What makes moviegoing worthwhile even when the movies aren’t satisfying? Ranbir Kapoor dancing. Ranveer Singh smiling as a prelude, a warning. Alia Bhatt really listening to what the other person is saying. Nawazuddin Siddiqui thinking. Vidya Balan furrowing her brow. Hrithik Roshan being incapable of seeming in any way ordinary. Deepika Padukone crying.
These are evident pleasures, shared by millions. To them I’ll add one that’s more personal: Akshaye Khanna sauntering into a film and changing its tone. He's been doing it for five or six years now, in films as varied as Mom, The Accidental Prime Minister and Section 375. He smiles and scowls, contorts his face, waggles his eyebrows, as if to ask, aren’t we all here to have fun? He no longer has to carry the burden of stardom, so he can afford to be eccentric, to look like a dandy or sport a bald head. He seems to exist both in the films and above them, looking down from a height with amusement at the exertions of serious people.
Most of the first half of Drishyam 2 is Khanna-free—a pity, since the Salgaonkar family are (like in the first film) completely uninteresting right until movie-mad Vijay (Ajay Devgn) starts putting his elaborate schemes in motion. Elder daughter Anju (Ishita Dutta) is a nervous wreck, haunted by memories of the night she hit her blackmailer, a young man named Sam, with a pipe and accidentally killed him. Her mother, Nandini (Shriya Saran), is, if anything, in even worse shape, going to pieces at the mere sight of a cop. Vijay, who ran rings around the cops back then, is still unflappable. Unlike his wife and daughter, he’s moved on, opening a movie theatre and working on a screenplay he hopes to produce. But seven years on, the town hasn’t forgotten the scandal, and neither has Sam’s mother, former IG Meera Deshmukh (Tabu).
The first half of Drishyam 2—which, like Drishyam, is a remake of a Malayalam film starring Mohanlal—is a steady accretion of detail (including a chance sighting of Vijay on that fateful night) leading to the point where the new IG, Tarun Ahlawat (Khanna), can reopen the case. The first time we see Ahlawat, he’s playing—or contemplating playing—chess while two officers wait in the other room. One of them explains that not only does the IG play chess against himself, he will not move a piece until he’s thought of his opponent’s move, which is to say, his own. “He’s crazy, but a genius. Eccentric, but methodical.” We got all that from the weirdo staring at the chessboard with all the pieces in starting position.
Drishyam 2 would probably be a better film if Anju and Nandini had any kind of poker face. But lord, is it fun to see Ahlawat make them jump. He turns up unannounced at their place when Vijay is out. He tells Nandini he’s the police. “Police?” she says, ready to cry. “Chor-police? Wohi police,” Ahlawat replies with a grin. He goes on about a bug that’s destroying the soil in which her flowers grow, bottom-tier intimidation talk that wouldn’t rattle a child, except this is Nandini, who we realize Vijay has kept in the dark for good reason.
Abhishek Pathak’s film, co-written with Aamil Keeyan Khan, starts moving very quickly once Ahlawat assembles the pieces. The pacing was different in the first film, which had about 45 minutes of buildup followed by two hours of Vijay outwitting cops. By packing Vijay’s ingenuity into a shorter timeframe, Drishyam 2 risks a distracted audience. The one at my screening definitely was, though they visibly enjoyed the film after intermission. So did I—though I wish it had done more with Vijay going from storyteller by necessity to screenwriter. Cinema cannot, will not save you every time.
Devgn does nothing wrong and nothing memorable. He plays Vijay as a boring winner, a measured, resourceful spinner of tales. It’s not that he isn’t believable, but this is the sort of film that begs for a witty performance, not a stolid one. Picture Khanna as Vijay and imagine what we’re missing out on.