A wedding ring in a mixer full of molagapodi; a Christmas ornament of a caged bird, purchased on a whim; aflame origami swans floating in the air — there is a deliberation to the imagery in Sriram Raghavan’s latest film, a justification for every element in the mise-en-scène. His hauntingly romantic thriller Merry Christmas, is a film by a cinephile, for a cinephile. Set in a time “When Mumbai was known as Bombay”, it is full of easter eggs and pop-culture references that embolden the themes of the film, and add a layer to our viewing experience. Here’s a round-up of all the references we remember from our viewing of the film. (There are mild spoilers, so tread carefully.)
One of the opening frames of Merry Christmas features a lyric from John Lennon’s 1971 song “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, which was in protest of the Vietnam War, and reflected Lennon’s desire for hope and peace. “So this is Christmas; And what have you done?” he asks, a pointed introspection brought on by the holiday season and the advent of a brand new year. It is a call to action for people to take accountability for their actions, and do their part to make the world a happier place.
Merry Christmas pays tribute to legendary filmmaker Shakti Samanta, best known for films like Howrah Bridge (1958), Aradhana (1969) and Amar Prem (1972). We see Asha Parekh screaming — an iconic moment from Samanta’s Kati Patang (1971), where a woman pretends to be someone she’s not.
The acknowledgments at the beginning of the film mention French director Eric Rohmer, one of the editors of the highly influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. A tongue-in-cheek credit is also given to Tamil director Thiyagarajan Kumararaja, whose last outing was the acclaimed Super Deluxe (2019), also starring Vijay Sethupathi.
In the first few minutes of the film, Albert (Vijay Sethupathi) reads his fortune ticket, the kind that slides out of the large, coin-operated weighing machines at Indian railway stations. “The night is darkest before the dawn,” says the ticket, under an image of Rajesh Khanna. The phrase — which means that one’s situation always feels bleakest right before it is about to get better, an encouragement to have hope in the darkest of times — can be traced back to a 1650 poem by Thomas Fuller. It is also a quote by Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight (2008), where it is followed by “And I promise you, the dawn is coming.”
Our enigmatic protagonists cross paths again at Colaba’s Regal Cinema, all lit up for Christmas. The film they happen to watch is The Adventures of Pinocchio. Outside the theatre, Albert jokingly tells Maria (Katrina Kaif) that he often checked his nose when lying as a kid, for fear that it would elongate just like the fictional wooden puppet. Let’s just say that if this was a real phenomenon, both our main characters’ noses would be a foot long by the end of the film. Also showing at the cinema is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), a film that, like Merry Christmas, is a delicious blend of romance, mystery and murder. Sriram Raghavan, who is a fan of Hitchcock, has spoken in length about how the “Master of Suspense” has influenced his own filmmaking.
The motif of birds (which is also the name of the 1963 Hitchcock film) is present throughout the film. A Christmas ornament — a twittering bird in a cage — that Albert purchases is vital to the plot in more than one moment. Albert also has a habit of creating origami swans, which are used to make wishes as well as leave secret messages over the course of Merry Christmas. His habit could be an homage to E. Gaff, the police officer in Blade Runner (1982), who also had an affinity for creating origami figures that end up playing a meaningful role in the film. Imprisonment or freedom — being caged or flying free — is a key theme that Merry Christmas grapples with.
When Maria invites Albert over to her house for a nightcap, we see that her living room is meticulously furnished with trinkets that Albert surreptitiously fingers through when she’s in another room. Maria also has an impressive collection of murder mysteries, including one by detective fiction writer Raymond Chandler.
Maria’s living room also has a vinyl record of the 1969 Western Mackenna’s Gold. “In The Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg plays at a pivotal moment in the film. After a soft, playful start, the song builds to a chaotic crescendo, echoing the narrative rhythm of that specific scene. “Winter” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons features in the film’s climax, possibly alluding to cold futures and an ending that marks a new beginning.
In a moving conversation with Maria, Albert describes his life using the acronym DDDL: “Dil diya dard liya.” (Gave you my heart, took away your pain) It is a nod to the 1966 Hindi film of the same name, which in turn was an adaptation of Emily Brontë’s gothic romance Wuthering Heights. The dark, tragic tale is a mirror of Albert’s own love story. Later, Albert remarks that “sometimes violence is better than sacrifice,” giving us a hint into his past and ironically foreshadowing the story to come.
Amidst classical piano orchestrations and atmospheric contemporary ballads, the Merry Christmas score is also peppered with old Hindi songs at fitting moments. “Jab Andhera Hota Hai” from Raja Rani (1973) plays when a character breaks into another character’s house in the dead of the night. We hear “Pyar Ke Mod Pe” from Parinda (1989) at another point in the film.
Last and perhaps most noticeable is the reference to the Ernst Lubitsch film The Merry Widow (1934). Ronnie (Sanjay Kapoor) brings up the film in a conversation with Albert when the two of them find themselves in Maria’s apartment. Later, we see a poster of the film on a double-decker bus that slowly moves across the screen. The German filmmaker was known for his precise and polished cinematic style, dubbed “The Lubitsch Touch”, influences of which can also be observed in Raghavan’s neo-noir cinema.
With inputs from Anupama Chopra and Rahul Desai.