Whenever two very similar films land up very close to one another, we do something very unfair. We tend to compare one with the other. We also tend to choose one over the other. The history of cinema is filled with examples of such films, but let's look at examples over just the past few decades. Like Father, Like Son or Big? 1492: Conquest of Paradise or Christopher Columbus: The Discovery? The Jungle Book or Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle? Deep Impact or Armageddon? Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line? Okay, in the last case, I'll cheat and say "both", but in the battle of the recent psycho-killer thrillers in Malayalam, I'd pick Akhil Paul-Anas Khan's Forensic — any day — over Midhun Manuel Thomas's Anjaam Pathiraa.
The latter was widely celebrated (and a big hit, I hear), but I found it weakly written. There were minor genre pleasures, to be sure — but the film was safe and predictable and it never rose above "watchable" for me. Plus, there was a wannabe-ness that I found very off-putting. Forensic, on the other hand, is far less interested in being "cool", and thus, it ends up being far more focussed. It's interesting comparing the two films not just because they are both serial-killer thrillers, but also because their screenplays contain similar elements: like a prelude (or prologue) that may or may not be significant in terms of what's to come.
In Anjaam Pathiraa, the prelude is used merely to set up the profession of the protagonist, played by Kunchacko Boban. Forensic uses its prelude less… directly. There's an opening note: A psychopath's crime has no motive. Crime itself is his motive. But could there be other factors at play? Let's say you are a little boy and your father takes you to the local butcher to buy some meat. The butcher chops the head off a chicken and hands it to your father. Where there was a flapping chicken, there's now blood. There are bits of meat. Something about the scene rivets you. Maybe you even collect these chicken heads and store them under your bed, and then your father finds out… The opening stretch of Forensic is the best argument for veganism since Bong Joon-ho's Okja.
Anjaam Pathiraa supporters will probably claim that that film, too, depicts childhood trauma. But there, it's the one point where everything converges to produce a "neat" story. Forensic is less obvious, more diffuse. A little girl goes missing. This is another beautifully imagined stretch. The girl is with her older sister at a dance school. The sister likes a boy. Her giggly friends tease her. A casually choreographed mating ritual ensues, one that ends with the exchange of phone numbers. But when the sister's attention snaps back to the here and now, she looks around for her sibling, who is nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, her body is. A cop, Rithika (Mamta Mohandas), is assigned to the case.
Here's another similarity. In Anjaam Pathiraa, too, we had a female investigator (Unnimaya Prasad). The male lead is called on to help, and he slowly emerges as the driving force behind the investigation. In Forensic, the Kunchacko Boban duties are handed over to Tovino Thomas, who plays a medico-legal advisor named Samuel. Forensic really lives up to its title. There is a lot of diligent forensic work, and not just someone having an "instinct". The latter is the kind of thing that works well in big star vehicles, but Samuel is just a character, who happens to do starry things like fight off a captor in a vehicle that's hidden deep in a forest. (It's a nicely done action scene.) In other words, the film is aware that it has a big male star but it's also secure enough to not let him become too much of a muscle-flexing star. It's more brain, less brawn.
Some will, of course, snigger that Samuel is so amazing in the brain department that it almost becomes a kind of brawn, shoving aside the very need for Rithika, who, after a point, barely contributes anything to the case, like her counterpart in Anjaam Pathiraa. But that's the premise and I bought it — because of the extra friction between Samuel and Rithika. There's more to chew on. If Anjaam Pathiraa chose to follow a single timeline in the present and save its big reveal for a Shankar-style flashback, Forensic keeps juggling expertly between two tracks in the present. There are the murders, of course. (The serial killer has a thing for little girls.) There's also the friction between Rithika and Samuel, which isn't just professional. There's some weird history there, and it adds to the film's texture.
Mamta Mohandas and Tovino Thomas are both very good. Their performances are filled with small, sharp gestures. They allow the mood and the writing — not their acting — to carry the melodrama. (Kunchacko Boban, I thought, was solid. But as a performer, he just didn't have much to bite into.) A third, smaller track soon emerges, with Renji Panicker — it turns out to be a bit of commentary. What if someone is accused of murder and then declared innocent. Can he glue back the pieces of his shattered life? I was moved by this question, which took me out of the movie and into the real world, where instant judgements on social media are the norm. Forensic doesn't offer a resolution, but sometimes, just the fact that a film makes you think is enough. It's more potent than any message.
And the big reveal is… a bummer!
Another similarity between the two films: the thoroughly underwhelming final stretch. I bought the solid interval twist in Forensic, and the screenplay keeps you guessing about the killer. But oh, the end! But I appreciated the fact that, unlike Anjaam Pathiraa, there is no attempt to shoehorn a "hot-button issue", so that we sit up and say virtuous things like "Oh, look what an important subject this film is talking about!" Forensic is practical, rooted, grounded. I did wonder if the police department in a small city would have access to the complicated and expensive-looking equipment that Samuel uses, but I was so into the investigation that none of this mattered after a point. A bit around the golden foil wrapper of a chocolate bar is the kind of aha! moment you go to these thrillers for — the quasi-existential reminder that we leave traces of ourselves in everything we touch.
But back to the big reveal in Forensic. It's the serial-killer movie equivalent of that scene in a James Bond film where the megalomaniac villain, instead of shooting down Bond, decides he should give Bond (and the audience) a long story about his motives and methods. It's a hell of a talkathon, and after it ended, I wasn't even sure it all added up. The other aspect that made me wince was the sight of little girls in rooms filled with blood and gore. Yes, it's all "acting" and Mama or Papa was probably on the set, waiting with chocolate treats between shots — but think back to the boy at the beginning of the film, who becomes fascinated by the blood in a butcher's shop. It's not quite the same thing, but if we are talking about our surroundings influencing us in our formative years… As I said earlier, Forensic makes you think, and that's more than what I could say about Anjaam Pathiraa.