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Vasan Bala’s new Netflix film Monica, O My Darling is an absolute hoot. Starring Rajkummar Rao, Huma Qureshi, Sikandar Kher, and Radhika Apte in key roles, it is sleek, stylish, saucy, and ambitious much like the people it revolves around.
An adaptation of Japanese mystery writer Keigo Higashino’s 1989 novel Burutasu No Shinzou, the film is a game of snake and ladders, as engaging and fun as one ever laid out. Each player is desperate to climb up. They snivel, lie, pivot, cheat, run, and even kill, fueled by an uncontained desire to reach a little higher, unaware that sometimes, the top of the ladder is the most dangerous place to be.
The film’s title is a clever choice. It places the root of all the chaos, Monica (played by an effervescent Qureshi), at the centre and pays homage to the timeless music of Seventies Bollywood. Borrowed from the classic Asha Bhosle song Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja from the 1971 film Caravan, it hints at a promise—that Monica, O My Darling’s soundtrack could be a thing of wonder, the kind our film industry has lately stopped believing in. Turns out, it is just that. Achint Thakkar wields magic with his music, deeply inspired by the golden retro era of Hindi cinema. It’s zingy, it’s sparkling; it elevates the script to a point where it levitates, and makes Monica, O My Darling a delectable experience.
Bala’s movies belong to the same world as Sriram Raghavan, whom he thanks especially for this one. It’s a lot like how Abhishek Chaubey’s films are inspired by Vishal Bhardwaj’s or how every Karan Johar movie borrows heavily from Yash Chopra’s. It includes all decisions however big or small—whether it be visual or narrative styles, the choices that the characters make, their principal dilemmas and crises, the locations, the sensibilities, the story, and the telling of it. Monica, O My Darling will remind you of Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar (2007), Andhadhun (2018), and even Bala’s own charming 2018 directorial Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota. And that, my friends, is great news.
This one is set in a robotics corporation in which a wunderkind from nowhere, Jayant Arkhedkar (the always dependable Rao), finds his way to the top much to the chagrin of company sharks who were waiting their turn in the shadows. But the spotlight soon turns out to be more of a quicksand and Jayant finds himself embroiled in a murder with unlikely colleagues, including the CEO’s secretary Monica Machado (Qureshi) and his son Nishikant Adhikari (a terrific Kher), and an investigative officer Naidu (Apte in an arresting, whistle-worthy performance).
Yogesh Chandekar’s story and screenplay wonderfully root the film in Maharashtra and DOP Swapnil S Sonawane shows you the state in all its verdant glory pregnant with possibilities. Director Bala loves and lives movies. Much like Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, Monica, O My Darling too is full of delicious references, plot twists, and wisecracks that are glorious hat tips to some of the best neo-noir thrillers ever made. But the film’s bigger win is how, along with Chandekar, Bala stages it as a commentary on how we and our films tend to invisiblize those on the margins, thus pushing them further into oblivion.
However, Monica, O My Darling makes no such mistake. In fact, it subverts the established trope of ignoring side characters, giving them the time and the story they deserve. Beautifully packaged as a murder mystery revolving around an ambitious outsider, it is as much the story of other outsiders too—the technicians, the secretaries, the sisters, the accountants. Every time its protagonist begins to feel like a hero or a winner, it cuts him to size as life most often does. Because no wins are absolute.
Read other pieces by Sneha Bengani here.
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