Salaam Venky: Outstanding Performances, Weak Script
Focus on organ donation and passive euthanasia
I really cried after a long, long time, while watching ‘Salaam Venky’ on Zee5. But that does not necessarily mean that Revathi has excelled herself as a director. The title song against which the credits scroll up has its opening lines borrowed from the oft-repeated line Rajesh Khanna mouthed in ‘Anand’ way back in 1970 which everyone who has watched the film knows by heart. ‘Zindagi lambi nahin, badhi honi chahiye…’ is the line, repeated by Venky in the film and also by his mother, Sujata.
‘Salaam Venky’, though based on a true story, is a cinematic tribute to Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s ‘Anand’. Rajesh Khanna had played Anand, a terminal patient in the film.
Thanks to Revathi, the protagonist Venky, is not suffering from cancer. Because terribly melodramatic cinematic versions of cancer have been bashing us over decades with tears. In this film, Venky is a terminal patient of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD).
The film is based on ‘The Last Hurrah’, a 150-page ‘fictional biography’, which, through the film, seeks to revive the debate on these sensitive issues of organ donation and passive euthanasia. It recounts the lone fight of Sujata, the boy’s mother, to fulfil the last wishes of her son whose earlier dream— to be a soldier remained unfulfilled.
Life itself became a battle for K. Venkatesh, a chess player afflicted by the terminally debilitating Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). Medical websites describe Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy as being “caused by a defective gene for dystrophin (a protein in the muscles)”. Venkatesh remained indomitable as he fought on, supported by Sujata, demanding the right to die so that others could live.
Venkatesh died in Hyderabad in December 2004 without getting his wish as the judiciary turned down his plea. But he generated a large popular support for his cause which is said to have led to the legalisation of passive euthanasia in 2018.
The film, despite the very cheerful Venky (Vishal Jethwa), is set in a depressing environment of a luxurious nursing home room, almost right through the film. Venky’s mother Sujata (Kajol), sister Sharda (Riddhi Kumar) blind girlfriend Nandini (Aneet Padda) and his guru (Anant Mahadevan) from the ashram where he studied, move freely in and out of the spacious room. It looks roomier than any normal nursing home, but is shown to be without any hygienic and sanitary precautions in place, breaking all accepted rules for visitors and family moving in and out of the intensive care cabin of a terminally ill patient.
That apart, ‘Salaam Venky’ portrays a powerful mother-son relationship well, with outstanding performances by Vishal Jethwa as Venky and Kajol as Sujata. They touch each frame and scene with ever-vacillating emotions, with a lot of fun through peppy dialogue, happy and sad nostalgic moments. Sujata is forever pained by the impending death of the 24-year-old, fun-loving Venky.
On the positive side, Revathi steers clear of bringing any religious rites and rituals in the script, which could have marred the humane elements in the relationship. Venky’s sister Sharda also adds that touch of affection to his final days.
But on the negative side, there are just too many loopholes to make the film a strong statement for passive euthanasia on the one hand and organ donation on the other. First, is the character of Nandini, Venky’s childhood girlfriend who is blind, but whose background we do not learn about at all.
Second, is the sudden appearance of Amir Khan who seems either to be an alternate ego of Sujata, or someone she knew well who is now dead. Amir Khan remains a question mark from beginning to end. He is not linked to Venky except promising Sujata that he will hold Venky’s hand and will take him to the other world when the time comes. Who IS he?
Third, is the wrong message of Nandini seeing through the dead Venky’s eyes because legally, eye donation is done in anonymity where one cannot choose the recipient. Nandini’s blindness therefore, is a cinematic compromise to make her see the waves of the sea and the view from the lighthouse through Venky’s eyes. Isn’t that stretching the melodrama a bit too far?
Prakash Raj, who does a brilliant cameo as the judge in the court case filed by Sujata on behalf of her son to permit him to donate his organs after death through passive euthanasia, suddenly walks into Venky’s cabin to see him in person and then delivers a lecture of thanks. Really! The final shock comes when Sujata begins to sing a song on Venky’s last request when he is dying. And there is no tremor in her voice nor does she choke in unshed tears. Is this possible?
However, all said and done, one must concede that Salaam Venky is a timely film made with great care to reach a strong message across to the audience. It also has to try and fit into the demands of the mass audience against the backdrop of films like ‘Pathaan’ and ‘RRR’ – a tough demand indeed but Revathi has done it in her own way.
The film would have ideally suited its subject had the running time been clipped by at least half an hour. It pulls on even when the story is long over. The camera makes the best use of the limited confines of Venky’s cabin-like room.
The flashbacks are sometimes superfluous and longer than needed. The music fits into the changing moods of the film. But the hospital ambience is too depressing.
The courtroom drama with wonderful actors like Ahana Kumra as the rebellious but loud television journalist, Rahul Bose as the defence lawyer, the razor-sharp Priyamani as the prosecution attorney and Prakash Raj as the judge liven up the proceedings and act as a thrilling diversion away from the patient’s room.
What holds the film together is the acting by the cast which includes Rajan Khandelwal as the friendly doctor, Anant Mahadevan as the ‘guru’, Revathi with her tiny bit of quoting from the Bhagwadgita as the judge’s wife as he steps out to deliver his judgement, and Kamal Sadanah as the boy’s father calling him a “dead investment” when he learns that spending on his expensive medical treatment is futile.