Drishyam: The Script Was the Best Part!

I watched Drishyam!  Finally breaking free of my rom-com streak!  But I got Classmates delivered on DVD (finally!), so I’m going to watch that next and be back to rom-coms.  Although, I think I saw somewhere that Classmates has a mystery at the heart of it along with the romance?

Anyway, Drishyam!  Script first, because that was the most impressive part.  And the most important part, which is unusual to me.  No big visuals, no big sexy stars, none of the things that usually fill in the gaps in scripts in the Hindi cinema.

Although even with the tight script, it still had a very slow start.  They needed to establish how popular Mohan Lal was in the community, his conflict with the petty police Sergeant, his obsession with watching films, and his loving family and they way they all relate to each other.  I appreciated the careful time spent showing us all this, putting it all in place to be picked up as needed later.  But maybe not quite so much time?

By an hour in, I was almost hoping for someone to be murdered or tortured or blackmailed or SOMETHING!  Anything to interrupt this sort of neutral happiness and peaceful life!  And then it happened, and bam!  Everything kicked into gear!

The second half of this film is just completely different than the first half in content, pacing, etc., but they are still related to each other.  The construction is so intricate, it only makes sense if you see how all the small actions from the first half, down to a little dispute about a lunch bill, all come together to cause everything, good and bad, that happens to Mohan Lal and his family in the second half of the film.  Although, I still think they could have cut a good fifteen minutes out of the first half, just to keep things moving a bit faster.

According to dialogue, the title of the movie means visuals, or maybe perspective?  That is what gets kicked into gear in the second half, although it is already there in the beginning.  Mohan Lal runs a cable company for his area.  He controls what people can and cannot see, and while he is able to see everything.  In our first introduction, he appears to be, well, lazy!  He’s sitting in his office perfectly still watching a movie, while his assistant runs around repairing cables and collecting fees.  We see this again and again over the course of the first half, just his eyes looking at the screen, absorbing it, everything that comes on screen, even a sexy scene from a Hindi film!  (as always, I get very excited when seeing a Hindi film with songs I recognize and language I can sort of understand stuck in the middle of one of these Malayalam films)

(this song.  Oh Emraan!)

But slowly, over the course of the first hour or so, we learn that he is more than he appears.  He cleared and planted the area around his house himself.  He is a self-made man who didn’t want a dowry for his wife.  He only has a 4th level education, but married a woman with a 12th level and wants both his daughters to go to good private schools.  He is thrifty, but not cheap, knowing the value of money because he works for it.  His in-laws treat him as a son of their household, and take his advice.  The audience is set up to underestimate him in the beginning of the first half, just as the cops will at the start of the second.  And, just like the cops will eventually realize, the audience realizes that all those times he was seemingly simple and empty, he was actually thinking and considering and analyzing and remembering all the tricks that could help him in the future.

That is the first two meanings of the title, the view that the director gives the audience of his life and personality, the view he takes of the films he watches.  But there are more than just those!  There’s the view the cops and the community have of our hero and his family, unable to believe they could ever do anything wrong.  There’s the view our hero’s family has of him, as the strong support they all rely on, the one who can protect them from everything.  There’s the way he supports and protects them by blocking them from the view of others (for instance, a telling scene towards the end when he steps in front of his daughter, being an affable wall hiding her reaction from witnesses).  And there’s the way he creates a vision of his family’s actions to prevent any holes from being punched into their alibi.

But the two final uses of perspective/view/vision are the two most interesting to me.  First, the reveal that the audience was also missing vital elements of the alibi, a great meta-statement questioning the ways that editing and director’s choices change what the audience knows, or thinks it knows.  Very Blow-Up like.  But secondly, and more interesting to me, there is the final two confrontations between our hero and the police.  First, his confrontation with the police officer/mother of the victim.  She acknowledges that she saw the violence as a result of the actions of others, but she finally “sees” what her son really was, and how her actions lead to that.  She and her husband are the ones at fault, not Mohan Lal and his family.  Her view has changed completely.

