Sukumara Kurup, accused of murder, identity theft and insurance fraud in Kerala in the 1980s but never arrested, has exercised enough of a hold on the imagination to inspire countless theories and at least three Malayalam movies. The latest, Kurup, stars Dulquer Salmaan as a fashion-forward escape artist and criminal mastermind.

The two previous movies about Sukumara Kurup have scripted their own conclusions to his open case file. In NH-47 (1984), Kurup is attacked by a mob before the police can arrest him. In Pinneyum (2016), Kurup undergoes plastic surgery but then kills himself out of guilt and remorse.

The latest outing, directed by Srinath Rajendran, based on a story by Jithin Jose and written by KS Arvind and Daniell Sayooj Nair, has the most fanciful proposition of them all. It belongs to a comic book rather than a supposedly serious chronicle. Coming towards the end of 165 minutes, this latest theory is delivered with maximum speed and minimum conviction, as though the makers know that it makes no sense.

The handsomely produced and slickly narrated thriller maintains some curiosity about Kurup’s real self before abandoning the pursuit. It’s suggested that Kurup, also known as Gopikrishnan, started out young. In the hope that military discipline will straighten out his crookedness, Gopi’s family persuades him to enrol in the Indian Air Force in a non-combatant position. Instead, Kurup finds new ways to feed his love for the good life.

Dulquer Salmaan in Kurup (2021). Courtesy Wayfarer Films/M Star Entertainments.

Through flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks) and voiceovers by different characters, an attempt is made to create a complex portrait. If Kurup’s air force buddy Peter (Sunny Wayne) knows him as a fun-loving and risk-taking chap, his wife Sharda (Sobhita Dhulipala) sees the amorous and caring side.

These early, and engaging, portions provide peeks into Kurup’s inner life. His rich mop of product-protected hair, colourful shirts and finely crafted moustache (which he holds on to even in disguise) suggest a vain and flamboyant man whose reach exceeds his grasp. Kurup’s derring-do and disregard for authority are evident during his stint in the air force.

But we closer we get to the crime that earns Kurup his notoriety, the further we move away from plausibility. The hunt for Kurup is appetising enough, but the awaited feast never arrives. In the absence of a credible explanation for Kurup’s ability to evade capture for decades, Rajendran comes up with a hypothesis that belongs in the realm of imagination rather than in a movie inspired by actual events.

Kurup (2021).

Dulquer Salmaan, who has also co-produced the film, gives us some measure of how Kurup persuaded others to join him in his exploits. Salmaan lays on the charm thick and then limns it with nastiness, but he is unable to overcome the limited character graph and messy post-interval writing.

Kurup’s other star is the impressive period production design by Bangalan. In a movie that hovers mostly on the surface, there are times when Bangalan appears to be working the hardest to make the scenes stand out.

Except for Shine Tom Chacko, as a permanently drunk and venal associate, nobody else in the cast leaves an impression. Krishnadas’s obsession with Kurup is only one of the many unexplored aspects of the case, leaving Indrajith Sukumaran with little to do.

Perhaps the worst-served is Sobhita Dhulipala’s Sharda. Although the shy and submissive Sharda displays a bit of spine during her early interactions with Kurup, she simply vanishes from the later portions, a bit like her scheming husband.

What does Sharda make of her husband’s increasingly shady antics and his transformation from loving partner into globe-trotting criminal genius? It’s a mystery, like the enduring fascination with Sukumara Kurup.

Pakaliravukal, Kurup (2021).

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Kerala Police’s most successful failure’: What drew ‘Kurup’ director to a legendary murder case