Cast: Mammootty, Jagathy Sreekumar, Mukesh, Sai Kumar, Soubin Shahir, Dileesh Pothan, Sudev Nair
Director: K. Madhu
Back in 2004, when the CBI Series' third instalment released after a gap of 15 years, the makers may have felt the need to reintroduce Mammootty's legendary character to a new audience. As they say, a new generation of film viewers are born every decade and you understand the logic of handholding them through the intellect of Sethurama Iyer. So we got a mini investigation that doubled up as the character's big hero introduction. In a mass movie, this would mean a capsule action block, usually dished out to an inconsequential villain right before the intro song. But because this series was always about The Brain, the intro needed to show you just how smart he was even when he's dealing with the most everyday crime. I don't exactly remember the entire sequence but there was this brilliance in the way Sethurama Iyer used a stick to solve the mystery of stolen money from a temple donation box. Within the first five minutes, you knew everything you needed to know even if this was your first CBI movie.
Fast forward to 2022 and there's a lot that has changed for the new Mammootty fan. Internet and memes have kept Sethurama Iyer relevant and there's no longer the need to tell you about the man and his big throbbing brain. What this has done is free writer SN Swamy to jump straight into a major case that is said to have challenged this mastermind. It's an interesting idea where all the hyping is being rationed out to one fascinating case rather than the superstar that solved it. It's also a cheeky way to remind the audience that the film they're about to watch requires complete attention, albeit without the hope of much service towards the fans.
Even so, it feels so energising to hear Jakes Bejoy's remastered version of Shyam's 'CBI Theme' playing over the opening credits. The character is the closest we will ever get to our Sherlock Holmes and you realise just how much nostalgia is riding on this franchise and the characters that inhabit them. Which is to say that it just hits different when you see Mukesh on screen as Chacko from this universe as opposed to his other characters. This is even more obvious in the way we feel a gush of emotions when the beloved Jagathy Sreekumar returns as Vikram to give us the film's best stretch. Even during his limited screentime, there's the feeling of home when he appears on screen as though he belongs there, always.
This speaks a lot about the investigation at its core when you come off remembering certain characters more than what they contribute to the screenplay. The main case file that gets reopened here is called the 'Basket Killings', a series of four to five murders that begins with the death of a minister aboard a flight from Delhi. And as with any previous CBI film, the first half here too is a dump of information to set up the crime scene(s), the people involved and a whole bunch of possible convicts.
Naturally, this also includes a fair share of red herrings with deceptively confusing close-ups that are designed to throw you off. Without lighter moments or relief, the writing here is clinical with one piece of information leading to the next. You understand the need for this approach because this case is being explained to a new crop of IPS trainees during their orientation. And because the case itself is being referred to in hindsight, there's really no room for anything else but the investigation itself.
But this also leads to a heady situation of the TMI. There's an information overload soon with too many things being revealed too quickly and all in the form of dialogues. Even the crimes are revealed plainly without leaving us with any lasting visuals and this runs the risk of draining any urgency to arrive at the criminals—one of the most important factors for us to stay invested.
What makes the film even harder to hold on to the flatness in the staging. With so many scenes set inside the CBI office with officers discussing the case with each other, it feels like a true-crime podcast would have sufficed to tell the same story.
Another factor that keeps the investigation at arms length is the way it never lets you feel like you have a chance at arriving at an answer. A great crime novel deceives you into thinking you're just one clue away from finding the murderer. But in CBI 5 the film keeps bringing up so much information that it feels like they're just shifting the goal post instead of building a solid defence. This is what I missed most because the earlier films always left you with the satisfying feeling of participating in the investigation yourself with your own theories and suggestions. But over here, the film keeps tying itself into so many knots that it doesn't matter who was behind the crimes.
Of course, it doesn't come as a surprise when you're not even close to guessing who did it because there's no way we could have known. Although there's a lot of posturing about how clever everyone is arrive at this, one doesn't really understand how talented the IPS students are if they've never heard of the final reveal until their orientation, despite how sensational it is made out to be.
It also doesn't help how the Internet has also made viewers more aware of the problematic images the film keeps flashing. Most of the members in Sethurama Iyer's core group of talented investigators are shown to be from dominant castes (the only Christian is shown to be a mole) and there's the repeated image of greyer characters eating meat as though their non vegetarianism contributes to their wickedness. And with so many characters getting introduced to get abandoned soon after, you never really understand where they stand in the larger scheme of things. It's as though they were there just to confuse and this could easily have been avoided when the case is being narrated to these trainees.
With these issues, CBI 5 is at best an underwhelming experience without the cleverness of its predecessors. In its effort to shock you with the final twist, it forgets that it should still matter to us when we get there.