And finally, the opening of the film was when the new man in charge of the police station arrived.  He saw Mohan Lal waiting and mentioned that “you would never think, looking at him, that he had done such things.”  This is his original perspective.  At the very end of the film, his perspective remains the same, as we come out of the flashback, the police officer reiterates his commitment to proving Mohan Lal is a “bad man”, and that he will easily be able to prove it, with the full force of the police force working on it.  We, the audience, started out by seeing Mohan Lal as a good simple family man, while the cop served as an alternative perspective, foreshadowing a shift, by saying “he had done such things.”  Through out the film, we see the things he has done, and we see that he isn’t just a simple gentle family man, he is also a savvy self-made businessman, an authoritative father, and a possessor of physical strength and drive. Only, through out, the family man identity remains primary. That is what the police officer fails to see at the end, he thinks this is an evil man, and that is how he will catch him.  But this is a good man, a man who feels no guilt or sorrow over what he has done, and that is why he will escape.

Okay, so, that’s all the big thematic stuff!  But what about the visuals, the songs, and the performances/characters?  Visuals wise, it was frankly kind of bland!  Straightforward.  No obstructed views, sudden edits, small moments of magical realism, all the stuff I am used to from the other modern Malayalam films I have seen.  It could just be this director’s style, or something about how crime films are usually made (I still don’t know enough about Malayalam cinema to answer these questions!).  But I think it could have been on purpose, because after a while I started to see how the super straight-forward visuals helped with the narrative.  We feel like we are seeing everything, because it is all right there in front of us.  Brightly lit, clearly framed, everyone hitting their marks perfectly, no over-lapping dialogue or background noise to obscure sound.  No ambient sound at all, no birds or wind or anything.  This is a very simply presented story which makes you think the story itself might be simple.

Songwise, there were only two I think?  There is the first one, which is basically a happy view of their whole life, from family outings to parental flirtation, to the youngest at a camp.  It is just a condensed version of what we have seen through out the rest of the first half.  But I did like the way it felt like their life was sort of bouncing along in rhythm with the world, with each other, with everything.  The second song was the opposite of that, everyone being separated and separate from each other, out of tune with the world and trying to get back into it.

(Happy!)

Performances and characters, this was the area where I had the most problems.  Not that anyone gave a bad performance, actually, just that the way they were told to perform in order to support their characters contributed to some issues I had with the characters.

Mohan Lal on his own, him I liked!  If he had existed in a vacuum, I would have loved it.  Gentle, funny, clever, nice, it was all very charming.  It was the way he was positioned within his family that bothered me a little.  It wasn’t just that he was the head of the family, or the outstanding spectacular one in the family, it was that he was the only one to take any decision, to control their interactions with the world, to insist on complete obedience.  I mean, he spent all day in an office in the middle of the village while his wife and daughters were stuck in a house 5 miles out, isolated from everything!  And the way the other characters in his family were created, it supported this position of him as the necessary protector from the world.

His wife, despite being a grown women with children and running a household, was made to beg and tease her husband for permission to spend money.  She was shown to be so naive that she didn’t understand how cell phone cameras worked.  She was styled in such a way as to make her seem more like a young girl than a grown woman.  Hair often down, heavy make-up, and so on.  Any one of these elements alone could be an accident, a random line of dialogue, a few small interactions between husband and wife, a make-up artist who is a little enthusiastic with the new age lipstick, but put them all together, and it feels a little purposeful.

His daughters are the same-fragile, charming, pretty, but without any ability to make logical decisions or follow through on them unless they have a man’s hand guiding them.  And those characterizations are built into the function of the rest of the narrative.  The initial complication is because his wife and daughter react with emotion and impulse instead of logic and forethought.  The rest of the film plays out with his family completely giving in to his control until, as he expected, one of them fails in logical reasoning and snaps into an emotional response again.

