When they announced Drishyam 2, with the same team from the blockbuster original (director Jeethu Joseph, actors Mohanlal and Meena), I wondered where it would take the story of Georgekutty. Because Drishyam is a complete film — as complete as a film can be. The plot clicks shut as firmly as the snap-locks on a VIP suitcase from the 1980s. The wily father saves his guilty-yet-innocent wife and children. The cops are still in the dark. The major evidence — the victim's body — is someplace it will never be found, even though it's literally under the noses of the police. What? You're screaming about the missing spoiler alert? I'm sorry. I just assumed you've not been living under a rock and have seen at least one of the many versions of this film. (As of this writing, it's apparently been made in every Indian language except Andaman-and-Nicobar-ese.)
But then, they said the same thing about The Godfather, which was another complete film — as complete as a film can be. When Francis Ford Coppola announced a continuation saga, people wondered where it would go, and found themselves stunned with one of the greatest sequels of all time. Let's hope that's the case, here. They've said that Drishyam 2 picks up the narrative in close-to-real time, i.e. seven years later (the first film was released in 2013), and that it's not so much a thriller as a family drama. Will we see the "rotting" of Georgekutty's soul the way we saw Michael Corleone's? (Both of them, after all, were pulled inadvertently into a crime, and then realised there was no turning back.) I'm not exactly comparing the two films, of course. As pure filmmaking, The Godfather is leagues ahead. But as far as pure plot-design goes, Drishyam is world-class, too. (Ask the Chinese. They remade it.)
The film's best scene comes after the plot exhausts itself, i.e., after we know Georgekutty and his family are safe. But first, let's flashback a bit, to the point where Georgekutty and his family are hauled off by cops to the station. The first thing his nemesis — Geetha Prabhakar, Inspector General of Police (Asha Sarath) — asks him is: "Evide ente makan?" She isn't asking: Where's the missing person? This is not just another case. This is personal. The missing person is her son. She's asking: Where's my son? This is the point where the subtext of Drishyam becomes the text. This isn't the usual good-versus-evil thriller about crime (Georgekutty) and punishment (Geetha). It's about two parents — one father, one mother — who will go to any length to save their children.
After this "Evide ente makan?" stretch, we get the famous "digging" scene. I still recall my first viewing of Drishyam, and how knotted my stomach was. Eventually, Georgekutty "wins", Geetha resigns, and we get this conversation between Georgekutty and his wife, Rani. She reads about the resignation in the paper and is upset. She tells Georgekutty, "She may be a powerful IG, but she is also a mother. We are responsible for their miseries." He replies, matter-of-factly, "It's your good heart that makes you think this way. Look at it from another perspective. If our daughter had become the victim of such a disaster, wouldn't Geetha have tried to save her son?" He adds, "Man is selfish by nature. Everything we hold dear is important to us. If we think otherwise, we won't be able to survive."
And so we get to the film's best scene, where Georgekutty is summoned by Geetha and her husband. They admit that they spoiled their son, and thus were (indirectly) responsible for his death. "We have harmed your family, and we apologise," says Geetha's husband. But they still want to know what happened to the son. Is he missing? Or is he dead? "Every time the phone rings or the doorbell rings, it's his voice that echoes in our ears. Should we… wait for him?" Georgekutty flashes a look at Geetha. It's almost like he's thinking: Should I tell them? But he bows his head. They think he's not going to say anything and begin to leave. And Georgekutty starts talking. "You have a large heart. But I am an ordinary man. My wife and my children, that's my whole world." Georgekutty is being vague.
Slowly, he gets a little more specific. "An unwanted guest invaded our privacy. In a moment of panic, we made a mistake. We ensured he'd never come back to ruin our lives. We sent the guest back." This far, Mohanlal has not been looking at Geetha and her husband. He's been looking at the ground. Now, he raises his eyes and looks at them. He says, "Without intending to, we shattered your dreams. We wished to beg your forgiveness. We did this a thousand times in our hearts… Please forgive us." His palms are clasped in the sign of a prayer, but his voice is as steady as the conviction he displayed during the "Man is selfish by nature" speech to his wife. Geetha and her husband leave. The camera zooms in, and we get the hint of tears in Mohanlal's eyes.
