Cast: Dulquer Salmaan, Manoj K Jayan, Diana Penty
Director: Roshan Andrews
It's been nearly 20 years since Bobby-Sanjay wrote their first script and they still seem to have the ability to make their ideas pop almost as soon as we start watching the film. Even if one may end up disliking the complete film or certain parts of it, their films are written around a solid plot-line that almost always justifies its need to be made into a film, except of course that root canal session we once called Confident Cassaannovvaa. So if Kaanekaane was about an adulterer's relationship with his dead ex-wife's father, Notebook was about a teenage pregnancy that gets out of hand. This is to say that you find joy in narrating these plots to a third person rather than describing them simply as a "Mohanlal film" or a "Dulquer film".
Salute, their first "Dulquer film", too comes with a solid premise. It is about SI Arvind Karunakaran (Dulquer Salman) who has to listen to his senior/older brother (Manoj K Jayan) and plant evidence implicating an innocent man. And when they realise that the actual killer is on the run, the morally upright Arvind rejoins the force to make sure the culprit is found, and the innocent freed. For one, it's not even close to the cop thriller you'd come to expect from the film's massy teaser. Except for a pointless fight early on, there's hardly any heroics for the star to appeal to his fanbase.
Instead, the film's noirish atmosphere thrives in his moral ambiguity. With the beats of a coming-of-age drama, we notice the soul of an honest officer gradually rot under the stresses of the hierarchy. In the film's best and most convincing scene, we see Arvind's older brother and senior officer (a miscast Manoj K Jayan) narrating a case where a criminal walked free because the police failed to provide one piece of evidence. It sets the tone for the film and along with Arvind, we too buy into the notion that there's a grey area that's beyond right and wrong when it comes to their job.
Which is the deal with the film's central conflict as well. For the senior officers, it's perhaps the first time that their sneaky modus operandi has failed them. But unlike Arvind, who tries to redeem himself by owning up to his crime, they're too far deep into the filth of their profession to come clean or escape it. It's to the credit of the writers that we also get a character like that of Mahesh's (Shaheen Siddique) who gives you a glimpse of what could have been Arvind's career had he joined the force at a later stage or under a different set of officers.
But because the film's ambitions are two-fold, the film isn't satisfied remaining a thriller about an officer's redemption. It wants to double down on the emotions of an honest younger brother who has to be accountable for the ethics of his older brother too. This makes the film far more complicated because it also adds a dozen new characters, all establishing the family dynamics. Arvind also gets a love interest who has nothing much to do except introduce the concept of a live-in to a traditional Malayali joint family setting.
What this does is keep one part of the film interesting because it's also about a faceless, nameless criminal who needs to be found. Yet on the other side, we get flat, pointless scenes about faceless, nameless family members to pursue an emotional depth to Arvind's crisis. All of this adds painful minutes to what may have been a taut thriller and it even slows down the investigation to the point where we forget that a killer is actually on the run.
Yet there are always moments of brilliance that try to pull things back up when it feels like the film is meandering. At one stage, we see how the corrupt police network has the back of every corrupt officer and how they all spring into action to protect and serve their common secrets. Yet in the very next scene, we get pointless characters like that of a lawyer played by Sai Kumar and a shady watchman played by Indrans that add little to the screenplay. And when we get a shocker of a deus ex machina in the form of a heartbroken woman in a police station in Kasargode, you wonder why the usually meticulous writers settled for such an easy solution to tie it all together. Despite Roshan Andrews' able making and the film's ability to create and then maintain its atmosphere, Salute murders an excellent plot and then leaves its severed pieces for everyone to see.