The makers of Monster might be under the illusion that their film is experimental. It isn’t, though I can think of another five-syllable word that rhymes with it that would suffice to describe it. When Monster opens, it introduces you to a loving family—Bhamini, who drives a cab for a living, her husband who lost his job and is recovering from an accident, and their sprightly young daughter. A few minutes into the film, when the wife is given an assignment to pick up a VIP guest from the airport, things start going downhill. For the family, but also for the film.
For one, the VIP guest turns out to be Mohanlal doing a Sikh caricature called Lucky Singh. Lucky insists on calling her “Soni Kudi” to her very apparent discomfort, and makes moves on her and other women intermittently for the entire first half of the film. At one point, the nanny, Durga (Lakshmi Manchu) and she have a conversation about his creepy behavior, and you realize the film is trying to have it both ways—milk predatory behavior for comedy, but also distance itself from it by acknowledging it — lampshading, if you will. You keep watching, because the film hints that all is not as it seems. That though we're walking on what seems to be a dirty rug, the revelatory thrill of a pull is imminent.
When the rug is finally pulled though, what lies underneath is just plain old rotting wood. It is one of those reveals that you would have no way of arriving at without the film explaining it to you in the clumsy way it does—nothing in the first half hints at the scale of events at play or gives you any legitimate reason to suspect the characters of the things they turn out to be guilty of. But what is probably going to keep discussions alive about this film is who is guilty, since the film explicitly ties their identity to their crime. Spoilers follow.
The mastermind criminal villains of Monster turn out to be a homosexual couple. True normalisation should accommodate negative portrayals too, you might interject. But they also happen to be villains because they’re homosexual—a couple that turns to crime as a response to their ostracisation by society. Here, again, the film tries to have it both ways. There is a flashback to them being lynched by the police in conjunction with a mob, in what seems to be an attempt at some sort of sensitization to the stigma and harassment queer people face in India.
But what indicts the film is the way it views homosexual desire—the couple kiss in a gothic-looking mansion before the hero as a way of confronting him, but the kiss is framed ominously, the way a ghost’s arrival is framed in a show like The Haunting of Hill House. “They have the right to live how they want”, the hero sermonizes. “But they take insane pleasure in killing people”. This way, the film problematizes queer desire by suggesting that it fellow-travels with perverse desires such as a thirst for murder. And yet, because it lampshades the stigma towards homosexuality, it thinks it can make a claim to progressive credentials, despite the fact that those who stigmatize homosexuality are driven by precisely the sort of perceptions of queer people that the film propagates.
But what about Mohanlal himself? When his credit, “The Complete Actor” came up, I thought to myself: here’s one of the greatest actors in the world, a South Indian star whose credit still calls him an “actor” and not a “star”. Why dignify this script, one that requires him to play a Sikh caricature for the first half, and a poker-faced investigative officer for the second, then? Why reward a vision so singularly lacking in imagination that it doesn’t know what to do with an acting heavyweight who still turns out performances as potent as those in Drishyam 2, and who at his best can dissolve into characters without imposing any "signature" mannerisms onto them, the way most veteran stars seem to do? Perhaps a visit to his filmography, to Iruvar, to Kireedam, to Pranayam, might be a more enriching use of your time.