Now, let's look at Papanasam and how Kamal Haasan plays this scene. (The character is named Suyambulingam.) Many people opined that the actor played it too "sentimentally," but then, this sentimentality comes from the writing. As in Drishyam, this scene follows the man-and-wife scene. Like Georgekutty, Suyambulingam says, "Man is selfish by nature". (Avan avanukku than vaazhkai thaan perisu…) But in this Tamil universe, we get a softer man, a more — yes — sentimental man. Unlike Georgekutty, Suyambulingam adds a note of crushing regret: I raised my daughters to tell the truth. Now, I've taught them how to lie. That's the guilt that's killing me.
And we see guilt when he's summoned by Geetha (again played by Asha Sarath) and her husband: he keeps looking at them and then looking at the ground, as though unable to meet their eyes. It's practically the same set-up. The camera is behind our protagonist, hiding his reactions from us as Geetha's husband delivers his long monologue. And then, as they begin to leave, Suyambulingam begins to speak. But unlike Georgekutty, Suyambulingam is an emotional mess. That extra line he told his wife, about the guilt that's killing me, is reflected in the victim's father's confession that he feels guilt too, about the way he raised his son. He even uses the same phrase that Suyambulingam did, to describe this feeling of guilt: "kuttra unarchi".
So Suyambulingam is reacting to something more than just another father's plight. Just like he feels guilt about teaching his daughters to lie, a guilt that's killing him, the victim's father feels guilt about his son. And to me, Kamal's sentimental performance is a direct reflection of the extra layers of sentimentality in the writing of this movie. Papanasam is deliberately (and confidently) old-style. Even earlier, there's a reference to Padikkadha Medhai (which translates to "uneducated genius"), which starred Sivaji Ganesan, the emperor of the sentimental performance. We slowly see that it's an allusion to Suyambulingam himself, someone who's hardly been to school and yet has the street smarts to do what he does. He even says his hairstyle is like Sivaji's. I'd say, so is the performance. It's an update.
It's pitched at a higher level than Mohanlal's. The tears we saw in Mohanlal only during the zoom-in at the end are already brimming over in Kamal Haasan's eyes, even as he begins to talk to Geetha and her husband. And note the final "sentimental" touch, after Suyambulingam says everything that Georgekutty said. He points to the river ahead (named Papanasam), which is believed to cleanse one's sins away. He says, he will slowly cleanse his sins away, too. This touch, this hint of atonement, makes this scene heavier than the one in Drishyam. Georgekutty was in an existentialist zone. ("Man is selfish by nature…") Suyambulingam is in a religious/moral zone, with the protagonist openly admitting that he has "sinned".
Is one approach inherently better than the other? Some of us may pick one flavour (the stoic versus the sentimental) over the other, some of us may pick one actor over the other (Mohanlal versus Kamal Haasan) but both performances come from the way the protagonist is written, in each case. If Kamal has amped up the emotional/theatrical factor, it's because the film is itself more emotional/theatrical. The Hindu quoted Jeethu Joseph saying as much: "Apart from changing some sensibilities to suit local audiences, we've made Papanasam more emotional as Kamal sir felt Tamil audiences like to be emotionally piqued." (Whether that's indeed true, we'll leave for a different day!)
In the Hindi version, Ajay Devgn (as Vijay) chooses the stoic Mohanlal route (perhaps inevitably, for he's not exactly an "emotional" actor), with just the tiniest touch of Kamal's sentimentality. (I like how he describes himself as "chauthi fail", a barely educated man.) But mostly, he's essentially shrugging and saying, "Look, my family is important to me and I will do anything for them. So I regret the fact that this happened, but… sorry, I guess." There's very little overt remorse. He's like Arjuna on the battlefield, single-minded in his belief that dharma has been upheld. In the Kannada version, Ravichandran (as Rajendra) takes the stoicism to Zen levels. He even admits they killed the boy (in the other versions so far, there are just hints), and adds: "My heart says I did the right thing." I wish I had this man's ability to sleep at night.
The most interesting variation is in the Telugu version, where Venkatesh plays the father, named Rambabu. He tells the victim's parents that he didn't realise his actions would affect another family the way his own family had been affected. This creates an equivalence between both sets of parents. Remember how Georgekutty began his monologue? "You have a large heart…" The Telugu version takes this line further. At the end of his speech, the Venkatesh character says, "With that large heart, please forgive me." He doesn't self-flagellate like Suyambulingam, but his bloodshot eyes (and the tears in them) tell us he's feeling something inside. These five versions of Drishyam show how the same scene can be refracted through a combination of the writing and the performers and the (perceived) tastes of the target audience. But yes, if you held a gun to my head, I'll go with Mohanlal.