Director: Anushree Mehta
Writer: Abir Sengupta, Anushree Mehta
Cast: Radhika Apte, Rajesh Sharma, Sumeet Vyas, Saheb Chatterjee
With age, I suspect I’ve become softer on terrible movies. Earlier I’d get physically upset and angry during a screening, and then think of creative ways to write the review. My logic was: If watching isn’t fun, panning should be. Young blood, you see. But now my first thoughts offer the benefit of doubt: What if this is a children’s film? What if this is supposed to look like it’s made by a 5-year-old for a 6-year-old? What if this mediocrity is some clever ploy to beat me into critical submission? What if I’ve forgotten what good movies look like? Fortunately, something like Mrs Undercover comes along every now and then, and bolsters my belief in the objective singularity of poor storytelling. It’s like the film shakes me out of my sobriety and yells: “It’s not you, it’s me”. And for this, I am eternally grateful.
I can therefore declare with utmost confidence in my own taste that Mrs Undercover is clueless. There are no two ways about it. It doesn’t matter which angle you look at it from. It’s not supposed to be a children’s film – there goes that dream – because the first scene shows a woman-hating psychopath not just killing his Tinder date but running his car over her body several times so that we can hear every crunch of her broken bones. Then he smokes a postcoital cigarette of sorts. Kids, leave now (unless you’re Wednesday Addams). Maybe it’s supposed to be a very campy spy comedy (‘campy’ is often a euphemism for “bad with a license”). After all, the premise revolves around an undercover housewife named Durga (Radhika Apte) in Kolkata, who is suddenly summoned from domestic cold storage to nab this serial killer called ‘Common Man’. But it’s definitely not supposed to be a whodunit, because that’s just too much work. There is no mystery about this man’s identity: He is Ajay (Sumeet Vyas), an ordinary social worker by day and a murderer of independent and strong-minded women by night. The implication is that he is not short of prey in a city like Kolkata.
The climax is set at a women's empowerment program at a girl’s school where the female chief minister is the target of this deranged troll. That sharp clink of glasses you hear right now is the sound of Baadshah (1999), A Wednesday (2008), Raazi (2018) and Kahaani (2012) getting sloshed and wondering if this is what they inspired in 2023. It’s also the sound of viewers playing a drinking game where they down a shot every time the term “housewife” is mentioned by characters who think they are delivering a progressive message. I’ve seen virtue-signalling tweets staged with more depth and guile than the monologues of this film.
Describing Mrs Undercover might just be akin to criticizing it. So Durga has dreams of beating up goons in a latex suit because the Special Forces have forgotten her after training her 10 years ago. Her hopeless situation is mined for (no) laughs: Durga is married to a chauvinist pig named Deb, and she’s so entrenched into her ‘fake’ life that the Chief of the Force (his name is Rangeela; we know this because his name becomes a Nineties’ sound effect when he appears on screen) has to spend weeks wooing her back by stalking her in Kolkata. Apparently, Common Man has killed all other male agents so “this homemaker” is the nation’s only chance. Common Man has also dutifully displayed a scar on his arm in one of the heinous videos he sends from his victims’ phones, only so that he can be identified later by our hawk-eyed agent. The scar is such that you can hear the chaos in the costume department when they realize that they must fit the actor with painfully short sleeves for the sake of an outdated plot point. The exposition in the beginning is so helpful that it hurts: A cop scratches his chin while blurting out all the information we need to know, like “So this man doesn’t rape or molest the women, he only kills them? Hmmm, what sort of twisted fool does that??”. Hmmm, indeed. I added a second question mark just for effect.
But the clincher is that this serial killer becomes a footnote once Durga discovers that her sexist husband is a cheater. The only big action scene – a tacky car chase – is reserved for the married couple; Durga saves him from some goons only to stop the car and let them thrash him when he insults her again. It’s almost funny. All his insults are of the “know your place, you useless housewife” and “I’m a man so I have affairs” variety, the subtlety of which suits a film that often sounds like a teen essay-writing competition. By the end, the red saris and the sindoor on Durga’s forehead are about as tone-deaf as the image of “eight housewives taking revenge” splashed across news channels. In other words, every woman in the film is presented like an exotic figure from a corporate wildlife conservation documentary: All novelty, no consent and curiosity.
Maybe someday I’ll forget that a mercurial actress like Radhika Apte has whole-heartedly appeared in arguably the worst Hindi movies of 2022 (Forensic) and 2023 so far (Mrs Undercover). But today is not that day. I’ve missed OTT star Sumeet Vyas, and playing a Common (Mad)Man seemed like a decent idea until the film forgets him in its pursuit of hashtag feminism. As a result, my real grievances with this film border on the mundane. Like: Why was a henchman wearing a Roger Federer cap while transporting a bomb? Was it an old Nike one or the new Uniqlo one? Is Victoria Memorial the best performer in the movie? Most of all, was Durga paid for those 12 years of undercover nothingness? How do those contracts work? With her handler gone, did she write invoices to the Accounts department? Was she freelancing or full-time? Is her new salary adjusted for inflation? When Rangeela puts her back in the field, is it for free? If not, doesn’t Durga’s husband notice some discrepancies in her bank statements? So many questions, such little time.