Director: Sriram Raghavan
Writers: Sriram Raghavan, Arijit Biswas, Pooja Ladha Surti, Anukriti Pandey
Cast: Katrina Kaif, Vijay Sethupathi, Sanjay Kapoor, Vinay Pathak, Pratima Kazmi, Tinnu Anand, Ashwini Kalsekar
Runtime: 141 minutes
Available in: Theatres
A man named Albert (Vijay Sethupathi) returns to his ancestral home after seven years. The year is “When Mumbai was known as Bombay”. His mother is dead. His neighbour assures him that she went peacefully. A nostalgic Albert sets out to re-acquaint himself with his old city. He takes in the sights and sounds hungrily, as if he were a prisoner out on parole. Who can blame him? It’s Christmas eve in Colaba. At dinner, he meets a beautiful woman named Maria (Katrina Kaif). She is married, but seems to be navigating the life of a single mother. Once her little girl is asleep, Maria spends the night talking, walking and dancing with Albert. She sees his place. He goes to her place. She listens to his story. He listens to her story. They make each other laugh and sigh. They connect. It’s the stuff of dreams.
But something isn’t right. It’s not taking our breath away, because we’re too busy holding it. This meet-cute is a long and wicked buildup. How do we know? Because Albert acts suspicious when he sees the police. Because Maria acts mysterious in her apartment. Because Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and The Adventures of Pinocchio are showing at Regal Cinema. Because a fortune ticket flashes “the night is darkest before the dawn” under Rajesh Khanna’s face. Because the film opens with a John Lennon quote. Because origami and paper swans play a role. Because the child is mute. Because I watched this first hour with a bursting bladder. Because the stories they tell each other sound incomplete. Because they look melancholic. Because ‘In The Hall of the Mountain King’ by Edvard Grieg features prominently in a scene. Because one of the characters is a giant teddy bear, both literally and figuratively. Because Maria owns a bakery with a furnace. Because there’s a fishbowl and a wedding ring. And most of all, because this is a Sriram Raghavan movie.
If Andhadhun (2018) was a difficult film to review without spoilers, Merry Christmas takes the plumcake. There’s so much to unpack, but all a critic can do for now is behave like one of its characters – enigmatic but charmed. What I can say, though, is that Merry Christmas is a sublime deconstruction of the romantic thriller. The heart is often a destructive trigger in Raghavan’s movies. It drives the bloody revenge of Badlapur (2015) and Ek Hasina Thi (2004), the simmering deceit of Andhadhun and Johnny Gaddaar (2008).
And it is ultimately lost to the machinations of the mind. It mutates into themes like morality, ambition, greed, grief and justice. The darkness of these themes allows for the kind of cheeky cinephilia, narrative tension and Hitchcockian thrills that Raghavan thrives on. But Merry Christmas – a covert adaptation of an old French novel – rewrites the role of the heart. It expands its agency from trigger to shield. The suspense is in the love – a love that replaces the primal thrills of revenge and deceit with the slow-burning romance of empathy and atonement.
At one point, Albert opines that violence is sometimes better than sacrifice. His words are familiar, especially in the context of modern Hindi cinema and its reading of love as a dialect of hypermasculinity. That this film chooses to be defined by its journey from violence to sacrifice – from humans to humanity – speaks to its primary identity as a poignant love story. As a result, despite having a plot that winks at its relationship with the viewer, Merry Christmas never feels too plotty. The scenes are long and wordy, almost as if the screenplay is creating space for the heart by taming the physicality of a thriller. There’s a lot of life in between. Shots don’t exist solely to give information or to move the story forward — they unfold on their own terms. For example, in most other movies, an inspector learning about a postmortem report might have been just that — a constable coming in and quickly telling his boss about the report. But here, we see the inspector narrating a fable to his subordinate. The report becomes a footnote, a last-ditch detail, as if to suggest that feeling has very little to do with seeing. Scenes aren’t edited, emotions are. Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ scores a climax for the ages. The sequence is somehow everything at once: impossibly romantic, harrowing, hopeful and sad. It’s pure film-making, because at its core it’s just a bunch of people speaking at the police station. The cutting and camerawork internalise the drama and amplify the stakes without any visual or narrative exaggeration. It’s a remarkable achievement, given the co-existence of excess and economy.
The chemistry between Vijay Sethupathi and Katrina Kaif is so self-contained that it works. Albert and Maria are like soulmates stuck in a parallel universe – they don’t know how much they need each other until they do. When Albert strikes up a conversation early on, her interest looks unlikely. He’s lonely and she’s upset; there’s no reason for her to trust him. But the film smartly writes this implausibility in, keeping us guessing between genuine and fake, plan and impulse, romance and thriller. Kaif nails the ambiguity of a mother disguised as a woman. It’s a performance within a performance, bringing to mind Kareena Kapoor Khan’s track in Jaane Jaan (2023) – a ‘Devotion of Suspect X’ adaptation that Merry Christmas updates in its pursuit of cinema. This is technically a film about Albert, but Sethupathi’s eyes alone make it look like Albert is conceding his story to a bigger cause. He undoes the muscularity of new-age love, turning Albert into a man whose desire adopts the language of remorse.
On a personal note, Merry Christmas broke me in the best way possible. It’s been a difficult week, and the experience of being able to watch a film moved me to tears. The ability to be affected by fiction is rooted in the inability to accept reality. In tough times, we mostly retreat to art – particularly if it’s genre storytelling. But this is a rare thriller that revises the very notion of an escape. It has characters struggling to escape truth, fate, pasts and futures. It has substance escaping its style. It presents romance as a form of reckoning. Once the end credits started rolling, then, I felt like I hadn’t turned to art so much as returned to it. If anything, life was a brief interval. Such elation is necessary, because it’s a reminder that we are only as capable as the movies we enjoy. After all, good films make us hold our breath while simultaneously taking our breath away. But the great ones simply allow us to exhale.