Note: This review pertains exclusively to the 2015 Hindi remake Drishyam. I have not seen the 2013 Malayalam film of the same name, thus this review draws no comparisons between the two.
When Drishyam (“Visual“) succeeds, it does so mightily. Yet the film’s ending breaks crucial promises made to its audience.
Drishyam expects the audience to be almost as well-versed in films as its main character, Vijay (Ajay Devgn), a man with a keen memory for everything he watches on screen. Movies fill in the gaps in his education, which formally ended in the fourth grade. As an adult, Vijay is a kindly family man whose only vice is that he stays late at the office, engrossed in the movies he programs for the small-town cable channel he runs.
There’s a beautiful shot of Vijay returning one morning to the home he shares with his wife Nandhani (Shriya Saran), teenage daughter Anju (Ishita Dutta), and younger daughter Anu. The camera pulls back as Vijay walks down the sunny, curtain-lined hallway of his cheerful house. The same shot is repeated later with a sinister twist, the dark house eerily silent, the floor covered in muddy footprints.
Vijay’s knowledge of movies becomes essential when he must save his family from a predicament involving Sam, the teenage son of the Goa’s Inspector General, Meera (Tabu). Vijay coaches his family on what to expect from the police while Meera simultaneously unravels the details of Vijay’s plan.
Director Nishikant Kamat effectively shifts the tone from light-hearted to darkly serious, with periods of stomach-churning tension. Devgn is a steady presence, and Dutta portrays Anju as the capable daughter of a capable man. Saran’s character is harder to love since she’s slow get with the program, but her flustered reactions are probably the most realistic.
Scenes involving Sam are important in that they debunk a myth about rape some prominent figures in India still cite: that a rapist will relent if you beg him to stop. When Sam tries to blackmail Anju for sex, both she and her mother beg him to relent, but of course he doesn’t. Rape is about power, not sex, and the story establishes that Sam is used to getting what he wants. Meera and her husband Mahesh (Rajat Kapoor) fret that their indulgence may have turned Sam into a rotten person. Credit to director Kamat for such a realistic depiction of a sexual predator.
Kapoor is terrific as Tabu’s foil. He’s rational and willing to give people the benefit of the doubt; she’s as drunk on power as her son, and she will not brook any challenge to police authority. She finds her perfect ally in Gaitonde, a local constable with a taste for violence and a grudge against Vijay.
Despite the presence of several law-abiding police officers, the film operates on the assumption that the police as an institution cannot be trusted (by no means a unique sentiment in Bollywood). Precisely because of that assumption, Kamat disappointed me when he resorted unnecessarily to my biggest Bollywood pet peeve: a montage of people across India watching news footage of the events in the film.
If police abuse of power is such a given, why would the events of this small-town story become national news? And why does it need nationwide attention to be meaningful? Why does it matter what some random people in other parts of the country think?
After a tense first half, the film bogs down in the middle, as Meera investigates multiple witnesses, growing tired of their Stepford-like corroboration of Vijay’s alibi.
Though the story is aimed at movie buffs who may be able to guess at many details, it is fun to hear Meera and Vijay lay out their reasoning to their officers and family, respectively. Their deductions are handled in a logical way that doesn’t feel condescending.
Yet, the very ending of Drishyam betrays the film buffs in the audience. Without giving away details, during a conversation with Meera and Mahesh, Vijay does something stupid that no intelligent character in a thriller or mystery film should (or would) do.
The scene is presumably included in order to establish the character’s moral righteousness, but it’s unnecessary for a couple of reasons. First, it’s doubtful that anyone would find him immoral after having watched the first two-and-a-half hours of the film. Second, it makes him a less complex character. Instead of being a good guy who did something morally questionable, the scene tries to absolve him of wrongdoing, altogether.
It’s okay if movie heroes aren’t perfect. It can make them more relatable. If only Drishyam trusted its cinema-savvy audience to accept an imperfect hero, the movie itself could have come close to perfection.