Drishyam review: It's a promising murder mystery weakened by Ajay Devgn

If Nishkant Kamat had the gumption (and the freedom) to focus on story instead of possible box office returns, Drishyam could have been a good film.

Deepanjana Pal August 02, 2015 19:25:40 IST
Drishyam review: It's a promising murder mystery weakened by Ajay Devgn

A crime has been committed, but for those who know what’s happened, it doesn’t really feel criminal. For those trying to prove it, there just isn’t enough evidence. This is true for the story in as well as the story of Drishyam.

Drishyam, a Hindi remake of Jeethu Joseph's Malayalam film, opens with a declaration that it is based on an original story by Joseph. This is clearly designed to make Ekta Kapoor and anyone who has read Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X choke on their popcorn.

Kapoor bought the rights to remake Higashino’s fantastic murder mystery in Hindi. Meanwhile, far away from Kapoor’s Andheri office, Joseph adapted the novel’s plot for a Malayalam film starring Mohanlal, and set it in an Indian village. Kapoor sent a legal notice, Joseph claimed it was his story. And because his is a smart adaptation, Joseph is the one who gets to do the slow-mo stride while Kapoor’s legal notices lie defeated by the wayside. Everyone knows the story of Drishyam isn’t really original, and yet no one can prove it because Joseph’s version is just original enough.

In the Hindi film directed by Nishikant Kamat, Ajay Devgn gets the onscreen hero’s walk. He gets it because his character in the film, Vijay Salgaonkar – like Joseph – tells a good story. This really is meta.

Drishyam review Its a promising murder mystery weakened by Ajay Devgn

Ajay Devgn in Drishyam. Image from Facebook.

Vijay is a cable operator in Pondolim, a fictitious village in Goa. He has two daughters, a pretty wife, an eatery where the owner gives him credit, and a two-wheeler that lets Vijay vroom through the picturesque Konkan countryside. It’s a pleasantly dull life. When Vijay’s elder daughter Anju (Ishita Dutta) is contacted by a boy she met while on a school trip, the first tear appears in this picture-perfect world. He has a video of her showering and he’s more than happy to blackmail her with it.

You may wonder why this obnoxious chap isn’t afraid of being exposed for threatening Anju. After all, her father is Ajay Devgn, sorry, Vijay Salgaonkar. There’s a very good reason – Little Mister Blackmail is the son of the Inspector General of police. Take that, Daddy Dearest.

This premise is actually Joseph’s greatest triumph and the reason that the plagiarism claims don’t stick legally. There may be unmistakable similarities between Higashino’s story and Joseph’s – in both, a man convinces the police that he’s committed a crime that he hasn’t actually committed; takes the blame for a crime someone else has committed; and the mystery hinges upon an elaborate sequence of fake alibis that the police struggle to dismantle.

However, the big difference between The Devotion of Suspect X and Drishyam is that there’s a social commentary that’s identifiably Indian in the latter – the cable operator’s daughter has no chance of getting protection from the IG’s son. No one under these circumstances would think there’s any point being honest because the entire police establishment will come crashing down upon the Salgaonkars if they point fingers at the IG’s son.

As it turns out, this is exactly what happens when Anju’s blackmailer disappears and IG Meera Deshmukh (Tabu) becomes convinced that the Salgaonkars have something to do with her son going missing. Unlike Higashino’s professor, she has no logical reason for her hypothesis, but she’s the IG and a gut instinct is all the reason needed to unleash hell upon Vijay and his family.

This is the point at which one should feel scared for the Salgaonkars, but when you look at the screen and see Devgn, thoroughly expressionless and convinced of his awesomeness, you never really fear for him. He’s the hero. It’s no surprise that he’s able to outwit everyone around him. The only way Devgn isn’t true to type is that Vijay gets beaten up instead of being the one who throws people and punches around.

Joseph may be a gifted in the art of adaptation, but his original elements weaken the original story. Throwing all realism and logic to the winds, Drishyam presents police cruelty that’s not just brutal, but also stupid. People are beaten up in what appears to be the IG’s living room (helpfully cleared of furniture. Or maybe she’s gone for the Spartan look because she regularly interrogates suspects in there?). A policeman thinks nothing of hitting a child and leaving visible bruising upon the teenaged Anju who is, incidentally, still a minor. That's serious abuse of power. Even though there are witnesses — including journalists with cameras — to the Salgaonkars emerging from police interrogation with bleeding faces, the police are unconcerned about the consequences of custodial violence.

