If Keigo Higashino’s novel is a master class in the art of deception, the movie provides a tutorial on double deception. Drishyam’s greatest feat is not its airtight and suspense-filled screenplay, a rarity in Indian cinema, but its ability to cleverly disguise and adapt its source.
Drishyam’s writer and director, Jeethu Joseph, has repeatedly denied similarities between his 2013 release and the Japanese thriller, which was published in 2005 and translated in 2011. To be fair to Joseph, Drishyam’s uses only the bare-bones plot of Higashino’s audacious story to weave his own yarn about crime and punishment. Drishyam was a monster hit in Malayalam and produced remakes in Kannada and Telugu in 2014. The Hindi remake, directed by Nishikant Kamat and starring Ajay Devgn, will be released on July 31. Before the Hindi version, the Tamil adaptation Papanasam, featuring Kamal Haasan in the lead role and also directed by Jeethu Joseph, will be out on July 3.
Meanwhile, Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms has taken the trouble of buying the adaptation rights of the Japanese novel. But that version, to be directed by Kahaani filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh, is languishing in development hell, and by the time it emerges, it is likely to find its thunder already stolen by the Hindi Drishyam. Kapoor sent a legal notice to Joseph last year, but the filmmaker declared that his film was “neither an adaptation nor a copy”.
The novel is not about murder but the alibi. There is no suspense about who the murderers are, but plenty of nail-biting moments in knowing whether or not they will be exposed. Yasuko, who works at a restaurant, and Misato, her daughter, get an unwelcome visit from her former husband. When he tries to shake them down for money and threatens Misato’s honour, mother and daughter retaliate, inadvertently killing him. All of this happens within the first chapter.
Their neighbor Ishigami, a bookish school teacher whose heart pounds for Yasuko, steps in and offers to clean up. Not only does he do so, but he also builds an airtight alibi that is shaken only by the efforts of a police detective and a brilliant physics professor and amateur sleuth.
In Drishyam, the family unit has expanded to four and is far more conventional. The characters are sharply defined, and every little detail about them, such as their religious leanings (they are Syrian Christians), comes in handy as the movie progresses. George Kutty, played by Mohanlal, is a movie fanatic who runs a cable television business in a small town in Kerala. He adores his wife and two daughters and is adored in return, leaving us in no doubt that he will move mountains to protect them.
The screenplay proceeds languorously, introducing us to George’s family life, his financial worries, and his dreams of owning a movie theatre. The theme of police highhandedness and concerns over arbitrariness and corruption among the defenders of the law are introduced early, and puts audiences firmly on George’s side when his wife and daughter kill the pervert son of the state’s Inspector General of Police. George might be a class dropout, but he has immense reserves of native intelligence and cinephilia that come in handy in setting up alibis to save his family from prosecution.
Joseph’s cleverness lies in taking the novel’s basic premise, relocating it to an identifiable Indian setting, adding his own changes, and replacing abstract Japanese values of loyalty and honour with fuzzy Indian beliefs in kinship ties. In The Devotion of Suspect X, friendships built up in school and college influence the fates of characters, while in Drishyam, George’s commitment to his family justifies his vigilante actions all the way till the climax, which delivers a final, kick-in-the-teeth twist. Ishigami is a cerebral figure who is motivated by unrequited love, while George is an earthy dad-bod poster boy. Casting is key to the Malayalam movie’s success, with half the battle won by the presence of Mohanlal, a highly sophisticated actor with a proven ability to set aside his superstardom and convincingly slip into everyman roles.
Drishyam’s tagline warns us that “visuals can be deceiving”. There is actually little doubt about the inspiration behind Drishyam, but Jeethu Joseph’s achievement lies in lifting an intelligent concept and localising it so effectively that the links appear tenuous unless closely investigated. Drishyam is the perfect crime about a perfect crime, and its director’s alibi is almost as airtight as the one Ishigami creates for Yasuko and Misato.