A brooding criminal profiler is standing over a dead body at a crime scene. He plugs on his earphones and puts out his right hand over the deceased, a young woman lying peacefully on her bed with her hands neatly folded across her stomach.

He then closes his eyes and attempts to “speak” to the victim. Is he psychic or it’s simply his way of quieting his mind and focusing on the task at hand? Whatever it is, the unorthodox method seems to work, in just a matter of seconds, he has figured out who has murdered the woman.

His first clue is the fact that the woman was initially killed elsewhere in her bedroom and then positioned neatly on her bed, which suggests the murderer must’ve cared for her a great deal. Perhaps a loved one?

The brilliant profiler strings a series of other clues together and deduces it was the victim’s own father. He has been sexually abusing her for years. When she threatens to tell on him, he delivers a deadly blow.

This CSI-meets-The Mentalist opening scene sounds like the makings of yet another American TV series but it isn’t. Mandatori is a six-episode Malaysian crime-thriller.

Aeril Zafrel

Aeril Zafrel says Mandatori was one of the most difficult acting projects he has taken on so far. Photo: The Star/Shaari Chemat

Astro First Eksklusif & Astro Best channel head Sharmin Parameswaran sees Mandatori as a way to reach the urban audience.

“TV series like Narcos and House Of Cards are especially popular among urban audiences. We, too, have a lot of our own local stories. So why are we not telling them with that same level of quality?” she says at a press event in Kuala Lumpur promoting the new series.

The script for Mandatori, based on the novel of the same name by Ramlee Awang Murshid (his other novel Tombiruo: Penunggu Rimba was adapted into a film this year), was written by seven scriptwriters and took over a year to develop.

The producers say over half of the book was changed to reflect the themes of the book in a visual format.

She adds: “Very rarely do you see an anti-hero in Malaysia. Usually in local dramas, there’s either the good guys or the bad guys. These are the kind of things urban audiences would appreciate as well.”

The rise of the anti-hero

Indeed, criminal profiler Inspektor Norman (Aeril Zafrel) has the look and feel of the anti-heroes we often see in Hollywood. He’s extremely quiet, speaking only when he needs to, and he wears a sullen expression and keeps his head down all the time.

“I feel close to the people who fade into the background. I love underrated characters because most people in the world are underrated. What I want to portray in this series is everyone can be a hero,” shares director Razaisyam Rashid.

Norman has been away on sabbatical ever since a mysterious incident at a crime scene caused him to lose his ability to speak to victims. He is about to throw in the towel until the murder of a high-profile politician reels him back in.

“When I had to shoot a heavy scene, I would get into my own world. So, sometimes when I got on set, I would isolate myself and get a feel of the character. I didn’t want to crack jokes with the rest of the cast and then lose focus,” says Aeril.

But his preparation for the role started much earlier, attending acting classes and studying characters from Hannibal and Sherlock prior to shooting the series.

Mandatori

The mysterious murder of a politician is just one of the shows many mysteries.

Aeril, whose good looks has graced many romantic dramas, admits it was difficult portraying such an intense role.

“It was my first time playing a police. And he’s not just a police, he’s a profiler. It was hard. I did feel like giving up. But the director guided me a lot, particularly in making sure that the mood that I evoked was consistent, tallying with the previous scenes,” he explains.

Razaisyam had his reservations about casting Aeril initially: “Aeril wasn’t my preference. We’ve worked before about 10 years ago. And back then, I wasn’t happy with him and he wasn’t happy with me. We had a strange relationship.”

Both the actor and director were still new at their respective craft, he says. “At the time, he didn’t know how to act, and I didn’t know how to direct. So I wondered if he could carry the role of Norman.

“But when I saw him at rehearsals, I saw something, although he wasn’t quite there yet. As we had more rehearsals, he improved a lot.

“The day he got on set, I was so impressed, I told him, ‘This is what I want.’ It was perfect! And then we became best friends.”

Powerful female characters

Siti Saleha

Siti Saleha filmed the six-episode series just days after getting married. Photo: The Star/Shaari Chemat

While trying to solve one of his cases, Norman meets the gorgeous Juliana (Siti Saleha). Juliana is more than just a potential love interest for him. She is the chief executive officer of Johari Corp, a company involved in a murder case Norman is investigating.

“Our head writer Yasmin is against having female characters on the show for no reason other than just serving as a beautiful flower. She wanted to create a female character that’s strong, just as strong as any male character,” Razaisyam offers.

Siti, who shot the series just days after getting married, sees her character as “not just about women empowerment. For me, it’s about being equal.”

Over the years, Siti says she has been taking on roles that test her acting skills and prove she is more than a pretty face: “I think I’ve acted in a variety of genres and my versatility shows. I’m willing to take up that challenge. I don’t mind having to look ugly for a role. Hopefully, there isn’t that perception that I’m just a beautiful actress.”

Besides Juliana, other female characters play an instrumental role in the series such as medical examiner Doktor Devi (Jo Kukathas) and Norman’s psychiatrist (Vanidah Imran).

The director continues: “My view is the same. I don’t want to just create a character just for decorative purposes. I want characters that are alive and that can inspire women out there.”

All six episodes of Mandatori are available on Astro First Eksklusif (Ch 480) or watchod.com.