On a rainy night in Bengaluru, a cab driver gets stabbed. The killer and the victim are in the car and the camera only shows the latter’s struggles. We don’t know who the murderer is. This is, after all, a whodunit, so what’s the point in revealing the killer’s identity in the opening minutes?
Birbal Trilogy – Case No. 1: Finding Vajramuni, the first movie in the three part series, doesn’t waste time in setting up its story. The guy who reports the murder gets framed – a nasty twist of fate, if you will – but how are all the evidences stacked against him? Raghavan (Madhusudhan Rao), the police officer who arrives at the crime scene, finds a knife in Vishnu’s (Vineeth Kumar) two-wheeler and concludes that he has murdered the driver and called the police station to not arouse any suspicion.
Rao has starred as a villain in more than a dozen films. Hence, his presence isn’t a red herring. He’s the quintessential bad egg in the police department, and Vishnu was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Thrillers, in Indian cinema, do not apply force on the quality of red herrings much. The importance of misleading the audience, or the characters themselves, is an idea that has been overlooked on the big screen, but Birbal uses it pretty well as each major character holds a secret. Just when Mahesh (M. G. Srinivas, also the director) discovers the loopholes in Vishnu’s case and tries to make progress, he learns that the innocent guy, who’s out on parole after being jailed for eight years, has given a confession to the judge. Is there anything else he might be hiding?
Apart from uncovering Raghavan’s evil nature in the first half hour, the film doesn’t introduce us to newer chapters. Mahesh and Shastry (Sujay Shastry) have all the time in the world to crack silly jokes and this only irks the former’s girlfriend, Janhavi (Rukmini Vasanth). These scenes don’t take the energy out of Birbal, but they, nevertheless, shift the focus from the central plot. There’s a sub-story too, about the materialistic comforts that Janhavi wishes for, and about a good fifteen minutes are spent on developing this thread. These unnecessary indulgences, along with the ‘Ragini Madam’ song, decrease the pace of the narrative.
Srinivas, who’s written the story and screenplay, as well, allows us to see the main incident from Vishnu’s eyes. The Rashomon Effect, even if not used to its fullest extent, makes a cameo appearance as the murder is examined from different angles. This is a film, where the protagonist and his subordinates – Janhavi and Shastry – play criminal lawyers, but it’s set outside the court house. But for a scene where Mahesh asks for some more time to prove Vishnu’s innocence, the “action” mostly takes place within the four walls.
There’s a particular scene that I quite enjoyed. When Mahesh, Janhavi, and Shastry discuss the methods to bring down the number of witnesses from three digits to a single-digit on a sidewalk, a stranger eavesdrops on the conversations and offers a simple solution. This is the sort of humor that works in this movie; not Shastry’s comments on everything he sees and feels.
I don’t think there’d have been any difference if Mahesh had played a cop. He could have still dusted off the old files and reopened the case. However, he wouldn’t have gotten the chance to shame Raghavan by saying that advocates are a cut above the police officers. Anyway, a wall full of pictures and details related to the case, an alibi that gets killed midway, the inefficiency of the police department, and an ending that deserves a whistle are all neatly packed into this thriller.
Birbal is 2019’s first big Kannada release and I can say that the year has begun on a positive note. Chewing on Mahesh’s findings was fun indeed!