Dulquer Salmaan uses his looks and charm not to make us like the lead, but to establish him as a deceptively likeable and restless rascal, a smooth operator who can worm his way into anyone’s affections.
It goes without saying that Kurup is speculative. This biopic of one of India’s most wanted criminals, Sukumara Kurup, winds its way through chapters of the man’s life about which there is little or no public record. The crime that put him on the map took place in 1984, but director Srinath Rajendran travels back to a time well before that in the 1960s when the protagonist in his youth began showing early signs of his penchant for deception, and stays with him much after, making sensational, even amusingly outlandish, assumptions about his deeds while on the run.
The real Sukumara Kurup is accused of having murdered a man and faked his own death to claim insurance in the 1980s. The scenes in Kurup covering the horrific actions that got him on the police’s radar are neatly handled. This was not a dreaded gangster, but a regular chap who did something terrible. That is perhaps why he has captured the imagination of both the public and filmmakers, the last one being none other than Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner Adoor Gopalakrishnan whose Pinneyum (Malayalam, 2016) was loosely inspired by Sukumara Kurup’s story.
Pinneyum worked in parts, but Kurup has greater clarity in its assessment of the protagonist’s character. The casting of the hero contributes considerably to that clarity. Dulquer Salmaan – also the film’s producer – is blessed with more handsomeness than any single human being should be allowed to monopolise in a just world. He uses his looks and charm not to make us like the lead, but to establish him as a deceptively likeable and restless rascal, a smooth operator who can worm his way into anyone’s affections, tell a bare-faced lie without a flicker of an eyelid, reveal little about himself to most people and change colours in an instant. This would explain why so many people risked so much to help him escape the law.
He is not all black and white, but a fellow with shades of gray, as we realise when we see him try to exert his class and caste privilege over a young woman (Sobhita Dhulipala), but back off when she challenges him. The question before the newspaper-reading public in real life is: is Sukumara Kurup dead or alive?
The film adds a lot more to the lore surrounding Kurup.
Srinath Rajendran takes us through his leading man’s brief stint with the Indian Air Force as a youngster and an oil company in the Gulf region. In a bid to reveal information about Kurup only in increments, the script ends up taking surprisingly long – almost an hour – to get to the point. It is the director’s good fortune that he has such a charismatic cast (Dulquer, Indrajith Sukumaran playing the policeman who spent years hunting for Kurup, and a personable Sunny Wayne as the central character’s IAF colleague) to hold viewer through this dry first half filled with needless embellishments including one in which Dulquer metamorphoses into a stage performer – the song he sings is fun, but the scene itself is strangely conceived and feels contrived. When the film finally picks up, it becomes gripping, as new pieces are added to the puzzle and a clear picture gradually, very gradually, emerges of what exactly happened that fateful night when a man was murdered simply to assuage another man’s greed.
After that once again, the director opts for too many broad brush strokes over specifics, but not so much as to make the film entirely uninteresting.
Kurup is not a great film, but it is definitely an entertaining one with attractive visuals, music, production design and period costumes to boot. To make the grade as great, it needed to be more compact, fix that over-stretched opening hour along with its superfluous elements and, among other things, to better handle the multiple languages in the narrative as it travels from Kerala to Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere. Instead, the mix never becomes a convincing blend. The use of English and Hindi in particular are awkward because the English lines are poorly written and the Hindi comes often from actors who are clearly not accustomed to the language but are meant to sound as if they are.
This is an ambitious, multi-strand saga with aspirations to Malik-grade grandeur and scale, but without the finesse or detailing to match up to Mahesh Narayanan’s vision. Nevertheless, it has just enough flesh to draw us into the life of an individual who has eluded the law for over three decades and cast members (including the wonderful Surabhi Lakshmi and Tovino Thomas in significant roles) who elevate the film beyond where the writing takes it.
Kurup is playing in theatres.
(Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad)