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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Drishyam, Review: Missing Corpse, Hissing Cops and Habeas Corpus

Drishyam, Review: Missing Corpse, Hissing Cops and Habeas Corpus

What would drive producers to make and remake a film in five different Indian languages in a span of two years? Box-office success of preceding language versions and a potential remake goldmine at hand, or the merits of a script that tries to turn the killer v/s cops genre on its head, and could have viewers gasping for breath? In the case of Drishyam, whose Sanskritised title can be approximated as Drishya (scene/sight in Hindi), both theories seem half correct. As a result, the film reaches only the halfway mark on most critical counts.

A subject that was made in Malayalam in 2013, got remade in Kannada, Telugu and Tamil (about to release) in the next two years, and has come to the Hindi screens riding on the generally positive response to its South Indian cousins. But hang on! What is this talk of the real ‘original’ being a 2008 Japanese film, Suspect X, which, in turn, was based on a Japanese novel, The Devotion of Suspect X, directed by Hiroshi Nishitani, and that another Hindi film producer had claimed that she had bought rights to its Hindi remake before the Nishikant Kamat helmed Drishyam? You decide.

Suspect X is a 2008 Japanese mystery-thriller based on the novel, The Devotion of Suspect X, written by Keigo Higashino, possibly Japan's biggest bestseller author. It was directed by Hiroshi Nishitani (any similarity of names between the two directors is amazingly co-incidental). The film was a big screen version of the popular Japanese serial drama, Galileo, and featured the same cast. It topped Japan's box-office for four consecutive weeks, and was the third-highest grossing Japanese movie of 2008.

Yasuko Hanaoka is a divorced, single mother, who thought she had finally escaped her abusive ex-husband, Togashi. When he shows up one day, to extort money from her, threatening both her and her teenage daughter Misato, the situation quickly escalates into violence, and Togashi ends up dead, on her apartment floor. Overhearing the commotion, Yasuko's next-door neighbour, middle-aged high school mathematics teacher Ishigami, offers his help, disposing not only of the body, but plotting the cover-up, step-by-step.

Nandini Salgaoncar (Shriya Saran) is a devoted house-wife and mother of two girls, one of them a teenager, Anju (Ishita Dutta, debut), and the other a primary school student, Anu (Mrinal Jadhav). A spoilt brat of a teenage boy, Sam, son of Goa’s Inspector General of Police (Tabu), shows up at their bungalow one night when her husband is not home, and tries to blackmail the mother and daughter into granting sexual favours. Things get out of hand, and the boy ends up dead on the floor. Soon afterwards, her husband, Vijay (Ajay Devgn) arrives home, and learns about the incident. A cable TV operator, whose life is heavily influenced by crime and sex dramas that he keeps watching in his office late into the night, and is aware of legal concepts like habeas corpus, he immediately devises a plan to save his family from going to jail. It involves disposing not only of the body, but plotting a masterly cover-up and fool-proof alibis, step-by-step. This has the police hissing and fuming, but without the corpse, and confronted with four prime suspects who have suddenly been awarded doctorates in lying, they can only try secret torture to extract the truth. Like I said, you decide!

Nishikant Kamat (Mumbai Meri Jaan, Force) shot to fame with a Marathi film, Dombivali Fast, and followed it up with another successful Marathi venture, Lai Bhaari (literally ‘Very Heavy’). Dombivali Fast derives its name from local trains terminating at the eastern Mumbai suburb of Dombivali. A vigilante theme, it won plaudits for its no-holds-barred approach, as well as its performances, especially its protagonist, played by Sandeep Kulkarni. But there too, Kamat was accused of plagiarism. Kulkarni played Madhav Apte, an Indian banker whose firm moral principles are constantly challenged by friends, family and associates. Ultimately, they drive him over the edge, and he suddenly cracks, physically attacking a street-vendor in broad daylight, for refusing to give him small change on a purchase.

Apte then arms himself, wandering the streets and scouring the neighbourhoods for any sign of wrong-doing that he can "correct," but leaving a nasty trail of destruction in his wake. Kamat remade the film in Tamil as Evano Oruvan, with R. Madhavan playing the lead. Dombivali Fast bears resemblance to the 1993 Hollywood film, Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas. Douglas portrayed the role of William Foster, a divorcee who is unemployed and unhappy with the world. Foster goes on a violent rampage across Los Angeles, trying to reach the house of his ex-wife, for their daughter’s birthday party. Dombivali Fast also bore shades of the classic vigilante film, Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson.

