Pity those who have watched the 2013 Malayalam movie Drishyam or its multiple remakes, most recently the Tamil Papanasam, and are admirers of writer and director Jeethu Joseph’s combo meal of melodrama and mystery and Mohanlal’s superbly judged performance. And pass the hanky to remake purists who believe that if the original is more or less perfect, there is no need to snip out what worked and insert scenes that don’t.

If the Hindi remake, also called Drishyam, proves anything, it is that Joseph’s movie, which borrows its central idea from the Japanese thriller The Devotion of Suspect X, is a hard act to follow. The Hindi Drishyam, directed by Nishikant Kamat, works just fine so long as it reproduces its original twisty quality, but it nevertheless suffers from miscasting and unnecessary scripting tweaks.

Ajay Devgn makes a most unconvincing father who goes to extreme lengths to protect his family; the age gap between Shriya Saran, who plays his wife, and Ishani Dutta, who appears as his daughter, is suspiciously small; there are avoidable glamourous touches to what is supposed to be a story set in a middle class family from a small town in Goa.

If Kamat had to meddle, it was in the matter of the bloated running length. At 163 minutes, the Hindi version is only a minute shorter (it does have a lengthier credit roll) than the Malayalam. Kamat has crunched some sequences, but the wrong ones, and he has added others that were not required.

The original Drishyam spends close to 40 opening minutes on creating identification with its main characters, especially Mohanlal’s Georgekutty, an under-educated but self-made man who loves his cable business, his family and the movies. The cable business gives Georgekutty social standing in his small town, his wife and two daughters are his universe, and the seventh art is his real teacher. Drishyam suggests a movie within the main movie: whether it is the concept of habeas corpus or the art of gaming a police interrogation, there is little that Georgekutty hasn’t learnt from hunching before a DVD player. He has scripted his own life thus far, and with some help from his favourite past-time, he proves to be a most adept writer and director when his beloved family is in peril.

By the time Georgekutty is valiantly steering a cover-up of an accidental murder committed by his elder daughter, the viewers are firmly on his side. And by the time Georgekutty is thrashed about during an unlawful police detention, there is little sympathy for the senior police official whose son was the murder victim.

Malayali audiences didn’t mind Drishyam’s languorous pace, and the Tamil version, also directed by Joseph, was similarly relaxed, saving its punches for the post-interval section.

Calculating that Hindi audiences will turn their attention to their smartphones rather than watch Vijay Salgaoncar (Ajay Devgn) bond with his wife Nandini (Saran) and daughters Anju (Dutta) and Anu (Mrunal Jadhav), Kamat short-circuits the build-up. The opening scenes of the Hindi Drishyam briskly lay out Vijay’s frequent runs-in with corrupt sub-inspector Gaitonde (Kamlesh Sawant) and his movie-watching habits. 

Lost in adaptation are the nicely observed domestic encounters that establish these four individuals living under one roof as a family rather than actors herded together. Also missing is the father’s parsimony, which is a sign of his careful nature and his obsessive attention to detail. The décor of Vijay’s beautifully appointed house, from its wall-hanging ceramic plates to its tasteful bed linen and table lamps, indicates “well-preserved heritage bungalow in Goa frequently given out for shoots” rather than “the Salgaoncar abode.”

The movie takes off when Tabu’s Inspector General of Police Meera Deshmukh descends on the Goan town to investigate her son’s disappearance. She correctly surmises that Vijay is involved, but finds it hard to shake the collective story presented by the Salgaoncars. Although the original Drishyam has denied all resemblance to The Devotion of Suspect X, it has borrowed the idea that the plot is driven not by the crime itself but the defence of the alibi.

As Meera bends the law she is paid to protect and holds the Salgaoncars without so much of a warrant, Drishyam cleverly taps into public antipathy against a culture of policing characterised by brutal interrogations aimed at extracting confessions rather than solid investigation. Despite his lack of formal education, Vijay proves to be a formidable adversary who channels anger over human rights abuses endured by common people at the hands of the police in real life. Will an IGP sanction the battering of a child to find her son? Drishyam is a thriller and an entertainer, but it is also makes a political statement in its own way.

Most of the camera angles, dialogue, situations and characters that are imported wholesale from the original constitute the movie’s strongest scenes, especially the harrowing interrogation of the Salgaoncars and the final twist to beat all twists. Tabu, playing the part owned by Asha Sarath in Malayalam, Kannada and Tamil, is perfectly cast as the blinkered and brutal cop. Tabu’s raspy voice and impassive face convey the systemic obduracy that Meera Deshmukh represents, and she is solidly backed up by Kamlesh Sawant in the role of sub-inspector Gaitonde, the only character who can prove Vijay’s guilt.

The strongest character in the script is the weakest in the movie. Ajay Devgn, like many other leading actors of his generation, has been coasting along on his gym-honed musculature and box office clout over the past few years. Drishyam requires him to portray a real person who is warm, affectionate and fiercely loyal to his brood but also capable of the kind of native intelligence that will outsmart the entire police force.

Wearing a scowl that occasionally lapses into a menacing smile, Devgn is far too sullen and cold to play a part that might have suited Govinda or Anil Kapoor better. He struggles, like the rest of the movie, to emerge from under the vast shadow cast by the original Drishyam and the redoubtable Mohanlal.