, K Madhu set off a new trend of detective movies with Oru CBI Diary Kurippu. Malayalam cinema had ‘CBI’ movies before, with Prem Nazir and Adoor Bhasi playing colleagues in disguise. But the Sethurama Iyer series adopted a new approach, building a narrative for you to empathise with the victim while using cinematic elements as punch lines and background music to enliven the solving of the crime. Even as the detective meant strictly business, personalised the story he went after.