“We, police officers, usually don’t give two hoots about the CBI. However, if it’s Sethurama Iyer CBI, not saying this because of sportsmanship, anyone would tremble with fear. It’s a fact!” – DySP Sathyadas (Saikumar, CBI 3)
The year was 1988, over seven years before this writer was born. Malayalam cinema was awaiting its first blockbuster of the year. Sadly, none of the films that released in the month of January managed to enthrall the audience in a big way, though both Mammootty and Mohanlal, who had by then become the new ‘superstars’, had a combined total of three releases that very month.
On February 18, producer M Mani’s Sunitha Productions returned with its second venture with writer-director duo S.N. Swamy and K Madhu, after the supremely successful Mohanlal-starrer Irupatham Noottandu the previous year.
However, it was Mammootty that the duo chose this time to play the lead character. Lucky for them, the actor had by then broken free from a ‘cursed period’ during which he delivered a string of flops, and that too to an extent to which people began saying that his days were numbered in the industry.
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Despite the fact that Malayalam cinema never had any dearth of investigative thrillers, Oru CBI Diarykurippu (the first movie in the franchise) garnered attention and appreciation from audience from all walks of life. A major reason behind this was that the flick introduced the audience to a new investigating agency which the people had, till then, only heard of in the news — an agency with officers who don’t wear (khaki) uniforms, don’t adopt third-degree interrogation and don’t have twirled moustaches.
Above all, it was the quintessential sleuth, Sethurama Iyer, who helped the movie achieve an unwavering cult status.
Over 34 years after the release of the first movie, the fifth instalment in the iconic franchise, CBI 5: The Brain, hit screens on 1 May, 2022, marking the return of Mammootty as the perspicacious detective. All five films of this franchise, the longest-running one in Indian cinema, were helmed by K Madhu and scripted by S.N. Swamy.
Ever since the release of the first movie, the influence Iyer has had in both pop-culture and the lives of Malayalis is unparalleled. Not an exaggeration, but a good number of Keralites have at least once in their lifetime walked away with Iyer’s signature ‘hands clasped behind the back’, humming the legendary background score, after solving a real-life puzzle that required logical thinking and reasoning.
How and why Iyer, or as his archnemesis DySP Devadas calls him “Saamy”, became one of the most sought-after characters ever, and did the makers manage to keep the magic alive in all five films? Let’s see.
Oru CBI Diary Kurippu – 1988
Jagratha – 1989
Sethurama Iyer CBI – 2004
Nerariyan CBI – 2005
CBI 5: The Brain – 2022
The birth of a legend
Oru CBI Diarykurippu was not just an instantaneous hit, but went on to become one of the highest-grossing Malayalam movies of that year.
Referring to the birth of the character, writer S N Swamy has many a time said that Mammootty was the reason why he decided to pen an investigative thriller with CBI officers as central characters, instead of a cop drama. “There was no CBI series in the beginning. There was not even a CBI movie. My plan was to write a cop thriller. But it was Mammootty who pointed out that we shouldn’t go ahead with it since he had recently done a superhit cop thriller titled Aavanazhi (1986). He suggested that we make a movie on a CBI officer instead,” Swamy said during an interview with Asiaville Theatre Malayalam.
Unlike his predecessors, Iyer wasn’t extravagant. Mammootty, who cut a dash in khaki uniforms in John Jaffer Janardhanan (1982), Yavanika (1982), Ithiri Poove Chuvannapoove (1984), and Aavanazhi (1986), underwent a makeover and brought to life an investigator who doesn’t lose his cool even with those hurling abuses at him.
Wearing short-sleeve shirts and trousers, with his hands clasped behind his back, and a red tinge in his teeth and lips from chewing paan, Iyer took over and solved cases that other investigating officers knowingly/unknowingly monkeyed with.
CBI 1 focused on the mysterious death of Omana (Lissy), a 25-year-old woman, at her in-law’s house. Though the police claimed it was a case of suicide, the victim’s family members alleged she was murdered by her husband. The Supreme Court, after taking cognisance of the petitions filed by Omana’s relatives, handed over the investigation to the CBI.
Despite the fact that we are introduced to Sethurama Iyer over 46 minutes into the movie, the makers magnificently managed to lay the groundwork during this time to show how complicated the case was and how investigating officers with vested interests had already tarnished the primary probe.
A tightly packed edge-of-the-seat thriller, Oru CBI Diarykurippu kept the suspense elements properly concealed till the ‘grand climactic revelation’, without giving any space for the audience to suspect the culprit.
