Opinion: From a hated villain to a modern myth: Dissecting three 'Sukumara Kurups' of Malayalam cinema

In 1984, Sukumara Kurup was only a murder accused on the run. In 2016, he was an almost forgotten fugitive. And in 2021 he is a modern myth. In all the three years mentioned, three films based on the life and crime of Sukumara Kurup, hit the screens in Kerala, the latest being the Dulquer Salmaan-starrer ‘Kurup’.

Before that, there were NH 47 and Pinneyum, two totally different cinematic approaches to one of the most heinous crimes in Kerala's history and its mastermind.

Sukumara Kurup, who has been elusive since 1984, is wanted in connection with the murder of Chacko, a film representative. The case is that Kurup attempted to claim Rs 8 lakh as insurance payout by faking his own death. To make his plan work, Kurup allegedly murdered Chacko, who bore a resemblance to him, burnt the body and tried to convince authorities that he was dead. Two of Kurup's co-accused were convicted for life imprisonment while one was made an approver.

NH 47, directed by Baby, was released in May 1984 just a few months after the murder of Chacko by Kurup. Thirty-two years after the incident, Malayalam's master filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan made ‘Pinneyum’ which, rather surprisingly, was based on the Kurup episode. Half a decade later, Kurup is again on the silver screen - this time in a very glamorous avatar in the Srinath Rajendran film.

There has been no other incident or person in recent history which inspired as many films as Sukumara Kurup did. Variyamkunnath Kunjahammed Haji, from the pre-independence period, would have equalled or even surpassed Kurup had all the films announced about him in the past few months gone on the floor.

The Naxalite movement and its related events could be an exception, but even in those films, the milieu as a whole served the purpose of being plot points.

Kurup, on the other hand, became the protagonist in three distinct films that treated the character in quite contrasting manners.

In NH 47, he is the savage villain. In Pinneyum, he is the sinned protagonist, and in Kurup he is the flamboyant anti-hero.

Dulquer Salmaan in 'Kurup' (left) and TG Ravi in 'NH47'

In the first film, he is despised, in the second he is sympathised with and in the third, he is celebrated. The three films are extremely different from one another not just in terms of genre, plot and scale, but also in the sense of justice they portray.

Sudhakaran Pillai of NH 47 and crowd justice
Baby, the director of the 1978 horror hit Lisa, must have been lucky enough to have got NH 47 executed within four months of the Chacko murder that shocked Kerala. It would be quite reasonable to assume that a number of other filmmakers of the time would have brainstormed much to translate the cold-blooded crime into film reels.

A sensational crime is always fodder for fiction. One could remember here that two films were announced immediately after news of the Koodathayi serial killings in Kerala in 2019. A TV serial on the same subject had even started airing but had to be shelved following a court intervention. In Bollywood, two films – Talvar and Rahasya – were released in 2015 based on the Arushi-Hemraj twin murder case.

Coming back to NH 47, there was nothing extraordinary about the film either in narrative or aesthetics. It was just another mediocre flick made in the age-old popular mould. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a hit because it explored a crime that had just caught the imagination of the public. Pappanamcode Lakshamanan, the voracious writer who has penned 10 scripts and dialogues for 49 films, did not go for any experiment with NH 47. He said the story as it was known to all from news reports, in a linear narrative laced with all the mandatory elements of a popular flick like right doses of action, melodrama, stock comedy, songs and even a disco number.

Known for his body language and style of dialogue delivery, TG Ravi played some of the biggest villain roles in Malayalam cinema.

Sukumara Kurup became Sudhakaran Pillai in NH 47. T G Ravi, who played notoriety personified on the screen, essayed the role. The cruelty exuded by his earlier characters made him the perfect pick for playing the real-life villain. Chacko, the victim in Kurup's scheme of crime, became Rahim, a medical representative, in the film. Sukumaran played the role. Kurup had been on the run for a little more than three months when the film was released. Its makers employed their imagination to wrap the case in the easiest way. Sudhakaran Pillai turns up at his lawyer's house and tells him a secret that he played the dirty game to get a hefty sum he had managed to swindle from a racket he had been involved with. He promises to pay a huge amount to the lawyer if he could save him from the case. The lawyer refuses to take up his case even as a sub-inspector Johnson (Lalu Alex) barges into the scene. A pretty long chase follows. In the end, a crowd stones and beats Pillai to death.

NH 47 kindled and validated the collective sense of justice that a criminal like Kurup had to be mob-lynched. The film reasserted its motive with the crowd bravely yelling at the police that 'we did it'. The film was only an easy and natural outcome of the Sukumara Kurup days when the cruel and greedy expat was expected to land in the police net anytime.

Adoor's tryst with the Kurup motif
In 1984, the year Kurup became the real and reel life villain, Adoor was working on Mukhamukham, his fourth feature film. The film, about a disillusioned communist, was set in the early 1950s and late 1960s. Adoor, who always looks into the past for his stories, might have scoffed the idea of a film on Kurup when the whole world around him was buzzing with the killer's stories. It took him another three decades to feel the urge to bring onto the big screen his version of the Kurup motif. By then, Kurup had become the past and part of history – a prerequisite for an Adoor film.

Dileep in Pinneyum
Dileep in Pinneyum

To the surprise of many, Adoor picked Dileep, known for his slapstick heroes, to play the lead in Pinneyum. In Adoor's hands, Kurup took the shape of Purushothaman Nair, an educated unemployed youth, when the film begins. His fortunes turn around as he gets a job in the Gulf. The film goes on to show how he plotted the murder of an innocent man to fake his own death and claim the insurance money. Unlike in the real life Kurup case, Adoor makes his protagonist's father-in-law also complicit in the crime.

Adoor's real interests in the film do not lie in the portrayal of the crime or the investigation into it. Adoor, who believes in the sublime form and goals of his art, tries to explore the inner conflicts of the protagonist with the film.

His protagonist loses his face literally as he undergoes plastic surgery to evade the cops. He takes his own life as he finds no meaning in continuing with an identity even he is unsure of. The Adoor film looks at Kurup as a man who sinned and who eventually has to repent his wrongdoing with his own life. Wasn't it just another movie version of the Biblical warning that 'the wages of sin is death'?

No matter how intriguing the ideas sound, the fact is that Pinneyum turned out to be a lacklustre film for some critics, who saw in it a pale shadow of the master craftsman's earlier works.

Indrajith Sukumaran and Lalu Alex in 'Kurup' and 'NH47' respectively.

Cut to November, 2021. Kurup is cheered all over the theatres in Kerala by Dulquer Salmaan fans. Kurup is presented as a charming conman in the latest celluloid version of the fugitive's life. He is stylish, exuberant and ambitious. He is the absolute anti-hero who shows no remorse about his crimes.

Unlike Baby or Adoor, who looked at their protagonists with anger and contempt respectively, the makers of Kurup are evidently in the awe of their 'hero'. They let a smart and sincere police officer chase their protagonist too close. They even make him believe that he has served justice to the victim's family. However, in Kurup, he is the one who has the last laugh, just as expected from a film tailored to be a mass entertainer. He does not believe that he killed someone. To him, it was only a ritualistic sacrifice he had to perform to pursue his dreams.

The Kurup crew kept telling in their pre-release interviews that the film does not intend to glorify a criminal. They even managed to convince the family of Chacko about that. Well, the fact is that Kurup ends up celebrating the fugitive, placing his fictional avatar on a pedestal, if not glorifying him. Is it right to do so when the kith and kin of his victim are alive? That's an ethical question better left to philosophers since it holds little scope in the realm of commercial cinema.

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