Director K Madhu underestimated the cultural power of Sethurama Iyer (Mammootty), the iconic detective, in Nerariyan CBI (2005). The man who solved sensational murder cases in the past instalments of the CBI franchise was handed over a case that was right up a child’s alley ﹣a ghost hoax in a noble family. 17 years later, in CBI: The Brain, Madhu and Swamy do not leave a stone unturned. The CBI universe is more colourful than ever. Many favourite characters from the old films in the franchise return to play a full-fledged or a cameo role. Alongside, there are new stars, the favourites of the new Malayalam cinema audience. The evergreen signature score of the CBI series, composed by Shyam, gets a hip makeover in the hands of composer Jakes Bejoy. Iyer, who must now be close to retirement age, returns to Kerala to investigate a series of high-profile murders, of a state minister, his personal doctor, a journalist-activist, and finally, a top police official.
The setting, this time, looks foolproof and immensely promising. Yet, the film lacks the punch, the kitschy charm that pulled many generations of Malayalam film audiences towards the CBI franchise. In the past films, the sophisticated demeanour of Iyer and his Delhi-bred associates colliding with the crudeness of the people they encountered in suburban Kerala made for several memorable scenes. It was not just the gravity of the crimes of the riveting final reveal that made CBI: Dairykurippu (1988), but the little moments like the one where Prathapa Chandran’s drunk contractor yelled “Da CBI” or when Adoor Bhavani’s maid put on an amateur act in front of the cops to protect her master with an anxiety problem (Janardhanan), and of course, the iconic dummy-to-dummy scene. The CBI films in the 80s and 90s, which unravelled the dirt in small-town Kerala, were high in entertainment value.
The absence of a rooted, local variety of humour is strongly felt in CBI: The Brain. To begin with, at no point during the investigation do Iyer and his team engage with the local population. Satyadas (Sai Kumar), a recurring character, a loud-mouthed policeman who hates Iyer to the core, is burdened with playing the sole clown in the film, to bring some humour to the uninspired proceedings. Sai Kumar, a seasoned actor, plays the comic effortlessly, but he does not get any support from his co-stars, namely Asha Sharreth who plays his wife, who are prim and humourless. And worse, Madhu and Swamy decide to turn Satyadas into a sorry figure, brutally calling off the delightful clashes between him and Iyer.
It is interesting to see how the mode of investigation in CBI films has changed over the years. If Iyer was a thoroughly professional sleuth in CBI: Diary Kurippu and Jagratha (1989), he was forced to become a showman in the films that followed. In CBI: The Brain, the focus is more on his famous mannerisms than on the findings. Jakes Bejoy seems to have got the instruction to play the signature score whenever Iyer gets up and walks, regardless of the situation. Iyer’s Brahmin background is emphasised, a routine Madhu launched in Sethurama Iyer CBI (2004).
The film’s building the suspense is founded on making different characters describe the cases as “unusual” and the culprit as “dangerous”. Swamy’s screenplay weaves in some smart plot points in the final hour, but the narrative is too longwinded to keep the viewers engrossed. Neither Iyer nor his associates visit the crime spot or ask for the personal phone of the slain cop in the former half of the film, but meet an endless array of people. The motives of some of the murders are flimsy, so unlike the working of a criminal mastermind. And none of Iyer’s lines, despite Mammootty’s impeccable rendition, hits the spot.
Chacko (Mukesh), a former CBI officer, is brought back briefly for the sake of nostalgia, and the actor hams up the little part he gets. Soubin Shahir plays a psychopathic hacker, a cliche in Malayalam crime dramas, who can murder people as efficiently as he can hack into any computer system. Sudev Nair, a talented actor, is yet again, wasted in a hackneyed role, of a corrupt cop. Mammootty, the backbone of the series, is flawless as Iyer, a character he co-designed and owned over the last three decades. The passing of time is strongly felt in his former co-stars ﹣Jagathy Sreekumar makes a poignant comeback in a scene ﹣ but Mammotty brilliantly re-evokes the same qualities that drew the audience to Iyer in 1988. A pop-cultural edifice, the CBI films, India’s longest-running film series, are watched not just for their plot and the aesthetic qualities but for their unique nostalgic value, their capacity to bind different generations of actors and audiences on a single thread. CBI: The Brain falls short on fun, but thanks to Mammootty, the central piece, it still boasts a pull.
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