Cast: Amala Paul, Riythvika Panneerselvam, Munishkanth, Athulya, Harish Uthaman
Director: Anoop Panicker
Writer: Abhilash Pillai
Streaming On: Disney+ Hotstar
In Anoop Panicker's Cadaver, Amala Paul gets a fantastic introduction sequence. Dressed in cargos, baggy shirt, and horn-rimmed glasses, chief police surgeon Bhadra (Amala Paul) is having her breakfast in the mortuary, even as corpses around her are split open for autopsies. And Michael (Munishkanth), a police inspector in the scene, is more appalled by this, than the morbid remains around him. "Once you realize that you're destined to work at a place like this, you will also start eating here," Bhadra tells him almost mundanely, before washing her hands and resuming work on a corpse. The scene beautifully sets up Bhadra's persona, prodding us to expect a stylistic thriller with no frills attached. But alas, in Cadaver, that's not what you get – at least for the most part.
The Amala Paul production follows the life of Bhadra, as she unwittingly gets entangled in a high-profile murder mystery. When a prominent hospital director from Chennai is brutally attacked and murdered, Assistant Commissioner of Police Vishal (Harish Uthaman) is made in charge and Bhadra's help is sought. Amala's Bhadra exudes a no-nonsense vibe, unsurprisingly too, considering her line of work. But that doesn't mean she is bereft of a punch dialogue or two. Sample this: "Naalu bones kadaicha podhum. Adha vechu ava jadhagathiya naa ezhuthiruven – I can even write a person's horoscope with just four of their bones."
The case gets complicated when Vetri (played sincerely by Arun Adith), a prison inmate fervently claims responsibility for the death and warns of a few more. This sets Vishal and Bhadra on a race against time to solve the case with brain, brawn, and a little bit of forensic magic. With cold hues of blue and green, the film, which unfolds in the scenic hills of Valparai, is lensed tautly. Composer Ranjin Raj provides the film with some needed tension through his fast-paced score and also gives us a lovely Pradeep Kumar and Saindhavi earworm.
As with any whodunit, the film has an age-old plot and conflict. But the makers try to make it stylistic by infusing in it some character. This is achieved by Amala Paul's laudable Bhadra, who is given solid agency in the film, without pandering to conventional tropes of female leads. And so, neither does Bhadra get a romantic interest, nor does she break into song and dance. And full props to the makers for that. The film also features women in powerful positions albeit in small scenes – from a forensic expert who routinely dusts crime scenes for fingerprints and a district collector who signs off on permissions to a judge who gives crucial approval. These scenes feel intentional and inclusive, and are definite small wins at a time when women in Indian films on and off camera have low representation.
While Cadaver does manage to impress with smart nuggets and metaphors – in one gripping sequence, a murder is attempted and blood is shed ironically in a blood donation camp; in another, Biblical references help Bhadra join the dots. But when the film reaches a peak in the intermission, it scurries to tie up the loose ends of its first half. And just like that, the film's no-frills-attached motto is traded for a more conventional vigilante narrative. More characters and histrionic backstories are added to the plot, and just as the case slips through a clueless Vishal's hands, the plot, too, slips. The confused writing soon takes the film from being an informed forensic thriller to an overdone revenge drama.