There’s more than just simple irony at play in the decision to use the iconic theme from Suresh Gopi’s Commissioner (1994) as the ringtone for Super Sebastian (an excellent Prashanth Alexander), the super-cop at the heart of Purusha Pretham. Not only does this detail give us a glimpse into how Sebastian sees himself, but it goes well with the myth the Sub-Inspector has been able to create around himself.
Even the film begins with a subversion of a traditional hero-introduction scene from a traditional police glorification movie. A regular police officer joins his colleagues at a bar as he boasts about the heroics of his boss Super Sebastian (“Sebastian is not like us. He is a different breed”). These tales of valour include inhuman acts of torture Sebastian uses for swift deployment of justice, but these stories are soon intercut with a reality that is more comical in nature. Take for instance a recurring gag that shows various injuries on Sebastian’s forehead. In the aforementioned supercop narrative, these “battle scars” operate like medals, each with a story to tell about his bravery. But with each scar on Super Sebastian, not only do we get a hilarious incident that busts his myth, but it becomes a constant reminder that police officers like him are far more vulnerable to emotional injuries than we are.
It in this context that we get a film titled ‘Purusha Pretham’, which tells the story of a nameless, faceless corpse and the sequence of events that lead to its disappearance. Not only does the film function like a missing person investigation that begins with the discovery of the victim’s body, but it also doubles up as a botched-up procedural where everything that can go wrong, eventually does. The film does clever things with the title which is a play on the official term for an unidentified male corpse and this also translates simply to male ghost. But the ‘ghost’ in question isn’t just that of the one unindented man. It is as much about the ghost of masculinity that continues to haunt men like Sebastian and the women around him.
This is a reason why a balding Sebastian is presented to us as the opposite of the masculine police hero from older films. Not only do we see him do “unmanly” things like cooking and cleaning but we also see his desperation in having to take care of his ageing mother. It is also by design that the three central women in the film are all widows, all of whom have had to deal with varying degrees of masculinity. In one scene, we see a tough Sebastian strut around his town in a display of power and strength. In the very next, we see him weeping uncontrollably after struggling to keep it up for the duration of his liaison with a female friend.
A hyper-detailed account of how the police deals with unidentified corpses later mutates into a thriller when a woman named Susan (Darshana Rajendran, continuing to shock us with her choices) appears at the station demanding to see the corpse days after it has been buried. There are many ways to approach the situation in which a widow goes to the police to exhume this corpse, hoping to get some closure. Yet the approach Krishand opts for is straight out classic noir, with the archetype of a femme fatale taking over the image of a helpless woman. The murky and the morbid soon takes over the police procedural, culminating in one more blow to Super Sebastian’s forehead, resulting in one more adventure that is anything but heroic.
Krishand, who has also shot Purusha Pretham, chooses a combination of greens and reds to create this seedy universe in which small bribes are paid for large crimes. Yet his subjects are almost always kept to a corner of his frames. Apart from the small stretches where you get to see Super Sebastian’s image being played out with all its heroics, there’s hardly a shot in which a police officer is framed from below to make them look larger than life. Instead, they are often shot from above, making them appear even smaller in comparison to regular folk. This explains how the only hero’s welcome is given to a gravedigger when he’s called in by the police to retrieve a floating corpse. As for officers from the lower rung like Dileepettan (Jagadeesh), we see how the police force enforces a second hierarchical command by asking officers from specific castes (a photo of Ambedkar rests on his wall) to deal with corpses. But with a solid MacGuffin that keeps surprising you, Purusha Pretham remains a strangely arresting human drama about the powerless in the police force, just as it engages you with a social issue you ought to have known more about.