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Purusha Pretham: Un-haunted By The Ghosts Of Police Procedurals Past

Aavasavyuham director Krishand’s latest is a neo-noir satire featuring hardboiled cops, a dead man, a chastened femme fatale, and dramatic voiceovers. Neelima Menon writes.

Purusha Pretham: Un-haunted By The Ghosts Of Police Procedurals Past
Detail from the poster for Purusha Pretham
  • Team OTTplay

Last Updated: 08.55 AM, Mar 25, 2023

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IF Krishand’s The Arbit Documentation of An Amphibian Hunt: Aavasavyuham (2022) was a blend of mockumentary, ecological fantasy and satire, his new film — Purusha Pretham — can be termed a neo-noir satire that also works as a police procedural. There are case-hardened male leads, a dead man, a chastened femme fatale, and dramatic voiceovers that are very effective.

Purusha Pretham is set in the wetlands of Kochi, with its expansive backwaters and pastures, much like Aavasavyuham . At the centre of the narrative is a police station and its assorted hard-boiled cops, for whom grappling with the oddities of the dead and the living has turned humdrum. When a dead man’s body washes in on the backwaters, their instinctive response — which comes from years of working with human remains and having to plunge into the investigative routine — is weariness. The routineness cannot be more drily depicted than when the cops hope for the corpse to float into their neighbourhood jurisdiction. So you have a local diener earning a hero’s welcome for fishing the corpse out of the water. The plot picks up momentum when a woman, Susanna (Darshana Rajendran) claims that the dead man — whose remains have already been buried by the cops — was her husband; however, the grave itself is now discovered to be empty.

The procedural also cleaves the hierarchy and the other side of the system we aren’t privy to. You have SI Sebastian alias Super Sebastian (Prasanth Alexander) who has a reputation that precedes him. He is morose, egoistic, verbally abusive, spins tales about his valiant exploits to his colleagues and is openly contemptuous towards his ageing subordinate Dileep (Jagadish). But Sebastian is as much a victim of this vicious system as Dileep, which leaves no room for weakness. At home, you are witness to a lonely man who cooks breakfast and quietly listens to the volley of profanities thrown his way by his ailing mother. Sebastian has this odd fondness for orange juice, which is often used as a desperate attempt to throw his weight around at work. While his relationship with Sujatha (Devaki Rajendran) initially comes from a position of power, it gradually progresses into a deeper and more empathetic bond. Sebastian is a chauvinist who judges a woman for standing up for herself; yet, he has no qualms in asking for help from a woman when need be, whilst admitting to his inadequacies. He cries after a lovemaking session but quickly wipes his tears when he starts recounting a daring escapade.

Beyond their universal unpleasantness and egoism, the cops in Purusha Pretham are all struggling to stay afloat in the system. They are portrayed as flawed, ordinary men in khaki who use humour as a shield to stay sane. Their integrity, belief systems and emotional capacity are tested on a daily basis; yet somehow, they survive. Dileep’s humiliation cannot be more eloquent than in the scene where he reluctantly helps the diener to carry the corpse ashore. He is a veteran cop who has seen the ugliest side of his job and has mastered the art of survival. At home, he puts up with his impolite son-in-law and even agrees to take his mother to the doctor. He is cautious in his dealings with Sebastian, but you know it comes from a place of experience rather than respect.

OTHERWISE WEARY TROPES are refurbished with new dimensions for the characters. For instance, Sebastian’s senior is a part-time actor who gets requests for selfies wherever he goes. He is so enamoured by the acting gig that he oversteps his position in order to pull favours for his producer’s son.

Humour flows uninterruptedly. You have a hilarious sequence where Sebastian takes Sujatha to a former jailbird's house to spend some alone time, only to be unexpectedly inundated by the man’s mother and neighbours. Then there is the ambulance driver ferrying a corpse while holding an animated conversation about the going rate for human organs — truly, satire at its best. You have two cops casually comparing the number of corpses they’ve found. When a cop who is assigned to guard unidentified corpses, his colleague tries to cheer him up by insisting that “at least it’s better than lathi charge and stone pelting”. Krishand digs into the nuances and they can be unpleasant: The gloom, the monotony, the negotiation between living and dead — all of it hits you with palpable intensity... Like the almost tangible odour that seems to emanate from the frames whenever the conversation or images drift towards the remains of the dead.

Prasanth Alexander gets the best role of his career yet — and while it is a convincing performance, one wonders if a more experienced actor might have imparted more layers to the character of Sebastian. Dileep is flawlessly handled by Jagadish, proving yet again that there are various facets of his craft that are still unexplored. The strong interplay between Sebastian and Dileep marks Jagadish’s evolution correctly. Unfortunately, Susanna’s depiction as a chastened femme fatale doesn’t have the desired impact as Darshana Rajendran seems miscast. At no point does her character pique interest or empathy. The writing also doesn’t substantiate the character beyond the peripheries.

The police procedural aspects are shown with meticulous precision. However, they are stripped of any intrigue or suspense as Krishand seems to be more invested in his characters than in the story, which tends to meander into subplots now and then. The narrative thus loses steam when it eventually returns to the main thread. This is why the pacing drags after a crisp and engaging first hour, and you get the feeling that the director has overstayed his welcome. Despite the authenticity and spontaneity on display, Purusha Pretham is far too strong a reminder of Aavasavyuham. The deja vu is indeed unmistakable.