And the “evil” woman set against these “good” women is the reverse, with an unwomanly dedication to reason and logic, which causes all their problems.  As we see, it is her failure as a mother, more focused on her job than on her son, which leads him to become super skeezy.  And it is this use of logic that allows her to torment heartlessly our hero and his family.  Only when she finally gives in to emotion, does she recognize that the real problem is herself, and peace is restored.  Oh, and the other reason I am pretty sure that the styling of Mohan Lal’s wife and family was on purpose is because it was sooooooooo obvious what they were doing with the styling of the “evil” woman.  She goes from hair up, full uniform, minimal make-up, to hair half-down, noticeable mascara, and a Salwar, to a full Sari, hair loose, lipstick, eye shadow, the works.  Oh, and she also goes from dismissing her husband’s opinions to obeying him in all things.

My biggest issue with the female characters is the reaction to the “scandal”.  It is so stupid, it almost feels like maybe it is a asking for an against the grain reading?  A teenage girl is videotaped undressing for a shower.  It is clearly from a hidden camera, without her permission.  In response, she and her mother offer the boy in possession of the video sex, and then kill him.  Because him revealing it would be soooooooooooooooooo bad, that anything else they might do is justified.

Now, having a video like this released would be embarrassing, sure.  But it’s not going to ruin your life!  Not unless you think your whole life (or your daughter’s life) is tied up with the ability to marry the kind of guy who wouldn’t forgive a video taken without permission.  Or acceptance at a school that wouldn’t allow it.  Or a job that would fire you just for a minor indiscretion from high school.  The problem isn’t with the video, it’s with your priorities!

So, including this plot means one of three things:

1. The most likely option, the filmmakers actually think that it is an accepted fact that a hidden camera photo of a teenage girl will ruin her life, and that the girl and her mother will have such an uncontrollable reaction to the offense to their modesty that they will kill for it.

2. The second most likely option, that the filmmakers wanted to use something more scandalous and couldn’t come up with anything which would get by the censors, so they left it at this and didn’t think any more about it.

3. Just maybe, possibly, if you want, you could read it as Mohan Lal, his father-in-law, and society in general causing this to happen.  By protecting their women from any sort of threat or awareness of how the world works, by training them that all men outside their family are enemies, that any interaction with a man can be miss-interpreted, they set up a situation where the first slight problem in their way would result in this sort of massive over-reaction.  Just as the victim’s mother finally decided that it was her fault for how permissive she was with her son, possibly, maybe, you could argue that the film was showing that it was Mohan Lal’s fault for how protective he has been.

But, ignoring the whole female characters part of it, I liked the plot!  I liked the way it was set up and unfolded, and how subtle all the reveals were.  The visuals were bland, just in service of supporting the plot, so not my favorite thing.  The songs, ditto.  So, over all, not for me, but also not bad! (and if I missed anything super cool or subtle or whatever that you think I should appreciate, let me know in the comments!)

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20 thoughts on “Drishyam: The Script Was the Best Part!

  1. not sure whether you were criticising the film or our society in the last part..if it was about the film then its like some one watching an iranian film and then reviewing it as ‘i hated this film, all women charactors were wearing hijab, i hate them, they are against womens freedom,so its a bad film ‘ and so on….when you are watching a film from other culture you need to accept the culture atleast for the 120 minutes of watching the film.you can hate certain elements in the culture or the entire culture but cannot hate the film for depicting it ..the story wasnt happening in america,but in a very rural village in kerala..in a family where hus and wife are very less educated and almost no connection with outer world…wife is a house wife and husbands world too is confined within that very small remote village.. Spenting childhood in such a family set up,i can assure you that this is how things are here….it will be male dominated,husband/father takes all decisions, they guide everyone,and the woman needs to get permission for spenting the money,they need to beg or tease for months to get a new saree…..thats how a normal conservative family works…ofcourse not everyfamily but a family like this isnt anything rare here..if anything tragic like this happens to them,they have no other options than to turn up to the male head…he needs to protect them….if he fails entire family is ruined…director chose such a family as the background of the story.since he was a good director he was able to portray all these elements truthfully…and you apparently hated this family set up…you can criticize the society for it but yo ucant point out it as the negative of the film.and a hidden camera nude photo of a girl from a conservative family is a very bigthing here unlike in west…have heard more than enough news about girls and even families committing suicide for such videos and even photoshoped images..i agree these are the negatives of our society but not the film’s.

