Drishyam, a thriller that eschews the standard trappings of the suspense genre, is replete with surprises.
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That, however, is true only if you haven’t seen any of the four southern versions of the film, especially the recently released one in Tamil – Papanasam, starring Kamal Haasan in full flight.
The narrative nub of the 2013 Malayalam mega hit – which stretches from the sudden flashpoint that triggers its key dramatic conflict all the way to the shocking final revelation – is intricate and taut. So in this faithful Hindi remake, there is little room for any major tweaking of the plot. Director Nishikant Kamat and writer Upendra Sidhaye (adapted screenplay and dialogue) still manage to throw in a few new elements.
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But the additional twists, except for the relocation of the story to Goa, have negligible impact on the shape and substance of the film. Director of photography Avinash Arun harnesses the visual potential of the locales to great effect. But Drishyam steers clear of the Goan beaches and bars that Bollywood loves to distraction. A snappier lead-up to the main plot twist would have tightened up the film appreciably and let us into the protagonist’s mind and world much quicker.
More momentum early on would have rid Drishyam of some of the flaccid ‘introductory’ scenes in the protagonist’s home, his office and his frequent haunt – an eatery across the street from his business premises. There is much in Drishyam that is instantly intriguing. Rare is a mainstream Indian film in which a character holds forth on the intricacies of ‘visual memory’, on perspectives, on how we tend to believe everything that we see.
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That sounds akin to a chance replay of a DH Lawrence line (from Lady Chatterley’s Lover): “What the eye doesn’t see and the mind doesn’t know, doesn’t exist.” In Drishyam, seeing is indeed believing. Everything else spawns a series of questions about right and wrong, and about conventional morality and desperate necessity. The many imponderables add to the enigma surrounding one ordinary man’s extraordinary struggle to conceal a dark secret.
For Ajay Singham Devgn, Drishyam represents a return to a long abandoned terrain dotted by such critical hits as Zakhm, Gangaajaland Omkara. The actor brings the full force of his brooding presence to bear upon the role of a common man who does not lift a finger to fight his opponents, but stops at nothing to protect his wife (Shriya Saran) and elder daughter (debutante Ishita Dutta) from harm. This unconventional hero, Vijay Salgaonkar, a small-time cable TV operator in a Goan location named Pandolem, erects an elaborate web of alibis when an unintentional crime casts a long shadow on his family.
He finds himself up against an unyielding police woman, inspector-general Meera Deshmukh (a rather miscast Tabu), whose personal stake in the case is very high. She is both victim and tormentor. One tragic incident and two sets of parents with divergent perspectives on it occupy the centre of this unique drama, which draws most of its efficacy from an intelligent script that puts virtually all its cards, save one, on the table.
The schtick that is held back relates to the lies that Vijay Salgaonkar takes recourse to in order to disguise the truth in a manner that makes it impossible for the investigators to penetrate its core. In their unraveling is the crux of the drama. Vijay’s bete noire is a corrupt and ruthless local sub-inspector who hates the hero’s guts and loses no opportunity to push the man into a corner. On the face of it, it looks like an unequal battle.
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The police do not think much of Vijay. He is a school dropout all right. but he isn’t a sitting duck. His mind games catch the cops unawares. The law enforcers have no idea that the movie-obsessed Vijay has, over the years, culled enough functional knowledge of judicial processes and investigative procedures to be able to outsmart the best of sleuths. Ek hi saboot hai hamare khilaaf – hamara darr (there is only one evidence against us – our fear), Vijay tells his wife Nandini and daughter Anju every time the two are on the brink of giving up the fight.
In this struggle to conquer fear and doubt, Vijay’s impulses are easy to understand. Self-preservation is a strong motivation. But the manner in which a bunch of complete strangers play to Vijay’s tune is not always believable. And despite the acuity of the story written by Jeethu Joseph (who directed the Malayalam and Tamil versions), the film falls for the lure of an avoidable cinematic cliché – a pubescent daughter as a symbol of a family’s izzat. It is not quite in sync with what is otherwise a pretty impressive screenplay. Tabu is caught between two stools – underplaying her emotions (which she does very well) and overdoing her swagger to the accompaniment of loud background music (which obviously isn’t her métier). In contrast, Rajat Kapoor, in the role the police officer’s businessman-husband who clings to his sanity even as he suffers, is strikingly subtle in his mood shifts. Drishyam is gripping in parts but is anything but an unblemished humdinger.