“Drishyam” - Nishikant Kamat (2015)

Drishyam (2015) is a Hindi-language crime thriller directed by Nishikant Kamat that has been a huge hit with the Indian public [1,2,3].  The film is a close remake of the also-popular Malayalam-language film Drishyam (2013) that was written and directed by Jeethu Joseph and shot in Kerala.  The screenplay for the 2015 film was written by Upendra Sidhaye, but it is based closely on Jeethu Joseph’s original story, and indeed it is the relative complexity of that story that has fascinated most viewers.

Nishikant Kamat’s film features a high production gloss and a number of big-time Bollywood actors, including Ajay Devgn, Tabu, and Shriya Saran.  But a key to the overall production quality is the cinematography of Avinash Arun and editing by Aarif Sheikh, which interlace throughout the film a large number of brief flashbacks that are keys to the viewer’s unravelling of just what actually happened.

You might say that Drishyam is something of a whodunit, but this is a whodunit of no ordinary variety.  The viewer all the way along knows who committed the original crime of murder [4], so in that respect we all know “who done it.”  The police, however, don’t know who did it, and the key struggle in this story concerns the efforts on the part of the lead character to prevent the police from finding out the truth of what happened.  And unlike almost all other crime thrillers, the viewer’s empathy in this film is guided to support the original homicide crime’s perpetrators.

So the story of Drishyam then comprises two main, roughly equally-sized parts.  In the first part, the story is told of how and why the murder was committed. Considerable time is spent in this section showing the background and habits of a basically innocent and well-meaning lower-middle-class family of four and the circumstances that lead up to them getting involved in a homicide.  Essentially, it relates how a family’s teenage daughter accidentally kills a young man while he is trying to sexually molest her.  When her father learns about what happened, he commits himself to doing anything he can to preserve her innocence.

The second part of the film concerns the extended cat-and-mouse game between the girl’s father and the police.  And this is where things get especially interesting.  The struggle shown  between the two principal contestants involves a number of dramatic thematic contrasts that enrich the story and that will tantalize the viewer.  In fact these thematic contrasts, taken together, are often in conflict with each other, and the way they are used here runs counter to many of our conventional narrative expectations. 

The film begins by showing Vijay Salgaonkar (played by Ajay Devgn) sitting at his desk at the small business he owns, the Mirage Cable TV Network.  Vijay dropped out of school in the 4th grade, but he has somehow managed to work his way into owning this two-man company.  Now he spends most of his time, including his evenings, sitting at his desk and watching escapist videos, many of them pornos.  But a peripheral benefit of all this video watching is that this is how the uneducated Vijay learns practical things about the world.
At home, he is shown to have a lovely wife, Nandini (Shriya Saran) and two children – a teenage stepdaughter, Anju ( Ishita Dutta), and a small, pre-teen daughter, Anu (Mrinal Jadhav).  Around the family dinner table Nandini and Anju manage to convince the reluctant Vijay to fork up the money to send Anju to a school nature camp.  Nandini also asks Vijay to take the family, just after the nature camp is over, to the city of Panjali so that they can do some shopping and also so that they can attend the sermons on Oct 2nd and 3rd of visiting Swami Chinmayanand.  But the stingy Vijay is reluctant to agree to this.

We also see that the self-made, independent-minded Vijay is not afraid to speak his mind when the occasion arises.  When he sees a corrupt local cop, Gaitonde (Kamlesh Sawant), forcibly extorting bribes from local residents, he threatens to report him to his authorities.  This invokes violent threats from the bullying Gaitonde, who says he will make Vijay pay for his impertinence.  
However, later at the nature camp, a serious problem arises from a different quarter.  A malicious fellow student, Sameer 'Sam' Deshmukh (Rishab Chadha), secretly films with his mobile phone a nude sequence of Anju taking a shower.  Then after they have all returned home, he attempts to use the film to blackmail Anju.  He tells her he will delete his film only if she will submit to his sexual demands that very evening. 

When Sam comes for his rendezvous in the evening, he expects to find Anju alone, but he is surprised to see her mother, Nadini, there, too.  Both Nandini and Anju plead with Sam to delete his video, telling him that Anju, as well as her family, will be ruined if he posts the film on the Internet.  But Sam simply ups his demands – he now wants sexual favors from both women.  There is an ensuing panicky scuffle, and in the chaos, Anju picks up a fire poker and swings it wildly at Sam, accidentally hitting him on the head.  The blow on Sam’s head kills him instantly.

