Writers: Sammeer Arora, Kausar Munir
Cast: Kajol, Vishal Jethwa, Rahul Bose, Riddhi Kumar, Rajeev Khandelwal
As a terminal illness melodrama centered on euthanasia, the sheer artifice of Salaam Venky – the curated feeling, the emotional manipulation, the simplistic rendering of grief and pain, the goodwill cameos, the sappy acting – puts Guzaarish (2010) to shame. Flaunting the pitch of a Bhansali movie without the physical scale is not smart. (How else can you normalise a quadriplegic RJ named Ethan who coins the term “Ethan-asia”?) The hollowness alone becomes tedious to watch: Every movie character seems to be based not on life, but previous movie characters. Every scene morphs into a manicured aesthetic of sadness and spirit: The way light fills the hospital room, the way suffering poses as sunshine, the way a tear escapes an eye, the way every flashback is a happy song, the way every person is either sickeningly sweet or gratingly awful (like a cruel father who declares his terminally ill son as a “dead investment”). Presenting the dying protagonist as an incurable Bollywood fan can only work if the rest of the film stays grounded. But when the film itself is introduced as a musical, it’s hard to tell between the performance and the performance within the performance. As a result, Salaam Venky plays out like an adult story written by sincere young children.
The tragedy is that this film is based on a true story. It didn’t need all the schmaltz. It didn’t have to be so processed and packaged. Salaam Venky stars light-eyed Vishal Jethwa (the villain from the 2019 film, Mardaani 2) as the titular Venkatesh, a 24-year-old boy with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) who gets admitted to the hospital for what seems like one final time in 2004. He is cheery, too cheery, making jokes about his inevitable passing. Everyone is fond of him; it’s the sort of Raj-Kapoor-style utopian place where doctors and nurses are on the brink of singing for him. Venky’s single mother, Sujata (Kajol), is struggling to confront a future without him. His last wish is to be euthanised so that he can donate his functional organs and live on through other people. The first half is about Venky getting his mother to agree. It isn’t totally clear why Sujata is against his wish, but perhaps it has something to do with her being unable to accept his impending demise. Once she agrees, Salaam Venky goes the courtroom-drama way. A kind lawyer (Rahul Bose) files a writ petition for the family, making an official request for euthanasia. The case triggers a national debate. The narrative caricatures – vulture-reporter-turned-compassionate-activist (Aahana Kumra), insensitive public prosecutor (Priyamani), stern judge (Prakash Raj), the discourse montages, the media polls – flow thick and fast.
Before this happens, there’s a scene where Sujata approaches the Dean of the hospital with her request, only to be told that it is a crime. That’s when she decides to “change the law”. This basically implies that Sujata was not aware of euthanasia being illegal in India prior to their meeting – a fact most difficult to believe, given that Venky had constantly aired his request in front of doctors for years. This is just a tiny slice of airbrushing that the film indulges in. Even Venky’s suffering feels sanitised. At one point, his team decides to make a cutesy video of him play-acting his life memories to prove that he’s of sound mental form. The problem with this video is that any judge might interpret it as a sign that he’s not in enormous pain. He’s lost his voice, but the television-soap tone never lets it seem like he’s faded enough to justify his mercy killing plea. Jethwa’s turn is all glassy eyes and smiley-faced vibes, visibly blunted by a film that’s determined to sugarcoat Venky’s condition. Kajol dials it down a little from her Helicopter Eela (2018) and Tribhanga (2021) characters – and she keeps the spotlight on Venky – but Sujata remains a role derived from loud fiction rather than deafening reality.
To make matters worse, all Venky’s loved ones are forcibly designed to be as broken as the situation they’re in. His childhood friend – a girl he’s in love with – is blind. (Question: What would make the iconic “palat” moment from DDLJ cooler? Answer: If the heroine can’t see!). They dream of scaling a lighthouse together, a metaphor that looks better than it sounds. His sister’s sad backstory randomly takes the film on a tangent for no conceivable reason. The mother, Sujata, speaks to a figment of her imagination throughout: A chin-scratching, thoughtful ghost (of PVR ad campaigns past) played by Aamir Khan. At first, the film wants us to think that he’s her dead/absent husband. But his black shirts – and Venky’s love for chess – ultimately imply that he’s a device that would make The Seventh Seal (1957) turn in its grave. There’s also a Guruji from an ashram Venky studied at, whose presence is respectfully punctuated by sitar strings. The only genuinely moving scene of the film revolves around Venky breaking down in the middle of a day after realising that a silly spat with his mother could be his last. He looks like someone who’s suddenly hit with waves of grief for being unkind to a woman he can’t live without. For once, he looks like he is not prepared to die; the veneer breaks. The moment lasts for all of two heartbreaking minutes – until Salaam Venky remembers that it cannot afford to be so human. What will people say? So it reverts to being a dutifully escapist movie, where every scene lodges a formal request for our tears.