Salaam Venky begins with Shaan crooning a life-affirming song. It also has a terminally-ill patient surrounded by an overly-joyous and friendly hospital staff. Only when the jokes started falling flat and there was no emotional-churning did I realise this is not a Rajkumar Hirani film. It can be best described as Guzaarish without the Bhansali taint or the gravitas. The Revathi directorial, starring Kajol, Vishal Jethwa, and with an extended cameo by Aamir Khan, had everything going for it. It’s a story of a young boy suffering from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a disease in which the sufferer’s muscles start failing one by one. It has a mother who is willing to do anything for her dying son. But, it seems like the makers got too indulgent with the source material. With a true story like this, the best course of action would have been a restraint on emotions, a sadness lingering beneath the laughter, moist eyes with smiling faces. It’s easier to make the audience cry once they have laughed with you. The only thing Salaam Venky does is make you think: how much drama is too much?
Salaam Venky is based on the book The Last Hurrah by Shrikant Murthy, which is inspired by the true story of Kolavennu Venkatesh, a 24-year-old chess player and film freak, who is suffering from DMD. His last wish is euthanasia so that his organs can be harvested before they fail him. The film also tells the story of his mother Sujata (a convincing Kajol) and her struggles. The movie parachutes you to the final months of Venky’s life and is interspersed with flashback scenes. The result, however, is that we never know the extent of Venky and his mother’s ordeal. Venky’s life before the hospital is reduced to an optimistic song celebrating childhood. Sujata, on the other hand, is written plainly. She oscillates between being a doting mother and a grieving mother. The chemistry between the characters does not unravel over time and feels sudden. Particularly in a scene where Vishal Jethwa as Venky calls out to his mother, who is sulking over his resolve to seek euthanasia. It could have been a heart-wrenching scene as Sujata runs towards Venky and hugs him, but the actors missed the moderation and it felt overdone and dripping with melodrama.
Vishal, in an interview before the film’s release, said that because he couldn’t use body language to enact the character, he focused on making his smile infectious. He does try, but like most actors who are starting out, the acting feels like it is tugging at your feet, eager to be noticed. He has some endearing sequences, like the one where he recreates the iconic ‘palat’ scene with his visually-impaired childhood sweetheart. When it comes to the smile, Vishal has it plastered on a bit longer than usual and my mind kept wandering off to Sunny, his character from Mardaani 2.
Kajol, however, brings a certain, necessary calm to Sujata. Her character retains composure even when the script feels stuck. She demonstrates the flair of a seasoned actor. Her conversations with Fanaa co-star Aamir are cathartic. But it doesn’t aid a film which has excessive sunlight in shots to signify a sunny demeanour.
In the film’s final act, Rahul Bose, who is the representing lawyer for Venky’s euthanasia appeal, presents a video in court to prove his client’s mental stability. The video is a bunch of interviews with those who were with Venky since his childhood. His teachers from the Ashram he grew up in, classmates talking about how optimistic he is, and staff members remembering his jovial nature. After the video, the presiding judge, played by Prakash Raj, takes a moment. He pauses, sighs and tells Rahul, “Can you please wrap up your closing argument without any more drama?”
Film: Salaam Venky
Starring: Kajol, Vishal Jethwa, Aamir Khan, Rahul Bose, Ahana Kumra, Prakash Raj
Directed by: Revathi
Writers: Sameer Arora (screenplay), Kausar Munir (dialogue)
Rating: 2/5 stars
(This story originally appeared on Cinema Express)