“You play dominoes very well, I believe.”
Mr. Cust was a little flurried by this. “I – I—well, I believe I do.”
“It is a very absorbing game, is it not, with a lot of skill in it?”
“Oh, there is a lot of play in it – a lot of play! We used to play a lot in the city, in the lunch hour. You’d be surprised the way total strangers come together over a game of dominoes.”
From The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie, featuring Hercule Poirot.
In this loose re-working of Agatha Christie’s classic story The ABC Murders, Mohanlal stars as Chandrasekhar, the recently appointed head of Kochi’s Metro Crime Stopper Cell. Equal parts herogiri and Hercule Poirot, Chandrasekhar draws the attention of the mysterious Z when he solves the abduction of three young women by a psychologically troubled man, Jerome (Riyaz Khan, the go-to-guy for creepy loser roles). Z sends Chandrasekhar a note congratulating him on the arrest, but chiding him for spending ten years wasting his talents while dealing with the aftermath of his separation from his wife, Deepthi (Priyamani). What Z proposes is a bit of a game, something that will appeal to the chess player in Chandrasekhar – whose chessboard is given a place of prominence on his desk, where he plays against an imaginary opponent. Z proposes a date and a place, and challenges Chandrasekhar to solve the murders he is about to commit.
Chandrasekhar is reluctant to take up the case, feeling that this feeds into Z’s plans somehow – but his superior (Devan) insists he do so. Accompanied by two of his officers on the Crime Stopper squad, Kishore (Narain) and Rashid (Jagathy Sreekumar), they set out on the trail of the mysterious Z.
It’s always difficult to take a classic work like The ABC Murders and adapt it in a way that seems fresh and engaging to an audience. I’m never opposed to writers adapting material and changing it to suit a new audience or to give us a fresh perspective on the story, but I was left largely unconvinced by what Unnikrishnan was proposing. On the one hand, the idea to connect the dates of the murders to events in Chandrasekhar’s private life is an interesting one, and it forces Chandrasekhar to face his problems head on instead of constant running from them. But for me, many of the changes only served to diminish the dramatic tension of the story. Christie’s tale was never a crime thriller, and neither is Grandmaster. Christie’s mysterious salesman makes an appearance in the film, here as Victor Rosetti (Babu Antony) an itinerant cosmetics salesman, but he’s introduced far too early, given a face too early in the film, so that it practically screams, “I’m the beard!”. Unnikrishnan then places the spotlight of suspicion on several other characters, including the psychiatrist played ably by Anoop Menon, allowing us to check them off the list of suspects. The idea to provide a connection between all the murders is also interesting, and although it doesn’t necessarily diminish Christie’s premise (that seemingly connected crimes are, perhaps, not what they seem), it does serve to make the new ending unnecessarily melodramatic. The main problem, I think, with Grandmaster can be summed up by the words of Hercule Poirot: “(I)f the victims are alphabetically selected, then they are not being removed because they are a source of annoyance to him personally. It would be too much of a coincidence to combine the two.” Unnikrishnan’s script, then, requires me to believe in too many coincidences.
Perhaps my inability to enjoy Grandmaster as much as so many others have (the film was a hit, after all) is that I read a lot of mystery novels. I have certain expectations of how things should proceed. I stand firm in my conviction that the reader/viewer should have all the information at his/her disposal at the same time as the investigator/detective, and should be able to solve the mystery at the same time as the detective does. Grandmaster doesn’t allow me to do that – Chandrasekhar seems to be more of a Jedi Grandmaster than a chess one, channeling the Force to help him get inside the mind of his opponent, often relying on that rather than on his (considerable) investigative skills to solve the murders.
However, I think that there were also several things that kind of infuriated me about Grandmaster, and that served to interfere with my ability to just sit back and enjoy the film. First, the whole question of mental illness and madness, with the criminal characters considered to be madmen and social deviants. The film goes so far as to suggest that Jerome’s problems stem from the fact that he was raised by a single mother. Victor, as we discover, is schizophrenic. Add to this the fact that all these mad characters make liberal use of Christian ritual and symbolism in the course of carrying out their crimes, and you’ve got a combination that only serves to make me less engaged in the film.
Also, the female characters in the film, with a couple of small exceptions, are generally – how shall I put this diplomatically – unsympathetic. No, face it, they’re all bitchy. On the plus side, they are all successful. They include Susan (Rajshri Nair) a police commissioner who covers for her cousin Jerome, and tries to undermine Chandrashekar’s investigation. To top it all off, she’s just generally unpleasant. There’s Beena (Roma), a famous rock singer, who is portrayed as a kind of tease, and who is just generally nasty. And there’s Deepthi (Priyamani), Chandrashekar’s ex-wife, who is described as having abandoned her family to pursue her career, and who betrays Chandrashekar to further one of her own cases. The tight slap Chandrashekar delivers to her when he discovers her betrayal only served to cement what made me uncomfortable in the film.
But it’s not all bad news. A second viewing of the film permitted me to set aside all these things that irritated me and focus on what the film has going for it. There are some lovely moments, many of them stemming from the interaction of Chandrashekar with his daughter Dakshayini (Sreelekshmi), and his two coworkers, Kishore and Rashid – in fact, I’d really love to see these three together again in film, investigating another mystery.
Mostly, though, it comes down to Mohanlal, who delivers an understated and intensely interesting performance. Grandmaster is kind of a workmanlike effort. All the ends get tied up at the end, but what Unnikrishnan asks me to believe as a viewer leaves me unconvinced. Mohanlal’s performance, however, raises it to a film worth watching.
Grandmaster is the first Malayalam language film to be streamed on Netflix, and that's the reason we finally broke down and gave the service a try. I know that it's there because of the UTV connection (the film is UTV's first foray into production in Malayalam), but I really hope that this is the start of a trend that will see other films added to the service.