DRISHYAM. Director: Nishikant Kamat.  Players:  Ajay Devgan,  Shriya Saran, Tabu, Rajat Kapoor, Kamlesh Sawant, Ishita Dutta, Mrunal Jhadav, Rishabh Chaddha.  Music: Vishal Bharadwaj.  Hindi with Eng. sub-tit.  Theatrical release (Viacom 18)

52In a non-descript police station backroom, a policeman stands in front of a line of suspects. He orders one suspect to step forward. This is an everyday round-up. The policeman, we learn, is a brutal, badge-abusing bully and the suspect that steps forward is a terrified little schoolgirl about to be interrogated for a crime her family—who make up the rest of the lineup behind her—may or may not have committed. This tense scene, one of many that exemplify filmmaker Kamat and story-writer Jeethu Joseph’s taut family thriller Drishyam is a memorable stop in a not-to-be-missed movie.

In a sleepy backwoods village, Vijay Salgaonkar (Devgan) idles away long hours operating his cable-TV store while his wife Nandini (Saran) spends time raising their two daughters at the family’s remote home. The Salgaonkar’s high school age daughter Anju (Dutta) returns from a school fieldtrip, soon followed by Sam (Chadda), a creepy classmate who secretly shot a compromising video of Anju and threatens Anju with blackmail. Confronted by Anju and Nandini in a violent outburst, Anju accidentally kills the blackmailer. Vijay returns home to learn of the horrific turn of events.

Learning that Sam is the son of Inspector General Meena Deshmukh (Tabu), the area’s powerful police commander, and her businessman husband Mahesh (Kapoor) proves to be just the beginning of a quagmire the Salgaonkar’s have stepped into. As Sam’s missing person trail lands at the Salgonkar’s doorstep, a couple of realities begin to sink in. The family will have to act out an outwardly normal-appearing life. While doing so, they must also patch together the perfect alibi and live that lie.

Compared to recent generic-sounding Hindi movie titles (Thank You, Happy New Year, Partner, Bang Bang or Ye Stupid Pyar), Drishyam is catchy.

This Sanskrit word for the view, or more appropriately the point of view, is exactly what the plot pivots on. The exploitation of a lie—excruciatingly scrutinized, minutely de-constructed, witnesses mobilized, alibis told and then re-visited—all boil down to the he-said-she-said of entangled memories that don’t always overlap the truth.

The big screen etymology of Drishyam owes a huge bow to Jeethu Joseph’s own 2013 Malayalam language entry by the same name. Joseph’s Drishyam cast the great Mohanlal in the lead role and the movie went on to become Malayalam cinema’s highest grossing movie to date. Followers were soon drawn to this powerful, mostly-original story. Samat’s Hindi remake has rolled to sizable box office and critical acclaim.

As an actor, Devgan falls somewhere in the midst of great-actor to action star-spectrum. From his debut in the action-packed Phool Aur Kaante (1991) and later tough-guy roles in such entries as Omkara (2006), Once Upon A Time In Mumbai (2008) and Singham (2011) to his restrained everyman Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) and especially Rituparno Ghosh’s Raincoat (2004) Devgan has time and again proven his adaptability to bankable niche roles.

While both Devgan’s stoic-breadwinner and Tabu’s tough cops are impressive, however, the real scene-stealer here is Jhadav’s school girl Annu, the Salgaonkar’s younger daughter. Scared for her family’s safety and petrified of physical threats from the police, Annu cleverly conveys both fear and determination on the exact same face. The fate of her family may well depend on how she reacts to police scare tactics.

Joseph’s outline also taps socio-economic differences between the Salgaonkars and Inspector Meera’s family. Ajay is discredited repeatedly for his humble middle class background—his having a fourth grade education is mentioned numerously —and hence viewed as too dumb to have this seemingly iron-clad alibi. While so much of the eye witness account depends on the credibility of exactly what the bully-cop Gaitonde (Sawant) saw on that fateful day, that account enticingly becomes suspect for a well-known previous grudge Gaitonde holds against Ajay.

Even though Joseph admitted that the story indeed bears some resemblance to Japanese writer Keigo Higashino’s 2005 critically acclaimed bestseller The Devotion of Suspect X, there is enough material to substantiate a working original story for these movies. If one suspends the authoritarian strong-arm ethics or the legality of questioning an entire family as murder suspects while treating them as virtual prisoners or threatening them physically for not “cooperating” with the police or a police inspector with a missing son being allowed to officially investigate that disappearance herself, Drishyam makes terrific viewing.

EQ: A

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.

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