Every time someone points out the problem in glorifying villainy, many appear to think it is an argument against negative characters. It is really not.

Dulquer with a French bears sits in a car, its door open and his feet on the ground facing the camera, as the leaves of a few trees sway in the background
Flix Film Appreciation Saturday, November 27, 2021 - 15:25

Questions were raised soon after the film Kurup was announced and Dulquer Salmaan, one of the younger stars in Malayalam, came on board to play the titular character. The film is based on the real life story of Sukumara Kurup, a fugitive on the run since 1984, portrayed by Dulquer. If a star like Dulquer played Kurup, will it make a murderer’s story look cool, worried some, family of the murder victim Chacko among them. Defenders were quick to make the usual argument – can one not portray negative characters in movies? One can. Putting a negative character into the thick of things was never the issue. But glorification of said negative character is. When the movie finally came out in November, the murmurs died down, even though the fear of glorification came true to an extent.

Every time someone points out the problem in glorifying villainy, many appear to think it is an argument against negative characters. It is really not. You can have your villain right in the centre. You can have a movie entirely made of villains (come to think of it, that’d be a novel thing now). It’s your treatment of these characters that matter. If a film makes a problematic behavior look cool, it is condoning the act.

In Kurup, Dulquer plays a man who, after pulling off cons through half his life, reaches a point when he conspires with a small gang to stage his own death. In the real life version, Sukumara Kurup is known to be the mastermind of it all, trying to get a dead body to pass off as his own at first, and when that fails, suggests killing a random man of his size and age. The idea is to get an insurance amount that will come only upon his death, but of course, he has no intention of dying for it. In Srinath Rajendran’s (director of Kurup) film, there is some change – Kurup at one point saying he only wanted the others in his gang to get a dead body, not kill a man. But later, he is shown to control the whole thing, playing mind tricks on his crude and drunk brother-in-law (wonderfully played by Shine Tom Chacko).

Watch: Who is Sukumara Kurup? Story of Kerala's elusive killer

The film has to show Kurup winning each of these stages, for the real life criminal did manage to escape every time the police were on the verge of catching him. That’s where the treatment of the film matters. How will the escapes be filmed – will it make the audience root for the murderer or wish him caught somehow? That’s where the makers have a role. In Kurup, the choice is clear.

Every time the criminal who brutally murdered another is shown escaping, the film appears to root for the murderer. That’s when you wonder if it all has to do with Dulquer playing the bad guy and if that’s what’s stopping the makers from showing him in poor light. If it were for instance Dulquer, who played Chacko, and another that played Kurup, would the film still paint the villain so cool?

And perhaps that’s also why the act of murder itself takes little space in the whole film, to not bring too much attention on the cruel side of the man you have so far been rooting for. Instead it focuses on Kurup’s past, the growth of his character from a popular prankster to a tricky but successful expatriate. All through it, Kurup is shown as a likeable character, even his previous enactment of “death” to escape air force training appearing like a harmless act of a desperate man.

Read: Kurup review: Dulquer movie is well-scripted but has its problems

When Kurup does become menacing, his cruel side is brushed aside as something trivial, and instead the film focuses on how smartly he gets away. At one point, Indrajith Sukumaran, who plays the cop chasing Kurup, brings a twist into the tale. It appears like an afterthought, to appease those hurt by the portrayal, almost bringing a fictional but satisfactory end to the story. But then the film goes back to the scene where Kurup had appeared to lose, the camera showing a small smile forming on Dulquer’s lips and the last scene seals the image of the celebrated villain. Kurup is 61 but looking cool, daring, crossing a foreign street without a care. On cue is music and a close-up of the hero’s face for applause.

Watch: Trailer of Kurup

It is not that they should show Kurup getting caught or admitting defeat. You can show him getting away without making it look heroic. Without ever letting the audience forget that this is a criminal who is slipping away and though this is the ending, it doesn’t mean it’s a good end.

Read: ‘There's no glorification of Kurup in the film': Director Srinath Rajendran

Stars playing negative characters and making them hateful have been done before. Mohanlal’s Uyarangalil was one that stood apart in the late 1980s, when he was at his peak of youth stardom. He played the bad man and let a viewer hate the character. There were no slow motion walks or applauding music to make him or what he does look cool. A few years later, Mammootty played the unbearable landlord character in Vidheyan, when he was long acknowledged as a superstar and had a fan following across industries. It’s a horrible character and it was shown as such.

But stars of today, with the exception of Fahadh Faasil and a few others, hardly play a negative character unless they are made to look heroic. Perhaps makers feel it wouldn’t be acceptable to show the adored stars in a poor light, that the audience will not buy it. But then Fahadh, despite playing a petty thief (Thondimuthalum) or a creepy madman (Kumbalangi Nights), appears to have a huge fan following that appreciate the actor for pulling off these characters just as well as he does the nice guy roles (Red Wine, Bangalore Days). The audience really has a much broader mind than given credit for.  

Also read: The tale of a macabre murder in Kerala: How Sukumara Kurup killed Chacko

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