ANATOMY OF A GOOD WHODUNIT
Whodunits (or murder mysteries) immediately bring to mind the name of Agatha Christie and by association, western cinema. Of the numerous online articles I went through, while looking for recommendations, an overwhelming majority dealt with Hollywood classics or foreign language cinema. Within India, the pride of place was occupied by Bollywood.
Partly because of this and partly because of my reluctance to venture out of my comfort zone, I am dealing only with murder mystery movies in South Indian cinema and what I personally feel makes for a great whodunit. Also, the article is almost entirely spoilers!
Antagonist introduced earlier- If we go by the formal definition of a whodunit, the murderer should be hiding in plain sight. When discovered, the audience should ideally go ‘Why didn’t I think of him (or her)?’ Now while rules are meant to be broken, I find it disappointing when the murderer is an entirely new character, introduced only in the final scene, with a storyline and history that we have to believe at first sight.
Which is where movies like Grandmaster, Forensic, Penguin and Amar Akbar Anthony score brownie points, though the antagonists in some of these films hardly get any screen space before the big reveal. From the Tamil industry, that has produced the maximum number of thrillers in South India, movies like Vellai Pookal, 100, Dhruvangal Pathinaaru and Kaalidas followed this formula to a T. Rangi Taranga (Kannada), and Krishna Rao Supermarket and Mathu Vadalara (Telugu) are other examples.
Plus points if hero himself is murderer- Uurgh, I love this plot twist! The audience might feel hoodwinked when the person we were rooting for turns out to be the baddie but it just goes to show that you can’t trust anyone at all (coincidentally, a guiding principle for Miss Marple, another of Christie’s famous detective characters).
For this reason, props to movies like Mumbai Police, Dhruvangal Pathinaaru, Munnariyippu, Aa Okkadu and Kuttrame Thandanai . The punch to the gut at the end is an absolute delight for a viewer like me.
Even less likely a suspect than the hero is the female lead, especially when she is a damsel in distress. Evaru (Telugu) is one of the finest murder mysteries made in recent times, and a big reason for that is the shock value of the climax. Puriyatha Puthir and Nishabdam are another instances of the filmmaker exploiting this flaw in our collective thinking.
Psycho killers are cool but please don’t overdo it- The mentally disturbed murderer is an evergreen favourite among directors seeking to make a whodunit. Understandably so; it provides a lot of scope to show gruesome murders, body chopping, screaming, ominous music and societal flaws – 90% of the time, it’s the people around them that cause our antagonist to lose his/her mind.
However, in an attempt to enhance the ‘psycho-ness’, many movies tend to overemphasize their weirdness or mental problems. Exaggerated dialogues, dramatic laughter and eccentric mannerisms are stretched so much that the villain’s character arc pivots from menacing to caricaturish. But movies like Anjaam Pathira, Ratsachan, Yuddham Sei and Munnariyippu bucked this practice. And some of the most frightening characters seen on screen were in Mysskin movies such as Psycho and Thupaarivaalan, where they had minimal lines and a cool demeanour.
Women antagonists- Though fast turning into another favourite trope, a woman villain is still a rarity in male-dominated plots. Even when they appear, the force of old habits causes many directors to show them as helpless females who lose control and commit a crime on the spur of the moment. They are also guilt-stricken about it, break down when discovered and readily accept their mistakes (think Vellai Pookal, Anweshanam, Nerariyan CBI, Hit – The First Case and Kaalidas; maybe even Puriyatha Puthir).
I would like to see more ruthless and strong female antagonists who are as unapologetic and scheming as their male counterparts. Examples of such a character can be seen in Evaru, Penguin, Nadiya Kollapetta Rathri, Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya and Thuppaarivaalan (Andreah). Though not morally acceptable, the ladies knew what they wanted and they went for it.
More thinking, less action- Most of the time, OTT platforms or articles just club everything under the generic title of ‘thrillers’. But whodunits are different from action thrillers or suspense thrillers and should be treated as a separate category. They demand the hero (and us) to deploy our thinking skills and not just rely on brawn to find the culprit.
I absolutely love the Sethurama Iyer CBI movies due to this reason; Mammootty is a genius but not a condescending one. He makes sure he, his team and the audience are on the same page, think as one and find the same clues.
Other movies that fall under this category are Mumbai Police, Anjaam Pathira, Joseph, V1, Dhruvangal Pathinaaru and Silence.
There is more than one culprit- In the movie Anjaam Pathira, Indrans, playing the role of a convicted serial killer, tells the visiting psychologist that the real hunter is one who can convince his prey that the hunt has ended when actually, it has not. In whodunits too, this is the ultimate sleight of hand a director can employ – we get a killer, he confesses to his crime...but wait a minute, he did not commit the specific crime we are looking into. Such a delightful treachery! Movies such as Penguin, Imaikaa Nodigal, Amar Akbar Anthony, V1 and Forensic employed this method perfectly.
Fresh motive- For decades, the reasons for whodunits remained the same- spurned love, revenge or crimes of passion. It was quite recently that mental disorders were included in this list, though the reason for such disorders could usually be traced back to the aforementioned ones.
Off late, medical scams are being introduced as a reason behind serial killings in movies. Examples include Joseph, Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya,Thegidi and Kuttram 23. Apart from this, Thupaarivaalan saw the talented Mysskin bringing in a purely business angle as a motive for murders, making the entire premise much more chilling. It was also a refreshing change when a supernatural element (like in U-Turn and Alidu Ulidavaru) or a sci-fi touch (like in Mayavaan) was brought into the story.
Flawed or impaired heroes- Such a character has become quite popular in recent times; personally, it gives me hope that one needn’t be a kickboxing, insanely fit superhero with the IQ of Einstein to beat an evil genius. Look at the lead characters in Memories, Mumbai Police, Penguin, Hit, V1 and Nibunan – they beat severe physical or psychological problems to defeat their adversary. The movie Psycho took it even further – both the protagonists were seriously physically impaired; one was blind and the other was paralysed from the waist down (this Mysskin I tell you!).
New styles of storytelling – I am not qualified enough to discuss the merits and demerits of cinematic devices but there are times when even an uninformed viewer like me knows what I am seeing is special. Like when each different possibility or theory of how the crime took place is shot and shown on screen (like in Evaru). Or when the hero’s thought process is shown as an actual sequence (like in Mathu Vadalara, Karma or Kavaludaari. In the latter, there is a dream sequence of sorts in which other characters give voice to the thoughts or reasonings of the protagonist). Kavaludaari is also interesting because our guy has to investigate a decades-old crime as opposed to a recent one. Another great way to confuse the audience is to show two plots whose timelines are actually separate but we believe them to be one (Vellai Pookal) or the other way round (Brochevaruvara – not a whodunit though). Or the reverse crime technique – we accompany the murderer as he expertly covers the traces of his crime, as was seen in the blockbuster hit Drishyam and the critically acclaimed Naan.
These movies are comparatively recent; it was a conscious decision to stick to the certain timeline to avoid being overwhelmed. However, fans of whodunits should explore Malayalam movies in the 80s that focused on this genre - there are some absolute gems to be found there. Happy watching!