Director: Vasan Bala
Writer: Yogesh Chandekar
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Huma Qureshi, Radhika Apte, Zayn Marie Khan, Akansha Ranjan Kapoor, Sukant Goel, Sikandar Kher
The running time of Monica, O My Darling is a little over two hours, but it took me three hours to complete the new Netflix thriller. There were no loo breaks or domestic distractions involved; on the contrary, my eyes never left the screen. The truth is my old VHS-tape habits emerged: I spent a majority of the film pausing and replaying moments. Not because I was scanning a colourful murder mystery for carefully planted clues – it had nothing to do with the plot. It had nothing to do with the countless Easter Eggs and retro hat-tips either. The reasons are purely sensory. It’s just…fun to watch. It has something to do with – to quote director Andrew Dominik – the “musicality of film”. This musicality was once inherent to the beats of a Bollywood potboiler, but it’s a forgotten art in modern Hindi cinema. Several scenes in Monica, O My Darling, like any great song, reclaim the harmony of timing and tone. A dance move here. A turn of phrase there. A slow-mo entry shot here. An erotically clumsy scuffle there. They simply summon a feeling, a finger-snapping rhythm that’s difficult to resist. The movie comes at us from this space, where narrative style doubles up as visceral substance.
That’s the thing about director Vasan Bala. His cinephilia – which shaped Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018) and even the screenplay of Bombay Velvet (2015) – is not that oversmart, spot-a-reference sort of cinephilia reserved for geeky cinema warriors. It’s not intended to be a yardstick of how much he knows. Instead, it’s a measure of how he lives – and how much he understands. It’s a chip off the old Sriram Raghavan block: Affectionate, personal but guided by method rather than madness. Take his choice of source material here. Monica, O My Darling is an adaptation (by Yogesh Chandekar) of Japanese mystery novelist Keigo Higashino’s Burutasu no Shinzou, a whodunit revolving around the human employees of a robotics company. The protagonist is star engineer Jayant (the persuasive Rajkummar Rao), the future son-in-law of the CEO who discovers that his secret lover – a saucy secretary named Monica Machado (an electric Huma Qureshi) – is triple-timing him with two other colleagues: Son of CEO, Nishikant (a hilarious Sikandar Kher), and married accountant Arvind (Bucks). When Monica uses her pregnancy to blackmail them for money, the three unlikely allies join forces to get rid of her. But once their plan for the ‘perfect murder’ goes awry, the film barrels towards dark-curveball territory – featuring a spate of strange murders, an unknown killer, an eccentric cop (Radhika Apte), and a setting where everybody and nobody is a suspect.
On paper, this premise is playful and genre-friendly. But it also has a twist that’s more of a statement than a revelation – a commentary on Parasite-style class rage and, if one digs deeper, the moral tragedy of being an outsider. It’s meant to be a reminder, not a surprise. Yet, when viewed through the prism of Bala’s free-flowing cinephilia – from the title and tropey character arcs to the vintage opening credits (“And Above All”) over a cabaret number; from an eerily authentic Seventies-inspired soundtrack to the nods to Psycho (1960) – Monica, O My Darling recalibrates life as an expression of the movies we love. But not in a way one might imagine. It likens the social hierarchies of living to the social ladders (and snakes) of narrative fiction. This film implies that, just as mega corporations overlook the value of lower-level workers, or just as elite households grow blind to their own privilege, elaborate movie plots tend to neglect the agency of their fringe players. The identity of what we see – the deaths, deceit, drama and the protagonist’s rollercoaster ride – often consumes the identity of what we don’t see: the aspirations of vamps and sidekicks, the reaction shots, the inconspicuous blue-collar faces who operate the machines that might replace them.
For instance, Jayant is so preoccupied by his own rags-to-riches journey that he barely notices – or suspects – those beyond his immediate eyeline. The writing cements his illusion as the primary story. He is resented by the supporting characters of his life, the ones relegated to the sidelines of such movies. Like unapologetic gold-digger Monica: “You’re not talented, your story is good”. Like bitter rival Nishikant: “Unlike you, I don’t have any garbage to get out of”. Or even like investigating officer Naidu: “Seasoned criminals never use ready-made backstories”. As a result, in his own head, Jayant is on the brink of emulating all those famous noir strivers – from Andhadhun’s (2018) Akash and Gehraiyaan’s (2022) Zain to Johnny Gaddaar’s (2007) Vikram and Baazigar’s (1993) Vicky Malhotra. He feels entitled to a few lapses of judgment, evident from the manner he nearly confesses to his affair by using his sad childhood as a prelude. He treats his small-town roots like an irritating mosquito; his behaviour with his sister, Shalu (Zayn Marie Khan), is dismissive at best. He never considers the possibility that she, too, is a parallel story.
But Monica, O My Darling bursts the genre bubble. It cushions the blow of a blunt twist by asking: What about the stories hijacked by selfish protagonists? The film actually opens with a seemingly unrelated incident in the robotics lab. You can tell that this is the original narrative, until a six-months-later cut reduces it to a footnote in Jayant’s flashy journey. He has, in a way, stolen the limelight. The rest of the film is defined by the invisibilization of the opening narrative – and its ability to hide in broad daylight. (Leopards and cobras make cameos, almost as though the killer were flaunting nostalgic mediums of murder in the face of a corrupt robotics company). The killer even appears in the second act, ending the mystery long before the climax, only to be perplexed by the fact that his/her presence fails to influence the flow of the thriller. Most movies are determined by the search for a murderer; here, the murderer is determined by the search for a film.
It’s a neat trick, because it lends context to a secondary cast composed almost entirely of ‘marginalised’ actors. There’s Sikandar Kher, who is wasted in Hindi films despite being the most versatile comic performer in years. There’s Sukant Goel, who is yet to transcend his image as “that crazy guy in the Dibakar film”. There’s Faisal Rashid, the “other journalist of Scam 1992” who plays this film’s solitary Muslim character and, hence, the company fallguy. There’s Akansha Ranjan Kapoor, the backbone of Guilty (2020) but not its star. And above all, there’s Shiva Rindani – perennial retro-Bollywood sidekick/ henchman/ brute/ comedian and Hum’s (1991) iconic Captain Zattack. Jayant’s view of them reflects their peripheral presence in an industry that is yet to perceive them. It also reflects the fringe status of the film’s location (Pune) in a genre that rarely thinks beyond metropolitan cities.
Shiva Rindani brings to mind Nineties’ contemporary Adi Irani, the actor who played the ‘real’ Vicky Malhotra in Baazigar. Irani’s Vicky is the clingy childhood friend that Shah Rukh Khan’s anti-hero refuses to recognise after stealing his story and marrying into wealth. Back then, he receded into the background as a betrayed Panvel resident with a drinking problem. But the middle-class Maharashtra of today is a different place. There’s no better metaphor for the mainstream machinations of Monica, O My Darling. Much like a Sriram Raghavan thriller, it implies that whodunit noir is rooted in the cultural language of storytelling rather than the story itself. It’s never about the suspense of who did it; it’s about the shock of learning that anyone is – and should be – capable of doing it. That’s musicality, too. A single note alters the flow of the film, yet your feet don’t stop tapping.