At the time I saw Nishikant Kamat’s Drishyam, I hadn’t seen Jeethu Joseph’s blackly comic Malayalam thriller of the same name, on which it is based. I still haven’t seen the recently released Tamil remake with Kamal Haasan. Nor have I read The Devotion Of Suspect X, the Japanese novel that Joseph insists has nothing to do with the movie but which bears more than a passing resemblance to it. So I was happy to play along with the conceit that this film was “based on an original story" by Joseph instead of being an authorized copy of a possible unauthorized copy.

Drishyam starts in the most un-thriller-like fashion. We meet Vijay (Ajay Devgn), an amiable “chauthi fail ganwaar aadmi" (in his own words, “a class IV drop-out") who owns a small cable TV business in Goa. The first 40 minutes are spent establishing him as a family man, movie-obsessed, not book-smart but a quick thinker, popular in the community—all important factors in what’s to come, but which could nevertheless have been handled with less economy. Then, just as I was beginning to scribble “Get a move on" on my pad, the film moved straight into fifth gear and stayed there for the next 2 hours.

The acceleration begins—and skip this paragraph if you’d prefer to avoid a mild spoiler—when Vijay’s elder daughter, Anju, is approached by an unblinking young man who may as well have sleazebag written on his T-shirt. We had seen the two on a school trip together, and he tells her that he had shot a video of her taking a bath there. He asks her to meet him at night; she does, bringing along her mom (Shriya Saran) for support (why not her well-muscled dad?). As the boy tries to blackmail the mother—there’s a queasy scene with her going down on her knees to beg for her daughter’s honour—Anju grabs a rod and tries to knock the mobile phone containing the video out of his raised hand. She ends up braining him instead—fatally. Mother and daughter bury the body in the backyard. When Vijay returns—he’d been watching movies in his office all night—they tell him everything.

Instead of reporting the matter to the police, Vijay comes up with an elaborate plan to cover their tracks. To reveal any further details would be unfair—especially since it’s so rare to see an Indian film that’s constantly (and convincingly) a couple of steps ahead of the audience.

Unfortunately, while the twisty plot is enough to see Drishyam home, Kamat’s direction is just serviceable. Too often, he takes multiple scenes to establish things that could have been made clear in one. Remakes are often a good opportunity to trim the fat, but there’s only a minute shaved off the original’s 164-minute running time. There are also tonal inconsistencies: This sort of material is fine when played as a comic thriller, but when the film regresses into a sentimental tale about a man trying to protect his family (and, let’s not forget, covering up a murder), it’s unconvincing. A dash of style might have helped as well. “Visuals can be deceptive", the film’s tag line warns—but the visuals here are just drab.

Neither are the performances all that they should be. Devgn’s been away from serious acting for so long that it’s a relief just to see him underplay and not chomp at the scenery too much. What he can’t do is make Vijay interesting—he struck me as bland even before I saw Mohanlal essay the same role in the original. Ishita Dutta and Mrinal Jadhav, the elder and younger daughters, respectively, and Saran do way too much hand-wringing, though whether it’s on the director’s instructions or the actors’ fault is difficult to tell.

In the midst of all this is Tabu, operating on a whole different level as IG Meera Deshmukh, a tough-as-nails cop who also happens to be the dead boy’s mother. She is immediately suspicious of Vijay—it’s a feeling we cops get, she explains to her husband (a moving Rajat Kapoor)—but she’s also fascinated by his manoeuvring and his audacity, even as she’s hurting at her loss. The way Tabu switches between these conflicting emotions, and occasionally allows them to overlap, is a sight to behold. Despite being saddled with a number of scenes in which she’s asked to glare at the camera in slo-mo, she’s the best thing in the film by some distance. Drishyam is a solid remake, but would have been much more exciting with Tabu in Vijay’s role and Devgn as the cop.

Drishyam released in theatres on Friday.

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