Director: Sriram Raghavan
Cast: Katrina Kaif, Vijay Sethupathi
Duration: 141 minutes
Available in: Theatres
About an hour and a half, maybe more, into Sriram Raghavan’s Merry Christmas, the film clicks into place. By click, I mean the specific motion of making sense; of all that disparate wrangling, the strange details, those suspended ambiguities, all of it begins to finally feel like context, not crosshatches. Like playing with Lego or puzzling a puzzle, the pleasure comes from the frustration of all the chaos that is laid out — which, over time, gets swept into cohesion. The question is, does the pleasure — when it finally arrives — mask the stench of the frustration that you have to wade through to get there? To be clear, there is frustration. To also be clear, there is pleasure.
The film begins with two images, jostling side-by-side, top shots of grinder-mixers. In one is powdered pills; in the other, podi. The former belongs to Maria (Katrina Kaif), whose strained marriage leaves her to be the sole caretaker of her daughter, who also lugs around a teddy bear her size — only child, you see. The latter belongs to Albert (Vijay Sethupathi), a man who has just been released from jail in Nashik for murdering his lover. On Christmas Eve he gets off at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, heading home, his mother’s apartment in a Christian colony where neighbours — aged — are both caretakers and CCTV. He crosses paths, mysteriously, with Maria and her daughter, and gets swept up into their lives.
The entire hour goes by in conversations where their wrangled lives are wringed into patches of dialogues. The film’s scaffolding is entirely built on these conversations, explaining their pasts to each other — and us. So, when Maria tells Albert about her daughter’s father, she also clarifies that she is talking about her husband. (He’s shacking up with some girlfriend in Orlem.) When Albert comes back home, to his mother’s apartment, his neighbour keeps trying to make us understand the context of Albert’s return — that his mother died, that the neighbour used to read Albert's letters aloud to his mother as her sight was failing in her final days. This verbosity is exhausting because it has neither the unfussy texture of wit, or pith. It comes out of an insecurity to be understood, to have as much of the film be clear as possible in that moment, since most of it will only make sense once it “clicks”.
There is a fetishising of logic at play here. But even the incongruities of their stories don’t really tick anything — Albert keeps saying he is coming from Dubai, then why do we see him getting off from a train station, for example? This is because nothing feels diabolical about the lies they might be telling each other. Their unreliable nature is instead, lodged in background score that tingles, and the opaque performances of both Kaif and Sethupathi — an opacity that can be mistaken for mysteriousness, but is often an inability to reach the surface of expression. Let me explain this posture of mine because I struggled with their performances. Sethupathi has mastered the poker face, the kind of translucence in expression that expects you to give it meaning, and watching it being doled out film after film makes it lose its charm. Kaif, on the other hand, is not able to milk that instability of her character. You realise that most of what she is doing in the first half is a carefully calibrated performance, that its artifice is intentional. And yet, within that artifice you are not able to locate the pockets of sincerity — her love for her daughter, for example, never feels true, always on the brink of being exposed as a performance, too. This is something Tabu, for example, provided a roadmap for, in Andhadhun, where you can locate the strange moments of pain in her devilish designs. The film also makes a strange decision of holding such tight close-ups of Kaif, and it is unnerving because the lacking movement, the smooth alabaster skin, the garrulous intensity of the dialogue, all cannot hold together.
The thing about characters whose lives are sketched through narration and not dialogues, through summaries and not symphonies, is that they never seem like characters, but merely a sedimentation of stories. Raghavan takes his time establishing the geography of the place, of South Bombay — not Mumbai, this is pre-1996 — and their respective houses. Architecture plays an important role, because there is a dead body, and the location of the dead body in the apartment is of essence — not immediately apparent, but within a few steps. A fire escape proves crucial. With his cinematographer Madhu Neelakandan, Raghavan revels in long shots of Albert folding paper into origami swans, or even Albert and Maria dancing, a dance that is both sweet but also haunting because it seems out of character for both. You realise, much later, that the first hour burning in the ennui of these strange, staged interactions was actually giving you a chance to revel in the architecture of the place, its precision, its middle-class hoarding — all those tchotchkes and photographs and irrelevant prints — and the lift that tumbles slowly. (This, too, proves crucial.)
Just as the first hour feels cramped with irrelevant fixations, the second hour feels that much more efficient, slurping all those fixations into smoking guns — it is such a meticulously laid out world. There is something so juicy and ridiculous about the twist, it almost feels like the view was worth the trek, all that fatigue from all those mindless steps. Sriram Raghavan’s cinema is one of wicked sincerity — it is so full of love for cinema (even the t-shirts that Raghavan is seen sporting, posters of films he loves) in a way that never grates, because its sincerity is expressed through the language of the most serrated genre, that of black comedy. His love isn’t naive. His cinephilia doesn’t demand the kind of needy attention, much like, say, a Vasan Bala film does. It is wholly mixed into his smoky vision, almost comically, charmingly. Merry Christmas comes out of this love — for cinema, for the city — but love demands an easy rigour, too. It cannot expect itself to be celebrated by merely being. Neither can it expect a pat for being meticulous, thorough.