Who killed whom and why? It seems no one wants to know just that any more.
The murder novel has evolved beyond answering simplistic whodunit questions and evolved into a deeper exploration of character, motive and milieu.
Gone Girl (2012), The Silent Wife (2013) and the works of Keigo Higashino (The Devotion of Suspect X, Salvation of a Saint) are all examples of recent popular novels whose thrills lay beyond your knowing who the murderer was.
What of films? Can a traditional murder mystery film work in an age when the audience text or tweet spoilers even before the movie ends? Would you see a crime thriller if you knew who the killer was?
Mohanlal-starrer Drishyam (2014) proved that crime stories still sell, even when the focus is on the cover-up of the murder (No, the film is NOT a copy of Suspect X, despite what those who haven't read the book allege; but that's a story for another day).
Cinema in Kerala, from where Drishyam has emerged, has had a long-lasting fascination with crime, perhaps, reflecting the Malayalee's interest in the darker side of life.
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A lot of Malayalam film industry's biggest hits and best-made films have a murder at the centre of the plot. Most of these were well-made films with great narrative styles that fit into the industry's unique middle-stream cinema (Neither artsy nor commercial).
Since 1998, Mammootty has starred in four delightful films as Sethurama Iyer, a CBI officer called in to investigate unsolvable murder mysteries. The series started off in 1988 with the blockbuster Oru CBI Diary Kurippu, and Iyer's brainy, rather than brawny investigative style makes him an all-time favourite.
In the 1986 Padmarajan film, Kariyilakkattu Pole, though, Mammootty's character (Harikrishnan, a celebrity film director and writer) was the victim whose death is investigated by Inspector Achuthankutty (Mohanlal). The killer is the one you least suspect.
Mammootty and Mohanlal team up in No 20 Madras Mail, where Mammootty, playing himself, is a ‘witness’ to the murder that takes place on a train.
Long before Face/Off, there was Cochin Express (1967), where again, the action unfolds in a train. Prem Nazir plays the investigative officer and Adoor Bhasi the only witness in a journey full of interesting turns.
The shocking twist in the 1985 thriller Kanathaya Penkutty is pieced together by cops who fail to get a confession from the killer.
In Mohan's Mukham (1990), Mohanlal plays a cop in search of a serial killer.
The 2009 hit 2 Harihar Nagar interspersed comedy with crime.
In the same year, Ranjit brought out an adaptation of T P Rajeevan's novel, Paleri Manikyam: Oru Pathirakolapathakathinte Katha, based on Kerala's first recorded murder case. Mammootty, in a triple role, plays a private detective, who returns to his birthplace to solve a murder mystery that occurred on the night he was born.
But the best film in the genre was made way back in 1982.
Yavanika, directed by K G George, and co-written by S L Puram Sadanandan and George himself, goes beyond merely creating suspense to exploring universal questions on life, fragile relationships and moral ambiguity.
The plot is structured around the search for a missing tabla player of a touring theatre group.
George, a master of narrative technique, cleverly uses the play-within-a-film format to unravel the hidden tensions between the cast of the play and the backstage intrigue that seep into their performances.
He scatters clues throughout the film - The fear in a character’s eyes, the sudden change in the routine of a punctual guy, the locales, the varying chemistry between characters off stage and even in the song that begins the play.
'Bharata Muni Oru Kalam Varachu', sings the cast to lyricist ONV Kurup’s lines.
Sage Bharatha drew a column, playwrights Bhasa and Kalidasa placed the pawns in place - a reference to Natya Shastra as well as to much of life. We're merely pawns that time tosses around, as we laugh, cry, get close to people, grow apart and get pushed along the blacks and whites of life. How much control do we have over even our worst actions?
Mammootty, as the cop in charge of the investigation, draws out the complex sexual rivalries and dissension within the troupe. And the line of investigation also reveals the unique, well-sketched out characters.
There's the Dandy and Flirt (Balagopalan, played by Nedumudi Venu) who loves his kajal and lip stick and is not above buying a woman’s affections.
There's the Clown with a tragic backstory (Varunan, played by Jagathi), the quiet, confident Joseph Kollapally (Venu Nagavalli) and the protective but parsimonious manager of the troupe, Vakkachan (Tilakan).
There is Rohini (Jalaja), the abused woman in a live-in relationship, who is constantly battling moral ambiguity with the need to do the best for her family.
There's Sub-Inspector Jacob Eeraly, who knows all the tricks in the book when it comes to ferreting out information. Mammootty's amazing screen presence propelled him into the stardom he was to achieve in the following years. Yavanika turned out to be the first of his many brilliant roles as an investigator – He has played a cop in at least 25 films so far, the highest by any Malayalam actor.
The star of Yavanika, though, is Ayyappan, the alcoholic sadist with a woman at every port: Bharat Gopi is the violent, brilliant force that tears through the film.
"Ayyappan....is evil in full blast. His walk, his speech, the way he strikes at the tabla, everything about him is animated by a subterranean scorn. He has a look that would make any woman feel molested," journalist R Ayyappan was to write later.
For Yavanika, Gopi learned how to play the tabla and got everything from body language to leers to dialogue just about perfect.
George's genius is that he's able to take you away from playing guessing games about the murder (Who could it be? Him? Too obvious) and make it impossible for you to look away from the screen.
He stays away from the loud, dramatic background score that most crime films in Kerala use. His actors are consistently good. The script flows deftly and there is much beauty and drama in every scene.
Who killed whom or who covered up the murder are not questions you ask when you can't take your eyes or mind off what the characters are experiencing right now.
And therein, perhaps, lie the answer to whether a good whodunit can survive in this age of instant communication and social media.
Yavanika proves that genre or technology is no deterrent to success if you have a good story and an intelligent plot.
Images courtesy: Nana Film Weekly
Sarita Ravindranath is an editor with sify.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org