Kuttavum Shikshayum movie review: Tension-ridden, unconventional police procedural cum travelogue 

Kuttavum Shikshayum is an unusual film within the universe of police procedurals, led by Rajeev Ravi's purposeful storytelling

Anna MM Vetticad May 30, 2022 11:42:06 IST


Language: Malayalam  

In most popular police dramas across the world, glamorous-looking uniformed personnel dash about town in their smart attire, looking cool as they pose around with guns, solving crimes at lightning speed while also finding time for cracking repartee. Malayalam cinema in particular has for decades now been pre-occupied with police sagas in which a male protagonist’s shiny shoes, branded sunglasses and swag have starring roles, as do speed and over-the-top dialogues.

Kuttavum Shikshayum (Crime and Punishment) is not glamorous, and firearms are confined to cameos in the plot. It is about the drudgery of police work, the painstaking probes, the laborious pursuit of tiny clues that sometimes lead somewhere but often nowhere, mistakes missed by a hair’s breadth and some that are not, and the psychological burdens borne. 

Written by Sibi Thomas and Sreejith Divakaran, director Rajeev Ravi’s Kuttavum Shikshayum is, we are told, based on true events. 

If you are looking for contrived melodrama, you won’t find it here. But in the second half, as I watched Kuttavum Shikshayum stride unrelentingly towards its climax – stride, not run – I swear the tension was a tangible, pulsating living being. “Please don’t, please don’t, please don’t,” I found myself muttering under my breath at one point, for fear that Circle Inspector Sajan Philip (Asif Ali) would repeat a grievous error he had committed in the past. If a film can get you to care so much about a character, you know it has done its job well. 

Kuttavum Shikshayum movie review Tensionridden unconventional police procedural cum travelogue 

A still from Kuttavum Shikshayum

Kuttavum Shikshayum begins with a flashback to Sajan’s error, then fast forwards to the CI investigating a jewellery store theft. Among his team members are a veteran named Basheer (Alencier Ley Lopez), Rajesh (Sunny Wayne) and Abin (Sharafudheen). 

Sajan & Co follow several leads before one leads them out of their home state, Kerala, to a village in a remote north Indian location where they face cultural differences, language barriers, skeletal facilities, an enigmatic colleague and criminals who enjoy their community’s support.

Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Churuli (2021) featured policemen making a similar journey from home to hostile territory, but it was allegorical and fantastical. This film is matter of fact. 

Police procedurals are not a highly frequented genre in Malayalam cinema, but the few films that have ventured in that direction have by and large been commendable. One of the best from recent years is Abrid Shine’s Action Hero Biju (2016) starring Nivin Pauly. Shine’s film followed one policeman through a number of his cases over a certain period. Kuttavum Shikshayum maintains a singular focus on one case and in that sense is more akin to the recent Salute starring Dulquer Salmaan as a policeman in pursuit of a serial killer over a considerable stretch of time. Salute was more about the protagonist than Rajeev Ravi’s film is though.  

Kuttavum Shikshayum movie review Tensionridden unconventional police procedural cum travelogue 

Asif Ali in a still from Kuttavum Shikshayum

Part of the enjoyment of Kuttavum Shikshayum comes from its business-like treatment of police work and the primary characters. We are told little about Sajan & Co’s personal lives, apart from a trauma that Sajan is struggling with and a glimpse of Rajesh’s wife who creates funny Tik Tok videos. With limited information, the skilful writing ensures that these men come alive as flesh-and-blood creatures through their functioning on the job, inviting us into their world. (Aside: Basheer makes a passing remark about his name that is inexplicable since Islamophobia is on the rise in north India whereas his words imply the opposite.

As long as the script focuses on the tedium and stress involved in Sajan’s case, it is impeccable. Rajeev Ravi is known for a low-on-frills approach to direction, but with Kuttavum Shikshayum, he and editor Ajithkumar B. redefine minimalism. Their narrative style accompanied by Dawn Vincent’s discreet yet stress-inducing background score and the on-point acting builds up more suspense than noise and extravagance ever could. 

Although the film might have benefited from giving at least some of the villagers in north India the life and breath that the writing gives the policemen, at least they are not tarred as evil sans qualifiers. Sajan and his colleagues are pointedly informed that the community is antagonistic to outsiders because they deeply resent the utter neglect of their area by the authorities.

Where Kuttavum Shikshayum blunders is in appearing to advocate for the police as a whole. No doubt there are honest folk who are frustrated with the indifferent system they operate in, but police corruption and prejudice are widespread enough for it to be questionable when a film leaves us with needless closing comments by a character that have the effect of shining a gentle light on the Kerala force in general. A lawyer named in that conversation is probably an activist who fights for detainees from oppressed communities wrongly accused by policemen who are not as trustworthy as Sajan and his colleagues – the fleeting mention ends up glossing over the complexities at hand. 

There is only one woman of some significance in the script – a female Superintendent of Police. Given this fact, the writing of the remaining women – all of them satellite characters – is odd. Rajesh’s wife is treated as a distraction, while the rest are intimidating and pose a threat to the good Malayali male police at the centre of this story. Is a point being made here? Or was this aspect of the scripting just not thought through?

Kuttavum Shikshayum movie review Tensionridden unconventional police procedural cum travelogue 

Kuttavum Shikshayum is a police procedural cum crime thriller that doubles up as a travelogue. DoP Suresh Rajan effectively contrasts clear bright frames of verdant Kerala with the dusty brown of the region Sajan & Co visit in the Hindi belt. In doing so, he conveys not just the extreme differences in landscapes across India at a literal level, but also the sense of alienness that these Kerala policemen feel in the north, and the reality that India is many nations within one. This brings to mind how out of place Mammootty and his squad felt in Chhattisgarh in the brilliant Unda. In a scene at a police station, Kuttavum Shikshayum also seems to be testing how far viewer bias will dictate viewer expectations by purposely playing on the southern Indian view of northerners as being uncultured and lawless. Introspect in retrospect. Clever.  

Kuttavum Shikshayum is especially accurate with its mix of languages. In recent weeks, I have spoken repeatedly of the embarrassing tendency among Malayalam filmmakers to stick out-of-context, badly constructed Hindi and English lines into their films (read my reviews of 12th Man and Keedam). Here, Rajeev Ravi and the writers place each language in spaces where they are likely to be heard in real life, and each is spoken in the way those characters actually would (note Basheer Ikka’s pronunciation of “alibi”). While Hindi majoritarianism and supremacism are very much the reality in India, there do exist individuals like the Hindi bhaashi policeman in Kuttavum Shikshayum who speaks a couple of Malayalam words to indicate his warmth to the visitors from Kerala, and his gesture makes for an endearing moment in the film. 

Kuttavum Shikshayum is unusual within the universe of police procedurals. Rajeev Ravi is as purposeful in his storytelling as Sajan and his men are in their investigation. Without any sound and fury, the film manages to be a scary, edge-of-the-seat thriller. For those interested in police practices, this is unconventional yet exciting cinema. 

Rating: 3.25 (out of 5 stars) 

This review was first published when Kuttavum Shikshayum was released in theatres in May 2022. The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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, Facebook: AnnaMMVetticadOfficial

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