Director: Abhishek Pathak
Writers: Aamil Keeyan Khan, Abhishek Pathak, Jeethu Joseph
Cast: Ajay Devgn, Tabu, Akshaye Khanna, Shriya Saran, Ishita Dutta, Rajat Kapoor
First, a brief survey of the languages in which the 2013 zeitgeist-exploding, genre-defining, even genre-deforming Malayalam film Drishyam was remade — Drishya (2014) in Kannada, Drushyam (2014) in Telugu, Papanasam (2015) in Tamil, Drishyam (2015) in Hindi, Dharmayuddhaya (2017) in Sinhala, and Sheep Without a Shepherd (2019) in Mandarin. There is even an Indonesian adaptation that was announced.
If the success of the Drishyam story has taught us anything it is that we prefer what feels right to what is right. The first film establishes a murder. The suitably stoic Ajay Devgn plays Vijay Salgaonkar who runs a cable network service in Pondolem. He is the kind of man who, being an orphan, has defined his existence around the excessive affection he has for his built family — two daughters and a wife, Nandini, played by the doe eyed Shriya Saran. We see the limits he is willing to go to, the horizons he is indifferent to tearing apart, coming to the rescue of his family after his eldest daughter cracks the skull of a man who was blackmailing her using videos of her showering. That boy is the son of Goa’s IG Meera Deshmukh, played by Tabu. Meera’s son is a threatening pervert. But Meera’s son was murdered. Meera seeks justice. But we are entirely on the side of Vijay. Because murder might be a fact, but justice requires more than facts — it also needs context.
That the murderer deserves to be punished is law as understood. That we don’t want the murderer to be punished is law as felt. It is in the distance between fact and feeling that Drishyam plots itself. It is destabilising, for we always considered the law to be the clean, common bedrock on which we build our individual beliefs. But what if this bedrock is, instead, a soapy ice rink?
The first film ends on a note of hope, with Vijay having successfully protected his family from the law, burying the dead body — crucial evidence — under the police station, a place that will never be dug open. The second film, which takes us seven years post the incident, introduces us to a man who accidentally saw Vijay burying the body that fatal night. The trial, then, is revved back in motion. Vijay now owns a theater and is even working on a screenplay that he wants to produce. In the Malayalam film the theater is named after the wife, Rani. In the Hindi film, the theater is called, rather generically, Cinepass. Like the first film, cinephilia is not a character trait as much as it is a serious plot point around which the suspense of the film hinges. That cinema teaches us to be smarter, offering us a cultural education.
This is an odd time to be a Hindi film critic. The merciless, almost worrying glut of South to North remakes has posed a difficult question. Should we, in anticipation of the remake, watch the original or not? If we do, we walk into the inviting darkness of a theater informed, as we must be. And if we don’t watch the original film, we cast ourselves in the role of the intended audience, a blank slate waiting to be scratched upon by the remake, and the thrill of seeing the film as its separate entity, without resorting to the intuitive comparison we reach towards. In this trade-off between being an informed and an intended audience, so much of the joy of watching cinema and writing criticism is lost.
Drishyam 2 produces that familiar drone. Having watched the Malayalam films starring the electric Mohanlal, the Hindi remake plays out with a throbbing, calculating voice in my head, passing my hands over the familiar knots of the story, trying to trace and see where one film ends and the other takes off, to see if that seam even exists.
The Hindi film is a faithful adaptation. But if placed side by side, a spot-the-difference exercise between the Malayalam and the Hindi films will reveal one thing — the distinct culture of filmmaking from which these films emerge. Malayalam cinema is so in love with its world building, it often takes the entire first half to construct that world, one conversation, one detail, one accent at a time. For example, you learn so much about a character from what is on their dresser table by their bed (for example: A Bible, a torch, a tacky clock, Johnsons and Johnson’s oil).
Embedded in this world-building pursuit are hints, seeds, only some of which will flower into drama in the latter half of the film. The first half, then, is essentially a mix of details — some of which are narratively “necessary” mixing effortlessly with other, unrelated but charming side-lunges that build character, even if they don’t advance plot.
You can sense in the Hindi film, however, a discomfort with details that are not necessary to the plot. It does away with it. For example, in the Malayalam film, the youngest daughter is given a boyfriend who might be deceiving her, a detail which the Hindi film does not find worth the screen time because it doesn’t escalate the drama as much as tensely massage it with possibilities.
Details necessary to the story are unsubtly brought in, for while the Malayalam film is weaving you a world, the Hindi film is stating a story. In the Malayalam Drishyam 2 there was a charming side-track involving the difficult, often tense relationship between the wife and the youngest daughter who now goes to a convent and mutters under her breath in English that the mother just can't fathom. You can see the mother grappling with a daughter entering her tempestuous teens as she is also struggling with the heavy weight of murder.
The point I am making here is not that the Hindi film should have included these peripheral sketchings, but merely drawing your attention to what has been left behind. And by looking at what the filmmakers here have decided to prioritise or excise, we can get a richer sense of how different the storytelling traditions are. That Hindi cinema as we see it allows for this blunting, because it desires, instead, space to stylise a walk, a gesture, to sensationalise a moment with a throbbing score. There is a need to be as clear as possible.
For example, the Malayalam version begins with a chase. Who is being chased and for what gets established in the momentum of that scene. The Hindi version isn’t as confident about its audience keeping pace with the scene, so it first establishes the reason for the chase, detailing intent with gin-clear clarity so we are never allowed to feel lost. We never collapse under the weight of detailing as we tend to in Malayalam films.
The Hindi version, then, blunts the original, even while it both stylises and sensationalises it. The smallest moment is given the music treatment of a gripping reveal — even if what we are seeing is merely a bag of cash exchanging hands. Sudhir K. Chaudhary’s top shots, his glistening frames, produce a film that is at once more beautiful and more burnished. But every gesture, stare, and glare is given this cinematic polish, whether it is needed at all. There is a scene in the second half, added to the screenplay, not part of the original, where Akshaye Khanna, the new IG who is investigating the case, enters the house of Vijay when he isn’t there and terrorises the wife and children without saying much. The scene is trying to establish how guilt emerges in the face of the guilty. But it is one entirely of style, of confected nerves.
While Tabu is allowed to inhabit a gray character in a way only she can — eliciting your sympathy even as you see her claws tearing into flesh — it is Shriya Saran whose performance and character’s cultural translation that baffled me. One of the most moving stretches of the Malayalam Drishyam 2 was the existential ennui that the wife was struggling with in the interim years. There were shots of her doing chores in the house, alone, looking out, tired, worried, wondering if she will ever not be tired and not be worried. The banter between husband and wife emerged from but also skirted this tension.
With Nandini, however, there is so much brimming in the surface of her face, that when she is tensed, her body crumples, you can see the pits of her neck as she inhales and holds her breath. It is an entirely physical, not a psychological portrait. They prefer having her naive, a babe in the woods, as opposed to fleshing her out, giving her endearing eccentricities and frustrating limitations. She is never allowed to be the mother of two daughters, the wife of a man; never given that grumbling, scolding, reassuring quality that made Rani from the Malayalam film such a memorable character. For me, it was these detailings that made the film worth its while. Because the serpentine explanations, the far fetched, what even the film calls “risky” and, frankly, reckless last patch of the film has this eye-rolling convenience that is neither smart nor suitable. You don’t walk out of Drishyam films satisfied because they are smart, but because characters you grew to love are finally safe. But, you can ask, rightfully, where are these characters in the Hindi adaptation?