The most difficult situation for a learned judge is when he has to give a verdict that respects the law and delivers justice as well. The appeal for euthanasia by 24-year-old terminally ill Venkatesh Krishnan (Vishal Jethwa) puts Judge Anupam Bhatnagar (Prakash Raj) in a quandary, torn between what’s emotionally right and what’s in the law books.
This entire sequence where Prakash Raj emits dignity, empathy and legal erudition in right measure is perhaps the finest part of director Revathy’s tragi-tearjerker which is based on ‘The Last Hurrah’ by Shrikant Murthy.
But to get to that immensely heart-tugging point, Revathy and her team of writers (Sameer Arora, Kausar Munir) take a lengthy and laborious route, overusing a series of tuneless songs to establish the flashback story of Venkatesh and his incurable genetic disorder, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). An abnormality where the muscles stop growing and degenerate.
Given the premise of a dying young man, there is plenty of room for the eyes to well up and Revathy makes full use of it. Rather, overdoses on it to the point of being melodramatic.
Combining soppiness with sloppiness in writing, like people groping in the dark wondering how to insert the flashbacks, Venky has blind girlfriend Nandu (Aneet Padda) and a bucket list that can’t be fulfilled. Mention with a sad face a visit to the ashram to watch the sunset together from the lighthouse and there’s an immediate flashback to the ashram with a Guruji (Anant Mahadevan) and a silly song that goes, ‘Anda bata paratha’.
Soon there’s another song and flashback for the Nandini-Venky love story.
Then another for sister Sharada (Riddhi Kumar) and her life with Venky.
There are smile-worthy moments like Venky wanting Nandu to ‘Palat palat palat’ like SRK and Dr Shekhar (Rajeev Khandelwal) fulfilling it with a smile.
But there are also endless dialogues with ‘I don’t have much time’, ‘Time’s running out for me’, ‘Kam time hai’, ‘I won’t be here long’ or ‘My train’s coming early’ with references to Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s simply narrated Anand and the line, ‘Zindagi lambi nahi, badi honi chahiye, Babumoshai.’
The pace really picks up only when the core story of the right to die and the legal battle begin.
But every time there’s a recess in court and Venky’s sinking, Revathy’s formula of flashbacks takes over. When the doctor states that soon Venky won’t be able to talk at all, it signals another hop back to the time he learnt sign language and made his mom Sujata (Kajol) learn it too with the inevitable, ‘Once my stop comes…’
Going to the ashram to film a video to present in court calls for another flashback+song. While that brings a yawn, when the video is played in court topped with Venky addressing the judge in sign language from the hospital bed and his mother translating it in court, it doesn’t leave a single dry eye in the audience.
As mentioned earlier, Judge Bhatnagar’s dilemma where he takes a departure from routine and visits Venky with his commanding presence is a highpoint.
But just when you’re savouring it, comes another song, this time from mom Sujata as the doctor shuts Venky’s eyes one last time. The narration isn’t done with the songs as there’s still one more with all of them trooping back to the lighthouse.
What was essentially the courageous story of a mother and son is distracted with all those sundry flashbacks and songs featuring Nandu, Shardu, Guruji et al.
What elevates it and makes it watchable is Kajol transforming herself into Sujata who defied dire medical pronouncements and kept her son alive and cheerful for 24 years. Sujata’s outraged outburst in court about selling her son’s organs and the sign language video make the tears flow freely.
There are other wet-eyelid moments like the time Shardu ejects her father Karunesh Prasad (Kamal Sadanah) from the hospital. Which is followed with the inevitable flashback to how he’d declared any expense on Venky’s treatment a “dead investment”. Flashbacks once again support how Sujata fought the odds and brought him up.
Prakash Raj and Rajeev Khandelwal give gravitas and heart to the story. Priya Mani as the Public Prosecutor and Rahul Bose as lawyer Parvez Alam who files the writ petition for Venky and Sujata, make the courtroom proceedings believable.
‘For 21 years you’ve been asking me to go away,’ says a deadpan Aamir Khan early in the film. You can’t figure out this unnamed character Sujata talks to intermittently. But when the penny drops, it makes sense especially when the figure dressed in black tells Sujata in Venky’s last moment, ‘Let him come with me’.
The law once said that you could only harvest only the organs of the brain dead, you cannot pull the plug as long as the heart is beating. The law has changed since then as the end credits inform the viewer.
It is ultimately a substantial, emotional story. But this heavy film required a crisper narrative flow.
Watch Salaam Venky Trailer:
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