Exactly 35 years ago on this date (February 18, 1988), ‘Oru CBI Diary Kurippu’ was released in theatres across Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The success of the film paved the way for the longest-running franchise in Indian cinema, which saw four more instalments – ‘Jagratha’ (1989), ‘Sethurama Iyer CBI’ (2004), ‘Nerariyan CBI’ (2005) and ‘CBI 5: The Brain’ (2022) – being made in a span of 34 years.
Though some of the sequels, especially the latest instalment, did not receive the same response as its predecessors, Mammootty’s ‘Sethurama Iyer’ continues to enjoy a cult following in Mollywood.
On this day, we look at how and why the series garnered a huge fan following.
A new spin on the investigative thriller genre
Sethurama Iyer is to Keralites what other popular detectives like ‘Jessica Fletcher’ or ‘Philip Marlowe’ are to Hollywood fans. The series introduced Malayalis then to a refreshing perspective of the 'investigative thriller' genre.
Though there were masterpieces like ‘Yavanika’ (1982) by K G George and ‘Kariyilakkattu Pole’ (1986) by Padmarajan prior to ‘Oru CBI Diary Kurippu’, this was the first time a Malayalam movie introduced a CBI officer to crack a case the police had virtually given up on. The techniques used by the CBI also differed. The dummy technique used by the CBI to crack a case was shown in the first instalment. In it, Sethurama Iyer solves the murder mystery of Omana, the daughter-in-law of a businessman, using this technique. A few years after the film was released, this technique of the CBI was used to assess whether Sr Abhaya had committed suicide at the convent in the infamous case.
Sethurama Iyer’s mild mannerisms and intelligence
Sethurama Iyer was unlike many investigation officers that Malayalis were familiar with. He was not loud or aggressive. Rather, he stood apart for his mild-mannered, yet intelligent ways. The iconic character, who wore a saffron tilak and walked with his hands clasped behind his back, was also someone who was not easily prone to anger. It was fascinating to see him unravel the cases one by one with his inquisitive mind.
The intriguing plots
Crime thrillers have always had a charm in Kerala. In an interview with a daily newspaper, the actual brains behind the CBI series – scriptwriter S N Swamy – said that people in Kerala would follow sensational news updates very closely, which is why they could easily connect with the crime thrillers. The plots used in the CBI series were not connected to real-life incidents, but nevertheless, intriguing in nature. Themes like illegitimacy, love, lust and the crimes, which resulted from these incidents, were explored in the series, which made for a fascinating watch.
Apart from Sethurama Iyer, the film introduced several entertaining and interesting characters. DySP Devadas, played to perfection by the late Sukumaran, represented the corrupt police task force that was always at odds with the CBI in general and Iyer in particular. He was always scheming and loud and the day and night differences in approach between the two officers could often be construed as S N Swamy's dig at the lackadaisical attitude of the state's police force in investigating sensational cases.
In the last three instalments, Sai Kumar plays Devadas' son Sathyadas, which many would agree is more a tribute to Sukumaran's classic performance as the brash cop.
Characters with seemingly negative shades like Janardhanan somehow always fit into the storyline and infuse elements of humour into an otherwise serious franchise. Mukesh and Jagathy Sreekumar as officers Chacko and Vikram have added to the dynamics of the movies significantly.