Now the two women are even more horrified: they have just killed someone.  Nandini decides that they have to cover up the evidence, so they bury Sam’s corpse in a compost pit behind their home.  When Vijay finally comes home, the distraught women tell him what has happened and their fears of what will now happen to them.  But Vijay resolutely assures them that he will devote every ounce of his energy to protecting them and making sure nothing bad comes to them.  

So now the battle lines are drawn.  We know who did it, but can this secret be kept from the authorities?  That is Vijay’s task.  The magnitude of that task becomes monumental when Vijay learns that the deceased Sam was the son of the Inspector General (the head of the police) of the state of Goa.  So all possible police resources will be devoted to finding out what has happened to the missing Sam Deshmukh.  And Vijay also knows that the recalcitrant and corrupt Gaitonde will be especially committed to pinning the blame on Vijay and getting him convicted of the capital crime.

This brings us to the end of the first part of the story, one hour into the film.  But what elevates this film above that of most thrillers is the second part of the story – the struggle between two highly contrasting contestants.

The first striking thing we learn is that one of the contestants, the Inspector General of Goa, is a beautiful woman – Meera Deshmukh (played by Tabu).  So we are going to witness a struggle between an ignorant, schlumpy man and a beautiful, elegant woman.  And our sympathies will be surprisingly steered to side here with the man, who is trying to cover up a serious crime.  In fact the struggle between Vijay and Meera in Drishyam embodies several overlapping thematic oppositions that prevail in society:
  • Man vs. Woman
    As we have already noted, this is the most obvious opposition.  And Meera is glamorous, while Vijay is dowdy.
  • Class 
    Meera’s family is upper-class and privy to all the benefits her class status entail.  Vijay is lower middle-class and subject to the restrictions and prejudices that come with that class.
  • The Educated vs. the Self-taught
    Meera, given her exalted professional status, is presumably well-educated.  Vijay is a fourth-grade dropout, but his obsessive video-watching enables him to vicariously learn a lot about how things work on a practical level in society.
  • The System vs. the Lone Individual 
    Vijay has at his disposal only his own wits and his meager resources.  Meera, on the other hand, has all the resources of the legal and punitive systems supporting her.  And, in fact, she is willing to use these resources unscrupulously.
  • Criminal Justice vs. Personal Values 
    There is also another thematic opposition, but the poles here are not exclusively embodied by Vijay and Meera – and that thematic opposition is criminal justice versus personal values.  Both Meera and Vijay, each of whom is a dedicated parent, are willing to violate the stipulated legal norms of society in order to pursue what they think is right.  In Meera’s case, we see that she is willing to have suspects tortured in order to extract confessions.  Vijay would not resort to torture, but he is, nevertheless, still willing to conceal evidence that would lead to a criminal conviction.
Certainly in this extended contest Vijay has his work cut out for him.  Among other things he has to somehow dispose of Sam’s car, which Sam drove to his fateful clandestine meeting with Anju.  And he also has to try and find a way to convince the authorities that on the day of Sam’s death, Oct 2nd, he and his family were all away in the city of Panjali, attending the spiritual teachings of Swami Chinmayanand. 

Moreover, Vijay’s efforts of evidential obfuscation will be considerably hindered by the surveillance recordings that Meera can dig up and consult.  These surveillance records include purchase receipts, phone records, security camera films, and witness reports.

Because this extended struggle between Meera and Vijay is involved and is what makes this film interesting, I will leave it to you to discover what transpires.  I will say, though, that the ending comes out a little different from what you might expect.

Overall Drishyam is a well-made production that is worth watching.  The coda that comes at the very end doesn’t seem to resolve anything, but that doesn’t deter me from recommending the film to you.

  1. Meena Iyer. "Drishyam Movie Review”, Times of India, (18 December 2015).   
  2. Anirban Lahiri, “Drishyam (2015): Indian filmmaker Nishikant Kamat's film that lifts from multiple sources without citation”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (August 2015).  
  3. “Drishyam Movie Review”, Bollywood Hungama News Network, {29 July 2015).   
  4. Legally, we might refer to this as manslaughter.

No comments: