'Monica, O My Darling' movie review: A largely satisfying retro treat

In short, Monica, O My Darling belongs to a specific strain of Hindi filmmaking: Maharashtra noir, you can call it, or Raghavan-verse.
Post of the newly released film, 'Monica O My Darling.' (File photo)
Post of the newly released film, 'Monica O My Darling.' (File photo)

A good mystery commands your attention and reinforces it in every direction possible. A handful of scenes into Monica, O My Darling, I was noticing everything, from the wifi password scrawled on Rajkummar Rao’s office wall to the way different paintings and knickknacks were arranged. Very little of this turned out to be information crucial to the film’s plot. Yet, the fact that I was noticing them seemed to indicate something in the movie’s favour. Often while reviewing Hindi films, I’m flipping furiously through my notebook to recall what a primary character or his wife was called. But with Monica, I can tell you precise surnames or which restaurant Huma Qureshi orders her dinner from.

Here’s the setup. Monica Machado (Huma) is a secretary at Pune’s Unicorn Group of Companies. She is also – as we soon find out – the squeeze of several of its employees, including robotics wunderkind Jayant (Rajkummar). An IITian who lucked out at one of those nerdy college fests, Jayant has worked his way up from the factory workshop to its board of directors. He’s young, ambitious, and toadyishly engaged to his boss’s daughter. Hailing from humbler stock — he gives his hometown as ‘Angola’ (like Unicorn, a fictive name) – Jayant can’t let his present life slip away. Naturally, he gets a fright when Monica announces to be pregnant with his child, and demands hush money for her troubles.

Turns out, Jayant isn’t the only toad in Monica’s talons. So he, along with company black sheep Nishikant (Sikandar Kher) and nervous accountant Arvind (Bagavathi Perumal), decides to bump her off. They make a plan, taking up roles for ‘Kill’, ‘Transport’ and ‘Dispose’, a plan so elaborate and circuitous you just know something will horribly go wrong. They also sign a ‘Murderers' Agreement’ for good measure, or rather, thumb-print it, a mild oddity that chimes nicely with the retro styling of this film.

Fans of director Vasan Bala’s second feature, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018), will instantly warm to the world of Monica, O My Darling. It’s not just the cameos or pop-culture references, though there are plenty of those to tide you over. The film’s use of music, right down to its centrepiece, ‘Farsh Pe Khade', a sardonic old-world number with Jayant hanging off a building wall, is very 'Mard'. Yet where Mard was heartfelt and expressive, Monica, O My Darling is strictly a fun genre exercise. It’s closer in spirit to the films of Vijay Anand, especially Blackmail (1973) and Teesri Manzil (1966), with their convoluted noir plots and smashing soundtracks.

Sriram Raghavan gets a nod in the opening credits; the screenplay, based on the Japanese novel Burutasu No Shinzou, is by Raghavan’s Andhadhun co-writer Yogesh Chandekar. That film, too, was a frenetic black comedy set in Pune. Radhika Apte, who starred in both Andhadhun and Badlapur, plays a zany cop here. In short, Monica, O My Darling belongs to a specific strain of Hindi filmmaking: Maharashtra noir, you can call it, or Raghavan-verse. Vasan brings his own quirk to the party, like introducing cinematic inserts to reflect the character’s innermost thoughts. As inventive as these ideas are, I wish he would learn to fly without them. A deadly scuffle in the second half need not have played out to the accompaniment of a teasing song (Raghavan, for instance, would play it entirely without music).

Jayant is a fascinating composite of multiple Rajkummar Rao characters from the past: you can draw a straight line from the desperate hustlers of Love, Sex Aur Dhokha and Ragini MMS to the studious stiffs of Newton and Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana to the well-dressed murder suspect in Judgementall Hai Kya. At one point, Jayant types out an e-mail and you can tell how hard he has worked to pick up the language of his bosses. Huma Qureshi efficiently portrays the resident seductress. The supporting players are thoroughly excellent, including Akansha Ranjan Kapoor as Jayant’s dewy-eyed fiancée Niki.

Radhika’s advice—“always leave the story vague”—goes unheeded in the film’s final stretch. The writers work doubly hard to tie up loose ends, which leads to a succession of minor revelations. Given how much of the danger has already dissipated from the script, they struck me as one-off jokes. Vasan, it must be added, is not a director particularly comfortable with gore. His characters may wear a perfume called Notorious Noir Extreme, but this film is Agreeable Thriller Moderate.

Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Huma Qureshi, Sikandar Kher, Radhika Apte, Akansha Ranjan Kapoor, Bagavathi Perumal, Sukant Goel

Streamer: Netflix

Director: Vasan Bala

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

(This story originally appeared on Cinema Express)

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