At one point in Monica, O My Darling, one character venomously spits out to another, “You are a pretender”. But there is nothing pretentious about this deliciously dark — and imbued with dark humour — whodunit, which has everything in the true tradition of a Vasan Bala directorial. It’s camp without being kitsch, it’s cool without being over-the-top and it remains vastly engaging using the most potent trope that keeps a good thriller alive — always making the audience feel they know a lot, and then pulling the rug out from under their feet when they least expect it.
Which is exactly what Sriram Raghavan is known for. The master of the modern Bollywood thriller reveals his cards early on and deceives the viewer into believing that he’s one step ahead of the players in the film. Until....
We see that happening consistently in Monica, O My Darling, which has a very Johnny Gaddaar-ish feel to it. But that’s not the sole reason why Sriram Raghavan is thanked at the beginning of Monica, O My Darling, that’s now streaming on Netflix. The Andhadhun man was initially slated to direct the film, many years ago, and Monica, O My Darling is a homage to his cinema in more ways than one.
First, of course, is the distinct ode to retro Bollywood, which Vasan, himself, is a huge fanboy of. The Eighties — from Stranger Things to Wonder Woman 1984, from music to fashion — is pretty hot in pop culture nostalgia right now, but a lot of Monica, O My Darling is ‘That ’70s Show’. The title, of course, is derived from the blockbuster Caravan number Piya tu ab toh aaja, scored by RD Burman.
The Helen of this film is Huma Qureshi, who plays Monica Machado, the resident femme fatale office secretary doing a number on almost all of her male colleagues. Monica is the target as well as the one calling the shots, and that sets up the action and intrigue well for a cat-n-mouse game where every character is ambiguous with ambitions that can tip their morality compass either way any time.
In the middle of all of it is Jayant Akherdkar, played with a winsome mix of awkward charm and sharp canniness by Rajkummar Rao. Jayant is a ‘small-town boy’ from Angola (yes, the joke starts right there) who has worked his way up through the Unicorn Group, and that includes making a play for the owner’s Paris Hilton-ish daughter Nikki (Akansha Ranjan Kapoor). Jayant, a robotics expert from IIT, holds the reins of the company, much to the chagrin of heir-apparent Nishikant (Sikandar Kher in ‘a dynamic appearance’, as the credits go). Things are hunky-dory for Jay till the time he gets involved in a crime, which, in many ways, has been orchestrated by him. The body count rises, Jay’s nerves go for a toss, and then, of course, is the unhinged cop (Radhika Apte in a delightfully hatke role) who is hot on his heels. With the first hour ticking by, things are well afoot, and Monica,O My Darling turns out to be a rollicking, roller-coaster ride.
Drawing its source material from Japanese writer Keigo Higashino’s Burutasu no Shinzou aka Brutus’ Heart, Monica, O My Darling is effectively grounded in the Hindi (and Hindi cinema) milieu by writer Yogesh Chandekar. There are Easter Eggs and retro references galore, and the film hurtles from one sticky situation to another in a manner where everything seems to be in control one minute, and out of control the next.
Even as the suspense is effectively peeled off layer by layer, Monica, O My Darling scores on several other fronts. The performances, across the board, are top notch. Social commentary in a thriller is a tough task to ace, but Vasan does that very well, channeling a Parasite-inspired class angst which fits in perfectly with the film’s socio-economic setting.
And then, of course, is the film’s piece de resistance — its music. Every number in the Monica, O My Darling soundtrack not only enhances the already compelling storytelling, it functions perfectly well as a standalone piece. Music, murder and mayhem in a film as manic and mental as this? A sureshot recipe for a solid weekend watch.
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Monica, O My Darling
Director: Vasan Bala
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Huma Qureshi, Radhika Apte, Sikandar Kher, Akansha Ranjan Kapoor, Bucks, Sukant Goel, Zayn Marie Khan
Running time: 129 minutes