At best, Salaam Venky is a middling affair and a missed opportunity. Watch it if you are a fan of Bollywood dialogues and for Kajol’s acting masterclass
Writers: Sammeer Arora, Kausar Munir
Cast: Kajol, Vishal Jethwa, Rajeev Khandelwal, Aahana Kumra, Rahul Bose
While the first half of the movie is spent establishing the seriousness of the little-known disease and the backstory of the characters, the second half traces the tough legal battle the mother takes up to fulfill her son’s last wish. He wants parts of him to live on after his body has given up on him. He wants to donate his organs but vital organs like the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, intestines, and pancreas can be donated only if a person is brain dead as the organs need an oxygen-rich blood supply to remain suitable for the transplant to take place. Usually, the patient is kept on artificial respiration, and the Indian legal system, under the Transplantation of Human Organs Act 1994, approves the removal of all such organs from a brain-dead patient (the act also identifies brain death as a form of death) provided all the proper consent-related paperwork is already in place.
Hence, Venkatesh wants to die by euthanasia as it will not only end his suffering but also it will ensure that his organs can be used before they become unusable due to his condition. It is to be noted that although passive euthanasia (that allows the withdrawal of life support from patients who are in a permanent vegetative state provided the patient gives consent through a living will) has been legal in India since 2018, the story unfolds much before that as the real Venky passed away in 2004 before the Andhra Pradesh High Court denied his mercy-killing plea. But his case added momentum to the debate on the ethical and legal aspects of euthanasia, more importantly, whether like the ‘right to life’ an individual should also be allowed the ‘right to death’, especially in the case of terminally ill patients.
The movie, as the case it is based on, can have the potential of becoming a conversation starter. There are also some movies that expect you to view them through the lens of empathy due to their sensitive plot and thereby turn a blind eye towards their flaws. Siya, released earlier this year, was one such movie. And now we have Salaam Venky. The most crucial part of working with such a grave and solemn topic is to find the right base note to build the story on; to find the right balance between serious and light-hearted. And the trick should be in the writing to ensure such a movie doesn’t get weighed down by its plot and become a dreary watch. A movie needs to be entertaining and gripping. Salaam Venky is definitely entertaining. But, it is also a movie that is too focussed on ‘entertaining’. It is too breezy for its own good. It is too contrived. Instead of pathos, it relies on gimmicks. It gets you emotional but fails to get you emotionally invested. Instead, you feel emotionally manipulated.
While trying to keep things cheerful, the real issues, the legal problems, the challenges faced by the mother to bring up her son, Venky’s accomplishments, and his pain, nothing is really probed or addressed. Everyone is ‘nice’ in this movie. There are no instances of bullying or real hardships apart from Venky’s medical condition in this world of the mellow sun–the friends are all nice and helpful, the Opposition lawyer hardly has any solid argument against his mercy plea, Venky’s mother, who is a single parent and has not shown to have any source of income, can effortlessly afford the best treatment in the best hospital and get her son the best room (one wonders why he is not in the ICU…but well). It is all too sweet to be palatable. There is a sister angle, which is so conveniently and cosmetically placed and dealt with that she isn’t not even given the dignity of becoming ‘human’. The love interest is blind because the hero needs a heroine he can lead and ‘support’, and Venky becomes her hero by being her eyes.
The writing, and the dialogues peppered with popular Bollywood movie dialogues, are chirpy, and at times the dialoguebaazi becomes a tad too much. It is a movie written in broad strokes. It seems the ‘quotable quotes’ spouting writers took inspiration from Shelly’s lines ‘Our sincerest laughter with some pain is fraught’ or Kaifi Azmi’s ‘Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho Kya gam hai jisko chhupa rahe ho’ but went overboard with the ‘waves of laughter’ in an attempt to build the contrast. You do feel extra sad to see a person so full of life inching towards sure death. There are moments that leave you teary-eyed. But there is no nuance, restrain or subtlety–the very things Revathi is known for as an actor. There are scenes where it trembles on the brink of melodrama. Her approach is more Guzaarish than The Sea Inside.
The glaring attempts at ensuring its commercial prospects take away from the experience the movie intends to build. The Aamir cameo is a great touch but it seems like an afterthought. It doesn’t organically blend with the goings-on and doesn’t add anything apart from the ‘Aamir Khan’ presence (although the presence is electric and Aamir gives his best performance of the year). The audience is given no reason or logic for Venky’s dad’s appearance at the hospital and his leaving in a huff, apart from attempting to create a sense of nostalgia by getting Kajol’s Bekhudi costar, Kamal Sadanah to share screen space with her, the first time since her debut in 1992. He has been given the most atrocious dialogue of the movies where he calls his son, Venky, a ‘dead investment’.
What also doesn’t work is the music (the background music that plays on the appearance of ‘guruji’ is loud and jarring music and doesn’t serve any purpose other than causing serious irritation). The music at best is mediocre, and there is just too much of it.
But what makes this movie worth a watch is the sheer quality of performance of its motley cast. While Rajeev Khandelwal, Aahana Kumra, Rahul Bose, Maala Parvathi, Prakash Raj, Anant Mahadevan, Priyamani, all bring in their A game, Kajol and Vishal Jethwa, as the mother-son duo, are simply stunning in this movie. Vishal, who had given an unforgettably menacing performance in Mardaani 2 as the antagonist Sunny, is almost unrecognizable as Venky. He gives another powerful performance proving his mettle as an actor. However, thanks to the pseudo positivity of the film, he is forever glassy-eyed and has a fresh smile pasted on his face which starts as endearing but becomes artificial (even a bit creepy), his exuberance in the face of death becomes a tad exhausting after a while. But one can’t blame Jethwa for this. Revathi ensures all signs of physical pain are wiped off his face and narrative. He seems like a talk show host doling out life lessons. But in the very few moments (especially in the scene where after admonishing his mother he breaks down realizing that this can be their last fight) he gets to showcase his acting range and depth, which he makes good use of.
But this is a Kajol film. Although her track often gets into the zone of melodrama, she anchors every scene brilliantly and lets her eyes do most of the talking (in fact, her eyes deserve a National Award for this performance). Her body language as the steel-willed mother is on point. She has a casual ease about her and makes it work for the character. She ensures that every inch of her body and soul is perfectly aligned with Sujata. She becomes her. And Aamir Khan becomes Aamir Khan again redeeming himself from his stammering Laal Singh turn, thanks to his nuanced cameo. It is a different thing that his character is the most absurdly written one and leaves you with a barrage of questions unrelated to Venky’s story. If dealt with properly, this bit could have blossomed into a poignant take on the trauma and fragile mental state of the caregiver, but here it just adds to the aesthetics.
Kajol gives one of her most powerful performances to date. But Revathi crams in too much music and revelry to make this a poignant experience. She not only treats the theatre audience as a sitting duck but also makes a foie gras out of them by force-feeding them emotionally flabby scenes wrapped in coarse layers of bland positivity.
At best, Salaam Venky is a middling affair and a missed opportunity. Watch it if you are a fan of Bollywood dialogues and for Kajol’s acting masterclass.