A cinephile tries to protect his family by hiding a heat-of-the-moment murder committed by his daughter by taking cues from the films he has watched. With the victim the son of a cop, can he get away with it?
The best thing about Papanasam is how convincingly it makes us forget the original Drishyam, and manages to stand on its own. The film is almost a frame-by-frame remake of the Malayalam film and still, it doesn't give that vibe of being a remake. The small town setting, where everyone knows one another, is crucial to the plot and Jeethu Joseph's convincingly sets his slow-burning crime thriller in picturesque Papanasam. Right from the slang, the local milieu is so well realized that the film transports us to the place.
Script-wise, there are no major changes save for the fact that the protoganist Suyambulingam (Kamal Haasan) is a markedly different character from that of the original's George Kutty. Mohanlal nicely underplayed the role and gave us the impression of a man who was confident of winning the cat-and-mouse game he was playing with the cops, Kamal Haasan makes the character more emotional and we see a man who cannot afford to lose. This approach makes Suyambulingam one among us, so in addition to caring for the character, we begin to see every problem that he encounters as our own.
Suyambulingam is someone who has made it big in life all by himself and he takes pride in the fact. His cable TV business serves as a perfect outlet for his obsessive cinema watching (he even stays up at his office during the night to watch movies on TV and goes home only in the mornings). But what he cares the most is his family — his wife Rani (Gauthami, decent in her comeback role) and daughters Selvi (Nivetha Thomas) and Meena (Esther Anil). When Selvi is blackmailed by Varun (Roshan), who has shot a scandalous video of her, the situation goes out of control and the boy ends up dead. Suyambulingam will not let his family suffer and so, hatches upon an elaborate plot — inspired by the movies he has watched and his innate street smartness — to create water-tight alibis. But his opponent, Geetha Prabhakar (Asha Sarath), is equally clever; she is a woman, a mother and a cop — and all these three kinds of people are known for their instinct. At one point, she sees through his game plan but can she prove that they are lies?
One of the strengths of Papanasam is how it makes us side with both these two characters in the end. Geetha's son might be a rogue but she and her husband (Ananth Mahadevan) are parents who love their son as much as Suyambulingam loves his daughters. But until the climax, we see her doing everything — including physical torture — to get the truth out. The supporting characters — Kalabhavan Mani as the constable who is constantly at loggerheads with the hero and is an eye-witnesses to his crime, MS Bhaskar as the friendly tea-shop owner, Delhi Ganesh as Suyambu's father-in-law, Aruldas as the decent sub-inspector — are just the right fit for the parts. Jeethu Joseph also irons out one major niggle in the Malayalam film — we are told why a lie detector is out of question in this particular case and that adds to the plausibility of the plot.
Given that the script is so strong, the filmmaking takes a backseat. The camera is unobtrusive though the framing and editing in some scenes comes close to TV drama and involves reaction shots of the characters in the frame. Thankfully, the low-key background score, which swells only during genuinely thrilling moments, gives a cinematic touch to the proceedings.
Though it is a plot-driven film, Papanasam is equally a Kamal Haasan show. This is turning out to be a splendid year for Kamal, the actor. If he made us care for Manoranjan in Uttama Villain with a restrained performance, here, he superbly balances the showiness and resoluteness of Suyambulingam. After a long while, Kamal isn't encumbered by the other roles he has to play in the film (we have to go back to Vettaiyadu Vilayadu to see him in only one role — actor) and that seems to have been refreshing for him. There is a little more vigour in his performance and it is a joy to see him having fun in the initial portions of the film. This calm also translates into a measured performance in scenes which require heavy-duty acting. Take away the minor issue of the fake moustache and this is a flawless performance.