Revathi’s Salaam Venky is based on The Last Hurrah by Shrikant Murthy. The book is inspired by the true story of Kolavennu Venkatesh, a 24-year-old chess player who suffered from the rare degenerative disease Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The story is equally about his mother Sujata, who steadfastly fought to fulfil her son’s last wish. Medical predictions estimated a 16-year life span for Venkatesh, but his determination and love for life, along with his mother’s unflinching commitment, saw him live to the age of 24.
Adapted for the screen by Sameer Arora, Salaam Venky is a mother-son story with Kajol playing Sujatha and Vishal Jethwa as her charming, smiling son Venky. His final wish is to die by euthanasia, which will allow him to donate his organs. (Passive euthanasia has been legal in India since 2018.)
The first half of the 136-minute film unfolds mostly in a hospital room where Venky is hooked up to machines and tubes. Through flashbacks, we see his childhood, his relationship with his peers and his hobbies. Venky loves Hindi movies and swears by the line from Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand (1971): “Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin” (life should be lived to the fullest ).
In the hospital, Venky is surrounded by caring nursing staff and a compassionate doctor (Rajeev Khandelwal). His mother, sister (Ridhhi Kumar), childhood friend (Aneet Padda) and members of an ashram, where he was raised, are his constant companions and visitors.
The second half is largely about Sujata’s petition, the court case and media support for the case. Rahul Bose and Priyamani play opposing lawyers and Ahaana Kumra is the television reporter championing this news story. Prakash Raj, Kamal Sadanah, Anant Mahadevan and Parvathi T also feature. Aamir Khan makes a quizzical cameo appearance.
In spite of being constantly teary, Kajol immerses herself into the part of the devoted mother, particularly as she banters with and cares for her dying son. Jethwa has the toughest job. He has to convey physical and emotional transformation and decline, sometimes without any spoken words. As he does so, he takes you by surprise.
Kolavennu Venkatesh passed away in 2004, the same year Revathi’s Phir Milenge was released. Like its inspiration, the Hollywood film Philadelphia, Phir Milenge dealt with the subject of AIDS and unfair dismissal from work. Salaam Venky too tries to spotlight important issues and hopes to be a conversation starter. The intention is right, but this is too sorrowful a film that pries open a tiny crack of hope.