The movie ends with a group of locals approaching Iyer requesting him to nab wanted (real-life) fugitive Sukumara Kurup to show that Sethurama Iyer would find the truth no matter what.
The return of the Kerala Sherlock Holmes
Riding on the back of Oru CBI Diarykurippu, the second installment, Jagratha: CBI Diaries – Part 2, came out the very next year.
For me, Jagratha is the best among all five movies – more so because of my love for whodunnits and the way this movie did justice to the genre. Centred on the mysterious death of a film star in a hotel room, the flick was filled with potential suspects who had ‘strong motives’ to eliminate the victim.
From Ouseppachan and Narayanan (Janardhanan and Prathapachandran, respectively), who were suspects in Omana case too, to superstar Viswam who had a rivalry with Aswathy (the victim) after she exposed that he was behind the suicide of one of his former girlfriends, and former minister Bhargavan, whom Aswathy accused of murdering someone, the list was too long.
The crime was committed so brilliantly that those who did it left no evidence and had immaculately executed it to project the incident as a suicide.
However, Iyer and his team comprising Vikram (Jagathy Sreekumar) and Chacko (Mukesh) managed to unravel the mystery and got to the bottom of this case too. Just like all other films in the franchise, Jagratha too had Iyer revealing who the actual culprit was in the climax, followed by a flashback sequence wherein the culprit(s) describe how they carried out and covered up the crime.
Jagratha also became a huge success and gave Iyer the sobriquet ‘Kerala Sherlock Holmes’.
The murder ISOW never committed
This writer was nine years old when the next movie in the series, Sethurama Iyer CBI: A Story – CBI v/s CBI, came out. Unlike earlier films of this genre, in which a crime has already happened and there are no clear suspects, Sethurama Iyer CBI starts off by showing a cold-blooded habitual criminal awaiting death sentence for committing the crimes that make the central plot of this movie.
But, roughly 30 minutes into the movie, serial killer Alex alias Isow (Kalabhavan Mani) confides to Iyer that of the seven murders that he has been accused of, one was not committed by him. Thus begins the investigation by Iyer and team.
The hurdles they had to face here were much worse than the ones in the first two movies, starting off with the fact that the incidents had happened several years before the new team reopened the case.
Even then, Iyer and company delved deep into the incidents and found out who the actual culprit was. Sethurama Iyer CBI also received appreciation for the way the makers retained the suspense till the very end.
Still and all, the franchise began losing its charm here…
In terms of characterisation, though CBI 3 marked the return of the steadfast detective, the makers had altered his backstory completely. Iyer, in the first two movies, was shown as a married family-man. However, in Sethurama Iyer CBI, the audience was introduced to a new unmarried Iyer who lived in his ancestral house with his relatives. In spite of that, the makers started giving Iyer unnecessary philosophical and irrational dialogues to show that he had an understanding of everything under the sun. This can only be understood as a bid to completely Brahminise the character who had no such visible traits in the earlier works. Apart from the fact that he was a vegetarian who always had a vermillion mark on his forehead and spoke with a Tamil accent, Iyer had no quirks of conventional Brahmin characters and was only portrayed as a supremely efficient detective with sharp focus and determination.
But, Sethurama Iyer CBI projected this notion that Iyer could tame anything as he was a superior (Brahmin) being – a poor artistic choice that became more evident in the next movie.
Another main attraction of the first two installments was that neither of them had any unnecessary subplots – no songs, no dance numbers, no cringe-worthy romantic scenes. However, the third installment had a romantic subplot involving one of Iyer’s nieces (Navya Nair) and his new assistant (Vineeth Kumar). Though brief, this subplot seemed irrelevant and out of place and it actually made many audiences cringe, leaving them wondering why the makers went ahead with such a ridiculous decision.
As a fan, the CBI franchise ended for me with this neatly-executed work which, even with all its brilliance, showed that the series was facing wear and tear and was going down an all too familiar lane.
The installment that should have never been made
Nerariyan CBI released in 2005 with Mammootty returning as the stellar Sethurama Iyer, albeit with nothing new to offer this time.
For me, Nerariyan CBI ruined the entire franchise, not just because it had a comparatively weaker plot, but due to the fact that the makers portrayed Iyer as someone capable of doing the impossible.
The Iyer we grew up watching was never like that. He was a supremely talented, vigilant, heedful investigator who always made sure to tie up all the loose ends. However, in CBI 4, these character traits were overwritten to give him some kind of an aura that denoted that he was more than human, or, in short, a ‘true Brahmin’ with a vast knowledge comprising both science and pseudoscience. An entire scene wherein he lectured a tantric about ‘universal facts’ with grandiloquence underlined this.