There’s also Joseph’s attempt to pander to the stereotype of Mother India. It says nothing good about contemporary society that in 1957, being Mother India meant having the courage and integrity to shoot your law-breaking son, while in the 2000s it means using your power to victimise someone you think may have hurt the sleazeball fruit of your loins.

This brings us to one of Drishyam’s greatest strengths and critical flaws: IG Meera Deshmukh. You can almost feel the relief that surges through the audience when Tabu as Meera makes her entry. By this time, we’ve spent about an hour watching Devgn trying to act, Shriya Saran trying to look old and a host of minor characters trying to be convincing. With the singular exception of Kamlesh Sawant, who plays the villainous Inspector Gaitonde with wonderful panache, everyone fails.

Devgn has never been known for his acting skills and he is thoroughly miscast as Vijay, who is meant to be a nondescript everyman. It’s because this character is so unremarkable that no one imagines he’d come up with the brilliant and elaborate charade that he does. In the Malayalam original, Mohanlal manages this ably. He plays a bumbling simpleton initially, keeping the audience entertained with silly comic scenes that endear us to him. This makes the later scenes that slowly reveal his calculating genius truly engaging. Devgn, in contrast, hulks around and saves the victimised right from the very beginning, because he and the director are intent upon reminding us that Devgn is the star. Drishyam will make everyone look at Rohit Shetty with respect because Kamat’s inability to get a performance out of Devgn makes you realise how well Shetty has used the actor in the Singham series.

Devgn is bland but just about tolerable when he bums around as Vijay, doing his version of working for a living (reading the newspaper, chatting with random people and watching TV). However, there are few sights more stomach churning than the scene in which, inspired by Sunny Leone, Devgn’s Vijay looks romantically into his wife’s eyes. Saran looks traumatised, Devgn seems to be either short-sighted or drunk, and the audience is left wishing they had a fast forward button.

The only thing worse than Devgn's acting is Drishyam’s background score, which tries to reflect various moods, but ends up sounding like a tacky medley of supposedly comic and suspenseful sound effects.

Between bad acting and a slow pace, the first half of Drishyam is one of those rare situations where you may actually find yourself wishing there was an item number. At least that would wake us up. So when Tabu, beautiful and charismatic as ever, finally enters the frame, we’re all ready to dance on the aisles.

Unfortunately, Tabu can’t save her character from falling into the pit that Joseph has dug for it with his script. Meera is the top cop that no one ever wants to encounter. Her missing son takes top priority over all other cases. She doesn’t care about rules, has no qualms about ignoring the law, is pro-torture and looks absolutely gorgeous while ordering her minions to beat the crap out of entirely innocent people (including a little girl). This character has the makings of an amazing villain, but of course we can’t have such a thing in a woman.

And so, to ensure our heart bleeds for Meera, after every scene of police brutality that she orders and watches (without a flicker of remorse), she weeps into her husband’s shirtfront because she’s a mother, looking for her son. (Cue in Mother India theme.) More disturbingly, her civilian husband is not only there to witness all the interrogations and every official meeting Meera has with her colleagues, he actually tells her off – in front of her juniors – when he thinks she’s going overboard. So on one hand, we have Vijay, standing tall as the alpha protector, confronting Meera, the beta momma. There's never any doubt about who's the stronger contender and it's only because Tabu really can do magic with her eyes that Meera feels formidable in a few rare moments.

If Kamat had the gumption (and the freedom) to focus on story instead of possible box office returns, Drishyam could have been a good film. If Kamat had cast an actor instead of a star, then Vijay could have been a fantastic role. Had the director been faithful to what the story demanded – instead of trying to predict what the audience won’t accept – then Vijay’s wife could have been characterised by her maturity rather than her eyeliner and the saris that Saran is obviously uncomfortable wearing. Meera could have been a worthy adversary to Vijay, instead of being a senior police officer who seems to be a little crazed and gets her knuckles rapped by her husband while at work.

In a murder mystery, it isn’t a bad thing if the best scene comes right at the end, with the big reveal. However, if the audience doesn’t really care for any of the characters and if the only reaction the scene elicits is delighted relief because the film is finally over, then the storytelling has failed. Handicapped by its stars, Kamat ends up making a decent film that doesn’t live up to its potential, lacks wow moments and seems too long at 163 minutes. And that’s a shame, because there’s a good story and an intelligent adaptation hidden out of sight in Drishyam.

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