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    • I guess what I would have preferred is if I felt like the filmmaker was criticizing the assumptions made by the society and the attitudes of the characters. You can still accurately show characters and society, but in a way that indicates a bigger view of the situation. For instance, Bajrangi Bhaijaan showed a very conservative Hindu family, but it also indicated that liked the characters but didn’t agree with their beliefs. It’s not a big problem, more just something I noticed about this movie in particular because the higher quality Malayalam films I had seen up until this one (and this one is definitely higher quality film, not just a throw away like My Big Father) had a remarkably open-minded attitude towards female characters.

      Not that the other films didn’t show women’s position in society and the problems they faced, they did that, but they also showed a more well-rounded vision of the women themselves. For instance, in Manichitrathazhu it showed how a conservative superstitious village family treated a daughter who had a failed marriage and a bad horoscope. But it also showed how these assumptions affected her, and that she was more than just their assumptions, and how an outsider refused to countenance their behavior. So, in this movie, I would have liked just a few things changed just a little little bit. Just, like, have Mohan Lal hear what the blackmail content was and say explicitly to his daughter “I don’t care, you did nothing wrong.” Or just include a small scene showing his wife talking to a female friend, or planning a meal, or doing anything not related to her husband, so we had a sense of her as a person beyond him. Just little choices like that which could have easily been added, and were not.

      It’s not just an issue with Indian films, there’s the same kind of thing in American films all the time, with the argument of “We’re showing the attitudes of the characters and their society.” I’m watching Bridge of Spies right now, and it’s got the same kind of lousy way of dealing with women, which again is completely accurate to the society it is showing (Upper middle-class America in the early 1960s). But there are small choices you can make as a filmmaker to bring those attitudes into perspective, to make the female characters into fully rounded people, to show that while this might be how society is now, it should be better. And that’s what I would look for to make it a really really good movie, not just a good movie. But those kinds of movies are rare from any industry, Hindi, Malayalam, Hollywood, Iran, or anywhere else. It just seems fair, if I call out Mili and Ohm Shanti Oshaana and Premam and all the others for being so exceptionally good at building a real sense of a female character and her problems, I should call out Drishyam for not doing that as well.

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  2. and about the bland straight forward visuals,it is not this directors style…he is capable enough for those visual gimmicks and can appease a bollywood fan like you…watch his previous film memories(another thriller)…it has all such elements and a bgm of hollywood quality(heard that a r rahman was very much pleased by it and congratulated its music director)..but i believe this film isbetter infact a great film…but it seems our tastes are different so youwill probably like memories more

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    • thanks for the info on the director’s style! In that case, I am going to assume that my guess was correct, and that he purposefully chose the more straightforward visuals in order to make the script and story pop more. Which is kind of brilliant, since it tricks the audience into thinking we are seeing and understanding everything, even when we aren’t.

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  3. Drishyam was an ok kind of a movie. Sure I enjoyed it.But would I buy the dvd? Nope.You are right about the way the protagonist treats the women in his family- like fragile precious beings who can’t handle reality.But then there are women who enjoy being taken care of.That particular family functions that way and it makes sense for them.Cell phones became popular in the last decade or so and it makes sense that a woman in rural India would not be comfortable with it.

    But I have to disagree with you about the seriousness of the video. It had the power to ruin her entire life.Not just her marriage potential.Her family could be ostracized and not invited for family functions, she( and her mom and sis) could be propositioned by random people on the road and harassed so much that she won’t feel like getting out of her house,the sister’s chances of marriage could be spoiled…the possibilities are endless. Kerala society is very conservative and there is a salacious enjoyment of such scandals.So much that victims like the protagonist’s daughter choose to commit suicide rather than deal with the mess for the rest of their life.

    for the record, I don’t think the IG’s son was a criminal because of her failure as a mother.He’s a pucca criminal just like his mom. In a typical movie the IG would have been a man and the dynamic between Mohan lal and Asha a fresh face works here.

