Technically, Vasan Bala’s Monica, O My Darling, which is streaming on Netflix, is an adaptation of a novel by bestselling Japanese novelist Keigo Higashino. Yet its treatment is so distinctive, you can’t imagine it anywhere but in the director’s cinematic universe. The Huma Qureshi - Rajkummar Rao starrer has Bala’s trademark style, which we first saw in Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota (2018). Full of quirk and hat-tips to Indian cinema and Hollywood, Monica, O My Darling is a treat for cinephiles — and somewhere in the middle of all the easter eggs is a murder mystery.
You must have had a vision for Monica, O My Darling. Did the film meet your expectations?
Yes, and everyone let me also, which is a privilege. I have no regrets but if you ask me to make it again, I’ll make a hundred different choices. But this is a film that is completely me and, in that sense, has been untampered.
Were there elements you wanted in the movie that were non-negotiable?
No, there’s nothing like those. It’s the overall vision, it’s not ki mujhe yeh location chahiye, mujhe yeh dress chahiye (I can’t do without this location, I require this costume). It’s never about the specifics, it’s the overall vision of what you’re trying to achieve. I think you have to be very stubborn about it. Other than that, filmmaking is hardcore logistics. A lot of things will be in your favour and many things won’t. You’ll have to keep manoeuvring around what is available and what is not. But overall, the tone, character arcs, the stereotypes you’re trying to break, the genre tropes you want to subvert — those constituted my vision.
What were the stereotypes that you were intending to break?
It’s not so pointed. It’s more in the philosophical realm rather than a bullet point/PowerPoint thing. It is not that engineered, it is more of ‘feel’, and vision is also a feel, which is beyond a to-do list.
Is there a particular reason why the movie is set in Pune?
Because it is Sriram Raghavan’s birthplace, and because he also sets all his films in Pune…Pune noir. It was a tribute to him, in reverence to him, that we wanted it in no other place but Pune.
In the movie, it almost seems like the murderer wants recognition but is not receiving it.
In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a murderer who is a ninja, who feels he’s God because he’s invisible. He’s like…I’m so down the food chain that you never look at me and now I can become God by killing anyone. So it’s ulta (the opposite) actually. He wanted to be seen, but no one saw him and still, nobody sees him. So he thinks he is God… and the fact that he can get away with anything.
What was it like working with Sukant Goel, who plays Gaurav More?
Sukant is an incredible actor. His stage plays are legendary. I came to know first about Sukant when Anurag Kashyap told me that he was going to be casting him in a series that he was supposed to be making a while ago. Then, I have seen his work here and there. When I met Sukant, I knew this is a very astute actor who is completely committed to his craft and just a great guy to work with. He’s an amazing personality, very well-read.
Young Jayant recites a poem in Marathi. What is the story behind that?
This thought came while shooting, I wanted to cut away to a young Jayant doing something, but I didn’t want the cliche Jayant being scared of the dark. I think what was scary to us when we were children, was preparing something for an audience. That is a moment I wanted to get into. I was discussing this with Swapnil (Sonawane), my DOP [director of photography]. I said I needed a Marathi poem, so he called Nipun Dharmadhikari, who suggested ‘Fakt Ladh Mhana’ by Kusumagraj. [In the scene] we’ve acknowledged the poet, we’ve started it as a recital on stage so you get the context.
Why did you want to include a snake as a predator?
It just felt like an interesting addition and the way the snake is and the way the robot is… the robot is also like a snake. It coils around you and it retracts itself, so it just felt like something slithery, slimy…can be a ninja as well. It’s also a silent killer. It seemed like a very lethal addition to showcasing how people are to each other when they are overcome with greed and can’t see beyond themselves.
The ‘Above all, Radhika Apte’ in the opening credits was amusing. What’s the reason behind that?
In the olden days, this is how they used to credit people. There was always an ‘Above all, Pran’, so we followed that, I wanted the credits to have that flavour. Who else than ‘Above all, Radhika Apte’?
What else were you harking back to in Monica O My Darling?
It’s the entire childhood. You pick nuances and sounds from there. The idea is that cinema is time immemorial. We feel that we are the only people making cinema, or this generation is making cinema. Cinema has been there since its birth and people have done everything… tried all kinds of camera tricks way back in the 1920s. We’re not special really. We probably have the advantage of technology, creativity was always there. The idea is to be a humble student of cinema. What I can do is tap into myself and be true to it.