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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

‘Salaam Venky’ movie review: Kajol struggles to keep this heavily-melodramatic saga afloat

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There is a scene in Salaam Venky when Venky cries as if in excruciating physical pain and says, as he writhes, that not talking to his mother feels like dying. The reason is a quarrel with his mother, Sujatha, who refuses to entertain a conversation about his euthanasia to facilitate organ donation. This exchange gives us an insight into how close the mother and son are.   

Salaam Venky is guaranteed to dry your tear ducts; it will even squeeze a tear or two out of the unsentimental viewer. Actor-director Revathy’s film is about 24-year-old Venkatesh, his mother Sujatha, and their fight against a debilitating disease and a system which denies him euthanasia. Kajol is superlative as Sujatha, Venkatesh’s (Vishal Jethwa) mother who takes on the system on his behalf.

The film is based on Shrikanth Murthy’s The Last Hurrah, inspired by the real-life story of chess player Kolavennu Venkatesh who, helped by his mother K Sujatha, petitioned for euthanasia so that he could donate his organs. Venkatesh suffered from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which causes muscle degeneration and eventually leads to death. He wanted to donate his organs while they were viable to be harvested. 

The Venky of the film is a happy, Bollywood-loving, chess-playing youngster who has a film dialogue for every occasion. The first half, rather elaborately, introduces us to the characters and their dynamics. His equation with his doctor (Rajeev Khandelwal), nurse (Mala Parvathi), sister (Ridhi Kumar), sweetheart (Aneet Padda), and even spiritual guide (Ananth Mahadevan) are all explored… but does the audience need to know the arc of every relationship? The script by Sammeer Arora and Kausar Munir seems all over the place, distractingly, and melodramatically so in the first half. 

The second half makes up for the first when we see more characters come in and the action picks up pace. Sujatha files a case seeking euthanasia on behalf of her son — it is his ‘last wish’. Rahul Bose is the lawyer Parvez who takes on a case knowing that he will, most likely, lose.

There are no pretences of providing definitive answers about the right or wrong of euthanasia. However as the narrative moves forward, one finds oneself rooting for Venky’s cause because of the purity of his intention. But since we are in the future, we know the outcome.  

Full marks for the choice of actors who deliver what the script demands; Rahul Bose and Priya Mani as lawyers on opposing sides, Aahana Kumra as the journalist helping the ‘cause’, Prakash Raj as the judge who hears the case, Aneet Padda (who is especially noteworthy) as Venky’s blind sweetheart, and Ridhi as the estranged sister who is back with her mother and brother. Malayalam actor Mala Parvathi is lovable as (what else?) the nurse Sister Clara who looks after Venky. Having to act with Kajol, Vishal has a tough act (pun unintended) to follow. If you expect to see Aamir Khan, don’t hold your breath, it is just a cameo.   

Salaam Venky

Cast: Kajol, Vishal Jethwa, Prakash Raj, Rahul Bose, Rajeev Khandelwal, Mala Parvathi, Ridhi Kumar, Aneet Padda

Director: Revathy

Storyline: A terminally-ill 24 year old, with the support of his mother, petitions to be euthanised so that he can donate his organs

The scenes between mother and son, even the light-hearted banter, are bogged down by melodrama and sadness. A young person battling a terminal disease is heart-wrenching, but the director seems intent on not letting us forget the fact. For an audience exposed to realistic kinds of films, Salaam Venky strikes as leaning a little too much toward the dramatic. That said, some of the lines, when said by a terminally-ill young person are heartbreaking. Like when bed-ridden Venky says that (because of the disease) his dreams have become small, or that how, in the afterlife, he wants to put his feet on the ground and carry the weight of his body.  

In one of the last scenes, when Venky asks Sujatha to sing for him, one expects Kajol to hum a song which seems fitting given the situation. But what one gets instead is a background song in true Bollywood fashion. That goes for all the songs in the film; why so many? Occasionally it feels like a musical just as the opening credits announced ‘a musical by Mithoon’.  

In this context, one can’t help but think of Shonali Bose’s The Sky is Pink, inspired by the true story of 18-year-old Aisha Chaudhary who dies of pulmonary fibrosis. It is also about a terminally-ill child and her family, but it was told realistically and poignantly.  

This film is from Revathy, a director who gave us Mitr, My Friend,Phir Milenge, a segment in the Malayalam film Kerala Cafe, among others. Did the writers and director get bogged down by having to do justice to the story since it is inspired by real-life and some of the people are still alive?

However, the advantage is that the movie could bring the focus back to organ donation, if not euthanasia for the terminally-ill. It is an uncomfortable, controversial topic, but the discussion has to start at some point.  

Salaam Venky is currently running in theatres



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