You could also attribute the credit or blame for the ‘plagiarisation’ of Drishyam to Jeethu Joseph, who is credited with penning the story. Screenplay and dialogue for the Hindi version is the work of Upendra Sidhaye, a former assistant of Kamat, whose oeuvre includes Mumbai Meri Jaan, Payback, Blood Money and the much-raved Killa (‘Fort’/Marathi). Not having seen any other version, one cannot comment whether the Hindi Drishyam has added or subtracted from the original, but most characters are uni-dimensional. Except for Devgn’s character, which turns, albeit incredulously, from a simpleton living in a narrow universe into almost a totally different person, when confronted with the prospect of his wife and daughter being taken away, most others appear cardboard cut-outs. True, they are all identifiable with the characters they play, but Sidhaye takes ages to delineate their traits, which are often repetitive, and the first-half is highly over-written. Devgn’s exchanges with his boy-Friday about Sunny Leone’s films, and one joke about a paralysed subscriber, are in poor taste, and unnecessary. Most dialogue is functional, and very few lines fall in the clap-trap. On occasion, the dialogue even raises the level of a scene.

Kamat takes a brave decision in casting Ajay Devgn, an action star, in a part that places him at the receiving end of recurring police brutality, without getting any opportunity of inflicting a single blow himself. On the choice of Tabu to play the IG, he has said that he could not conceive the film without her. In retrospect, he gets moderate points on the first count. On Tabu, most critics have proven him right. But it is in the casting of Rajat Kapoor as Meera’s polished, rational, husband, that he hits bulls-eye. Coming to the narrative, he forgets that a murder mystery is not about convenient co-incidences woven together, of the ‘Match problems in Column A with available solutions in Column B’ type. Suspense thrillers are about red herrings and a constantly shifting compass needle, not about a set of platter-served circumstances, a crime, and the utilisation of each of those earlier circumstances to cover up the crime.

The suspects are tortured in a place that is apparently the home of the IG, with a large crowd of sympathisers and media banging the guarded iron-gate. Considering that the torture is illegal, would it not have been wiser to have it done elsewhere, rather than facing irate mobs? A diversionary trick that Devgn uses towards the end, the only real twist in the tale, comes too late, and is not of the nail-biting kind in any case. The denouement, though handled with great dignity, is bound to raise moral and ethical issues. It might even prompt some media-savvy scholars to debate upon the possibility of such crime subjects prompting real-life emulations, and the need or otherwise of statutory warnings. Some of us might have seen Highway 301 (1950), a blood and gore drama about armed robbers called the Tri-State gang. The film begins with a documentary style preamble by three actual American state Governors, talking about the scourge of crime, and the hopes that movies like this, based on actual events, might discourage it. After all, life imitating art is not as rare as many believe.

Devgn has had good success with some dead-pan comic roles in the past, and works hard here too. Vocal histrionics not being his forte, he has limited success in an action-less role. Tabu, being Tabu, brings a quiet dignity to the role, any role. She is named Meera, probably in the context of a real-life hard-nosed Indian cop of the same name. Introduced with a bang, in vampish light, her terror-striking persona thins out with every passing scene, and you do feel a bit cheated along the way. Shriya Saran, good-looking, homely-sexy, well-dressed and well made-up, is too syrupy to believe. Ishita Dutta, and the girl playing her younger sister, go through their tribulations with a perpetually perplexed look, so their complicity in the elaborate cover-up is not so convincing. All three have many over-the-top moments.The boy playing Sam is talented, so is the actor cast as Martin, the mini-restaurant-owner. Why does his voice bear uncanny similarity to old-timer Mohan Agashe? All things considered, it is Rajat Kapoor who delivers the most impressive performance, rising way above the physical dimensions of the role. I haven’t seen him do so well in a long time.

Vishal Bharadwaj and Gulzar turn-in some good work as music director and lyricist. Alas, three of the four songs, two of them really well-tuned and meaningful, don’t blend well with the ambience of the film, and are wasted!

An unconventional film about an anti-hero, Drishyam suffers from raised expectations and treatment that is extremely old-style in the first-half, before it turns into a fairly engaging cat-and-mouse game.

Rating: **1/2


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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