The tragic death of a young woman filmmaker at her rented house in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram on 24 February, 2019, was a crime that had all the necessary ingredients to shock Kerala society, which has often been labelled as instantly responsive and overactive.
But for some strange reason, the death of Nayana Sooryan was accepted as a natural one, partly caused by some unknown disease the woman was suffering from and partly due to the depression she had been fighting after the death of her mentor six weeks ago.
The deceased, Nayana Sooryan, was 28 years old and the director of the movie Pakshikalude Manam (Scent of Birds)’ that was part of the anthology Cross Roads.
Nayana Sooryan, associate of director Lenin Rajendran
She had been an associate of award-winning director Lenin Rajendran and assisted him in most of the movies that he had directed in the latter part of her career. Nayana, at the time of her death, was working as the personal assistant of the chairman of Kerala State Film Development Corporation, a position held by Lenin Rajendran till his death, 40 days prior to Nayana’s demise.
Lenin Rajendran died following a prolonged liver disease and Nayana had been with him at the hospital along with his family members.
Anomalies in investigation
The mystery over the death of Nayana Sooryan was brought to public attention by the leading vernacular newspaper Mathrubhumi, which reported about the findings in her post-mortem report last week.
The post-mortem report, which was accessed by Nayana’s friends nearly four years after her death, cited strangulation as the cause of death. There were clear mentions of several injuries, including those to internal organs in the report.
Related: Friends force Kerala police to reopen filmmaker’s death case
Taking a cue from Mathrubhumi, The Fourth — a nascent digital media start-up in Malayalam — broke the CrPC 161 statement given by forensic surgeon Dr K Sasikala to the police after post-mortem.
The statement quoted Dr Sasikala as saying there were two possibilities: Either Nayana might have committed suicide by strangulating herself at an acute moment of depression or that might have been a case of sexual asphyxia — a strange situation where an individual enhances sexual responses with asphyxia.
Though there were no recent precedents of sexual asphyxia deaths in the state or in the country, the local police team that probed the case chose it as the reason and concluded the probe.
There was another follow-up report by The Fourth on Tuesday and Dr Sasikala spoke to the website denying the police’s statement.
She said she had told the police that the case was a suspected murder and suggested a detailed probe. But that portion of the statement was edited out by the police.
Similarly, she had told the police about the internal injuries and all those details were omitted.
With the media highlighting the anomalies in the probe, the case has now been handed over to the Crime Branch. On Tuesday, 10 January, the parents and brother of Nayana met Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and requested that the case should be handed over to the CBI for a fair and impartial probe.
The Museum Police in Thiruvananthapuram, which initially probed the case, had told Nayana’s brother Madhu about the cause of death as sexual asphyxia. Fearing ignominy to his deceased sister, Madhu decided to keep the piece of information secret and submitted in writing to the police that the family didn’t have any complaint on the death.
Nayana belonged to a poor family of fisherfolk in Alappad, Kollam district.
Her father and brother are fishermen by profession. They are not formally educated and the family was under the impression that the depression caused by Lenin Rajendran’s death led to Nayana’s death too.
The probing officials used all these vulnerabilities to their advantage and concluded the case without any probe. The demand of the family that the probe should now be handed over to the CBI is also because of the feeling that they were taken for a ride by the state police.
Hurdles before new probe in Nayana Sooryan death
The serious lapses made in the initial investigation are sure to make the task murkier for the new investigators.
It is reliably learnt that even basic investigation formalities such as collecting the mobile phone call records of Nayana were not done by the first team. It may not be possible for the new team to collect the four-year-old call records as telecom service providers won’t keep them for long periods.
There are also reports that the samples of internal organs were not sent for chemical examination by the police.
It seems the police hadn’t sent the dress worn by Nayana at the time of death for forensic examination.
Fingerprints from the spot were collected but it is not clear whether those samples had been kept properly. Though the police recorded statements of a few of Nayana’s friends and relatives, there was no interrogation of any suspect at that time.
The mortal remains of Nayana were cremated, not buried, at her native village — ruling out even the remote possibility of a re-postmortem. The real challenge before the new team is to make a breakthrough in a case that lacks material evidence, circumstantial evidence, and witnesses.
Eerie social silence
It has been more than a week since the first report indicating the problems with the initial probe was published.
Though legacy and new media followed the case and reported the sequence of new turns, the public response still remains cold and indifferent.
Other than Nayana’s relatives and a handful of friends, nobody has sought a comprehensive probe or condemned the serious lapses by the police. Leading political parties and their feeder organisations haven’t issued any statements and film organisations such as Fefka and WCC haven’t uttered a word yet.
Last week, the Malayali social media sphere was dominated by a debate over serving only vegetarian food for participants in the week-long state school youth festival.
As the contractor who won the tender for the kitchen for the festival was a Brahmin, a strong opinion that the controversy was unwarranted gathered currency among a section of elite, educated activists. The victim card favoured the kitchen contractor and arguments were such that he was being victimised as he belonged to an upper caste and was by habit a vegetarian.
Nayana Sooryan belonged to the Dheevara caste, a most backward caste in Kerala. She was not an active member of any of the leading political parties though her sympathies were always with the Left movement.
She was a campaigner for environmental causes and ruffled many feathers by joining hands with environment movements that had been dubbed as anti-developmental by the ruling class.
Being a feminist and a bachelor, she didn’t fit the frames set by average Malayali families too. One may not be mistaken if one thinks these are the reasons why Nayana has been ignored even after her tragic death. That is how caste and class work subtly in our society.
(The author is a senior journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram and currently works as the Director – News, The Fourth)