    Imran “the serial kisser” Hashmi was shown because we are familiar with him.Malayalis (both the educated and the uneducated) enjoy watching movies from other languages -Hindi,Tamil and English being the most watched. It makes sense that we are multilingual,considering the fact that most Malayalis end up leaving Kerala for greener pastures.

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    • There was a comment on another movie where they included a Hindi song that it is not unheard of in Malayalam films to have songs in other languages, as well as clips from films from other industries. That is so refreshing for me! The Hindi industry, of course, likes to pretend that none of the other industries exist, and the few Tamil and Telugu films I have seen are the same way. I like it that the Malayalam industry is less sort of insecure, and willing to admit that a whole range of industries exist.

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  4. Drishyam would definitely not be our ideal movie for a Bechdel test, that is for sure!

    I’d agree that in principle that a video clip of a girl showering *shouldn’t* make the girl or her family feel ashamed, or like family honour has been destroyed – in a better, maybe safer society that would rather help survivors than victim-blame them, she would view more as a violation of privacy than as a source of shame. Unfortunately, in a deeply conservative, even sexist society (in my hometown, for instance, you are expected to cover your head in church if you are awoman, and jeans and dresses (even knee-length ones) will have people staring at you like you’re the star attraction of a circus. It’s better in the cities, like Trivandrum and Cochin and Trichur, but in this scenario even telling your family about being sexually harassed on the street might result in them blaming YOU for the situation. THAT’S the kind of society that will condemn the daughter for being filmed but not the boy who filmed it o.O

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    • Well that’s super yuchy! But even if it is bad like that, you can still have our father in this particular film say “It wasn’t your fault”. Just add that one line in, and suddenly the problem is turned back onto society instead of on the girl. And I, myself, would have an easier time relating to our heroic father since I like him for being all supportive and nice about things. Oh, and they also could have slapped or yelled at the bad guy’s friend who was all casual about “oh yeah, we totally videotaped girls without their knowledge and spread the videos around!”

      Usually I hate it when movies stop dead for a little PSA to the audience, but this plot really felt like it was begging for that kind of thing.

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  15. Loved your analysis, Drishyam is a favorite of mine. I know I’m super late to this review but I think the reason Mohanlal’s character is shown to be over protective in the second half is because somewhere he feels responsible for the fact that his wife and daughter had to deal with the boy propositioning them. His habit of not being home at nights (and that is a huge deal in Kerala – a land very unsafe for women. His wife calls him out on this in the beginning of the movie but he doesn’t take it too seriously at that point). It takes such a huge tragedy for him to realize that maybe if he had been around, he’d have been able to handle the boy better and the whole scenario would’ve panned out differently. IMO, that’s why he takes it upon himself to fix the aftermath (so much as to not telling anyone else where the body was hidden).
    For me, it was also a study of how we have two different families in India/Kerala – Mohanlal’s where the father is the sole breadwinner/decision maker and mom a SAHM and Asha Sarath’s where she is in a more powerful position than her husband (influence wise, no idea who earns more). She’s an equal partner in the household and the duty of bringing a child up also seems divided in this family but we see that both parents aren’t perfect. I guess this brings us to the most important point – about parenthood – such a difficult thing to do right. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

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    • Your idea with Mohanlal being at fault for leaving them alone dovetails nicely with my feeling that it is his fault for raising them in such a protected fashion, not even giving his wife the knowledge of how cell phones work. It is his combination of removing their own defenses, and not being there to be their defense all the time, which lead to the situation. And I like the idea that Mohanlal/the film is acknowledging Mohanlal’s culpability by making him the one who has to clean it all up.

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