Director: Abhishek Pathak
Writers: Aamil Keeyan Khan, Abhishek Pathak, Jeethu Joseph
Cast: Ajay Devgn, Tabu, Akshaye Khanna, Shriya Saran, Ishita Dutta, Rajat Kapoor
It’s not difficult to discern why the Drishyam franchise – across languages – is so commercially successful. It’s not the storytelling; it’s the story. Beneath its cheap narrative thrills lies the quiet endorsement of middle-class morality. All the bases are covered. A father and husband protects his family at all costs. A half-educated man outwits a system designed to prey on people like him. Privilege is the villain: A parent of a good girl defeats the parent of an entitled boy. Performance is the hero: The family must pretend to be normal when they’re not. Most of all, a middle-aged Indian weaponises his love for the movies. Cinema is his superpower. Escapism defines his escape. The flexibility of film – represented by the family man’s audacity and planning – is at war with the rigidity of life, represented by the law enforcement process struggling to nail him. By rooting for him, we are reclaiming the relationship between cinephilia and human character. There’s a difference, after all, between visual and image – one is determined by sight, the other by societal gaze.
A Hindi remake of Jeethu Joseph’s hit Malayalam sequel, Drishyam 2 extends the meta commentary on this relationship. The smart thing about Joseph’s original screenplay is that the sequel, for most part, looks like a replay of the first film. On the face of it, history is repeating itself. Everyone is older but no wiser. Seven years later, the Salgaonkar family – led by protagonist Vijay (Ajay Devgn) – is again under scrutiny. They again exchange furtive glances with each other. The cat-and-mouse game in Goa resumes; the hunt for evidence in Pondolem continues. The IG (Akshaye Khanna) might be new, but the team is not. Mother of the murdered boy, Meera (Tabu), is back from London, as is bad cop Gaitonde (Kamlesh Sawant) from a long suspension. Vijay is again on the back foot for a majority of the investigation. The family is tortured again. The only difference is that we, the audience, start from the space of knowing where Vijay has hidden the body. So it’s not about outwitting the system anymore. It’s about outsmarting karma.
Testing our patience seems to be part of the sequel’s conceit. It lulls us into a state where we look at the film without really watching it. This detachment means that we don’t dwell on some seemingly random details. Like Vijay – who now owns a cinema hall – preparing to produce his own film. Like his vague meeting with a scriptwriter. Like his late-night drinking sessions with a security guard slated to act in his film. Like the outdoor CCTV cameras that need to be repaired. Like a cemetery worker expressing his reverence for Vijay. Like an off-handed chat about a book. Or like the flashback of that fateful night in 2014 from the perspective of someone who spotted Vijay. Eventually, of course, it emerges that all these scenes have a purpose, a sleight-of-hand trick that echoes Vijay’s Prestige-style opening voiceover: “The question is not what’s in front of your eyes, but what you are seeing.”
Or, in this case, what you are not seeing. Vijay’s wife, Nandini, as well as the daughter responsible for the murder, Anju, are still traumatised. They find it strange that Vijay seems to have moved on easily; he’s even banned his family from even discussing the incident. All he can think about is the movie he wants to produce. He is unfazed by the rumour mills, unmoved by his controversial image. I like that the conflict is rooted in the psychological aftermath – guilt, paranoia, coping mechanisms – of the family. But where a film succeeds is often where a story fails. The nature of the format is such that the easy glory of a climactic twist leaves no room for human ambiguity. Vijay becomes a vessel for the film to express how smart it is. His struggle – as an everyman who repeatedly lies to plug the holes of his family’s leaky boat – is sacrificed at the altar of feature-length resolution. It’s not hard to shock or surprise the audience; the challenge is to swap narrative pressure for emotional consequence.
One of the finest Indian web shows of last year, Tabbar, was based on a similar premise. A Sikh ex-constable scrambles to protect his family by covering up their accidental killing of a corrupt politician’s brother. Over the course of eight episodes, we see the man resort to a web of deception; he stops at nothing – including murder – to shield his family. The suspense of evading capture soon gives way to the tragedy of getting consumed. By focusing on their descent into darkness, the series reveals that the real battle is within: They can escape the law but can they ever escape themselves? Their moral decay creeps up on the viewer, and it ultimately allows the series to examine the cost – and real-world consequences – of narrative cleverness. But the high-pitched treatment of Drishyam 2 suggests that its only priority is to hoodwink the thrill-seeking viewer. It also suggests that perhaps director Abhishek Pathak has adapted a film without fully understanding its universe. The attention is on the physical journey – drama, suspense, volume – rather than the internal one. His direction undercuts the writing. He seems to be over-familiar with Joseph’s original script, which is why most scenes look like they’re staged with an inherent idea of what lies ahead. This isn’t a story being told; it’s clearly a story being retold, with a preconceived tone that robs the film of both instinct and method.
The film is almost insecure of the fact that we know Vijay’s secret, so it keeps manufacturing fake tension. This is reflected in a deafening background score that insists on urgency when there is none by design. It is reflected in the one-note performances – especially by Shriya Saran who, as Nandini, mistakes acute anxiety for soap-opera-sized emotions. (Tabu is wasted in a role that prefers the notion of grief over grief itself; there’s also something about casting Rajat Kapoor as the film’s only noble character that just doesn’t sit right). It is reflected in the way Akshaye Khanna’s cop is introduced as a genius who likes playing chess with himself; it’s 2022 and we’re still doing chess metaphors to parade the intellect of fictional characters. It’s reflected in the way Goa retains no identity in the film except for the colourful-character trope.
It’s most reflected in Ajay Devgn’s passive interpretation of a man whose underwater churning is camouflaged by a serene exterior; minimalism is not the same as less acting. As a result, there is never a sense that Vijay is morally compromised despite his desperate actions over the years. On the contrary, the implication is that he is, as his name suggests, a ‘winner’ for gaming a system rigged against victims. A twist does not necessarily imply shrewd storytelling; it can also mean that a rigid film is unwilling to detect the flexibility of life. Drishyam 2, then, becomes the cinematic equivalent of a person who would rather be admired than be seen. In doing so, it reduces image to visuals. And story to commercial success.