Wednesday 5 August 2015

"Drishyam" (Guardian 03/08/15)

Drishyam ***

Dir: Nishikant Kamat. With: Ajay Devgn, Shriya Saran, Tabu, Rajat Kapoor. 163 mins. Cert: 12A

Some may decry the news that the Fantastic Four franchise has been rebooted after a decade. Drishyam marks the Indian cinema’s second crack this summer at its own material: Jeethu Joseph’s 2013 Malayalam thriller of this name, remade first in Tamil (July’s Papanasam, again directed by Joseph) and now in Hindi by writer Upendra Sidhaye and director Nishikant Kamat. The temptation is to ascribe such speedy recycling to commercial imperatives – in theory, Hindi grants the story its biggest audience – but even on its third spin, this story still feels fresh, urgent and relevant to a moment when we’re surrounded by screens.

Kamat’s version restages Joseph’s morality play – village cable-TV employee uses procedural knowledge to clean up after his teenage daughter kills a punk wielding candid footage of her – with an ungainly subtitle (“Visuals Can Be Deceptive”) and a brisker, darker tone. At 163 minutes, this Drishyam hardly cuts to the chase, but it’s a dash more economic in describing its threatened family unit. Where we relaxed into the company of Papanasam’s real-life partners Kamal Haasan and Gautami, Kamat’s film feels decidedly punched-up: lead Ajay Devgn has thirteen years on his onscreen wife Shriya Saran, who barely appears older than her eldest child.

Given the revenge-porn backdrop, it makes vague thematic sense that the women should so recall sisters in looks as in arms, but replacing the amenable Haasan with the brooding, muscular Devgn has a peculiar effect. The latter certainly displays the heavy-lidded look of one who’s had to sift through endless bad movies for crumbs of wisdom – it’s a look many critics will recognise from the bathroom mirror – but he’ll be few viewers’ idea of a cuddly paterfamilias. Sniping passive-aggressively at Saran, “playfully” holding a carrot to her neck as if it were a knife, Devgn reinterprets Joseph’s everyman hero as a borderline brute.

Rather than sinking the film as entertainment, this actually lends the second half a new dynamic: it renders the protagonist almost as compromised as the brutish local cops. Casting Bollywood figurehead Tabu as the Inspector General on Devgn’s case ensures our sympathies are conflicted, to say the least; the concluding gesture towards moral relativism consequently feels far queasier here than it was in Papanasam, which permitted us to hope Haasan would, this once, get away with murder. (Devgn’s Vijay appears to treat corpse disposal like gardening: as a regular weekend activity.)

Kamat proves a keen observer of how this household, with its elegant partition curtains, is sullied by the sudden lapse into murderous activity: the mud tracked through the hallway, the youngest daughter in her Minnie Mouse pyjamas catching a glimpse of the body. Removed of Haasan’s blithe humour and Joseph’s lush pastoral imagery, this Drishyam presents a grim vision of rural India as a place where everyone has crossed a line and seen too much, and policemen have no apparent qualms about taking the jackboot to an eight-year-old child.

For all that, it remains a pleasurable, twisty tale. Kamat has wisely retained all of Joseph’s satisfying thriller business – again, there’s an agonising wait for a bright yellow Hyundai to sink as a potential witness hovers on the horizon – and revisiting this narrative allows us to spot the slyness of its construction: how those components essential to the second half – the remote quarry, the new police station – are slipped in beneath the guise of genial scenesetting, and just how meticulously the eventual cover-up is worked out, right down to such details as who sits where on a bus.

It’s true Sidhaye’s script adds nothing radically new to earlier drafts, and even at the notionally pacier length, you can still feel it bogging down in interrogatory talk towards the end. First-time viewers may well conclude, however, that plotting this strong doesn’t require that much more to play on a Friday or Saturday night. What you get here, and again it does just about feel enough, is a largely functional, occasionally deft entertainment, drawn from a story you suspect the movies will probably be riffing on until The Great Unplug of 2028.

Drishyam is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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