Like how Vrinda and Vivek of The Mallu Analyst YouTube channel pointed out in one of their recent videos, sexual desire and/or immorality are the two recurring crime motives in the first four installments.
Though such motives seemed solid in the first three movies, Nerariyan CBI had an indigestible one, which made it look like the makers went ahead with it only to take the audience by surprise in the end. Though the climactic revelation came as a shocker, once you start thinking about it after the movie, the motive would feel pretty shallow.
The makers also brought in certain supernatural elements in this movie, again to show off Iyer’s superhuman abilities. It also had Iyer giving unnecessary gyaan to his peers on the ‘connection’ between science and pseudoscience every once a while, making the previously mentioned ultimate Brahminisation of the character complete.
The much-anticipated comeback that fell flat
The fifth movie in the series, CBI 5: The Brain, released 17 years after Nerariyan CBI. For me, apart from all the love for the franchise, it was a matter of amazement to watch an actor reprise the character that he played for the first time years before I was born. Needless to say, it was indeed a delight to see this 70-year-old man bring back to screen the seminal character.
I was also excited about watching it in a theatre with a mixed bag of audience – some who might have watched all four installments in cinema halls, some like me only the third and fourth ones, and some kids for whom this might be the first time watching a film in this franchise in theatres.
This movie, just like the first two installments, had Iyer making his first appearance much after the 30-minute mark. Sadly, for me, Mammootty returning as Iyer was the only good thing about the movie.
Starting off with a series of bad casting choices and a story that went around in circles to the climactic revelation that was off-putting, CBI 5 did not give me an adrenaline rush at any point during its running time of close to 165 minutes. The first thirty minutes was packed with innumerable characters who didn’t have anything to contribute to the story that followed.
A key reason behind the success of the previous four movies was the chemistry between Iyer and his colleagues, especially Vikram and Chacko. However, CBI 5 lacked this too. In whole, I, as a viewer, found it difficult to empathise with any of the characters, including Iyer.
The major highlight of the movie was the return of the maestro Jagathy Sreekumar, who has been in a paralysed state since a road accident in 2012. The way the makers brought Jagathy’s character (Vikram) back, albeit only for a short period, and made it a pivotal one deserves appreciation. But, this also underlined the fact that Iyer becomes “The Iyer” only when he is surrounded by his ‘OG’ team.
In one of his recent interviews, writer S.N. Swamy pointed out that CBI 5 was a bit different from the previous ones. True to an extent. It in fact showed an Iyer who was struggling to get to the bottom of a series of murders, unlike the fourth installment wherein he ‘magically’ found solutions from thin air.
But, the movie turned out to be a testimony to the fact that the once successful formula has become stale now.
K Madhu’s direction that reminded us of films from 2000s, weird camera angles, too much faith in Renji Panicker’s (subpar) acting, and unnecessary scenes that in no way contribute to the main plot of the movie – all these, in unison, took the flick to new levels of low.
Whilst all this, the way musician Jakes Bejoy ravaged the iconic background score, created by yesteryear music director Shyam for the first installment, put the final nail in CBI 5’s coffin. Jakes should have definitely been a bit more careful while working on something that is inseparable from a flamboyant character and actor.
CBI 5: The Brain will begin streaming on Netflix from June 12.
If he returns yet again…
Now that there are rumours doing rounds that the makers are planning to return with a sixth movie, one can without doubt presume this flick too would lure hundreds of fans like me into theatres, even after facing two setbacks.
At this point, I can only but request the makers to rewatch the first three movies and understand (not copy-paste) why the earlier ones worked, and reboot the franchise accordingly. They should realise that the next movie is going to be released for an audience who have returned after being confined to their homes for over two years owing to the pandemic, during which they watched all kinds of motion pictures from across the world.
Especially since audience are currently vexed with Malayalam investigative thrillers that follow the same formula, it will be an uphill task to create a CBI 6 that tops the initial ones in the franchise. However, the makers should keep in mind that the legacy of Sethurama Iyer can only be tarnished by their lack of efforts.
After the release of Drishyam 2 last year, many netizens suggested that the universes of Georgekutty and Sethurama Iyer be blended as Iyer might be the only one who can finally checkmate the man who is always one step ahead of cops. Though unlikely, fans say if it happens, it will be a ‘Clash of the Titans’, underscoring the fact that viewers still have high regard for the sleuth and are awaiting his return.
But a timely upgrade is indeed necessary to bring the magic back. And if the makers put in the right efforts and hit the right chords, Iyer still has the potential to make the audience bounce off the walls. The adrenaline rush Malayalis get when they hear the iconic CBI background score is a testament to this.