There’s no saying when it was established that November is the month to celebrate the noir genre. Maybe it’s the chilliness in the air or the reduced daylight hours that evoke a sense of mystique and urge people to watch murder mysteries full of shadowy cityscapes, femme fatales, and gut-wrenching twists. Hence, for these 30 days, you will see everyone from “The Criterion Channel” to “Letterboxd” suggesting the darkest, seductive, and pulpiest movies made by Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Wise, John Huston, Otto Preminger, Orson Welles, Jules Dassin, Louis Malle, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Akira Kurosawa. But, as far as my knowledge goes, there’s a dearth of such films in India. We’ve got some great ones in the form of “Johnny Gaddaar,” “Manorama Six Feet Under,” “Kaminey,” “Raman Raghav 2.0,” and “Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!” and that’s about it. Thanks to Vasan Bala and Yogesh Chandekar, we can add “Monica, O My Darling” to this small but quality list.
Based on Keigo Higashino’s novel, “Burūtasu no Shinzō,” “Monica, O My Darling” starts off with the murder of Dev (Shiv Chauhan) that’s committed by Gaurav (Sukant Goel) after he learns that Dev is about to marry the love of his life, Shalu (Zayn Marie Khan). The narrative jumps forward by six months to the 50th anniversary of Unicorn Robotics, where the head of the company, Satyanarayan Adhikari (Vijay Kenkre), inducts Jayant (Rajkummar Rao) into the board of directors. This irks all the potential candidates for that position, i.e., Arvind (Bagavati Perumal), Tamang (Shiva Rindani), and Adhikari’s son Nishikant (Sikandar Kher). The other reason why everyone’s jealous of Jayant is that he’s dating Adhikari’s daughter. But Jayant has his eyes on Monica (Huma S. Qureshi), who reveals that she’s pregnant with Jayant’s child. While reeling from the shock of this information, Jayant finds out that Monica is using this tactic to blackmail both Nishikant and Arvind too. So, they concoct a plan to get rid of Monica once and for all.
What I’ve just described comprises only the first 30 minutes of “Monica, O My Darling,” thereby leaving you with around 1 hour and 30 more minutes of plot twists, near misses, and tense confrontations. Just saying that the script is “funny,” “intriguing,” or “a blast” will be an understatement because writer Yogesh Chandekar has done more than that. It seems like he has taken the aforementioned novel, consumed all forms of noir (classic noir, neo-noir, slacker noir, etc.), and then passed it through a Maharashtrian setting to give us an authentically Indian viewing experience. Hence, you have all the aspects that are synonymous with the genre, i.e., murder, jealousy, conspiracy, a femme fatale, adultery, lies, and a police officer (ACP Naidu, played by Radhika Apte) who is trying to untangle this mess. But these elements are expressed in such relatable ways. The rawness of the corporate politics, the awkwardness of the romance, the sexism in the atmosphere, and the murderous streak running through all these characters are palpable and seem like things we see in our everyday lives. And that makes the narrative an apt mixture of real-world tribulations and something that’s too wild for us to comprehend.
“Monica, O My Darling” marks Vasan Bala’s return to feature film direction after 2018’s amazing “Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota,” and it is a spectacular return. One of the many reasons why his return feels so satisfying is because it fulfills a certain kind of craving in terms of visual storytelling. Most Bollywood films from the past few years have turned out to be incredibly unimaginative and lacking in creativity when it comes to crafting an enriching viewing experience. Filmmakers are happy with blandly informing the audience what they want them to know and moving on to the next scene. But that’s not Bala’s style. He unpacks an exposition-heavy scene by showing us exactly what a character is imagining. He uses extreme close-ups and dolly zooms for pivotal revelations. Sometimes he stages a fight in the most visceral way possible to convey the hesitation and anger the characters are feeling. Other times he withholds information by concealing the entire fight to keep us on the edge of our seats. And, with the help of his overly efficient team, which includes cinematographers Swapnil S. Sonawane and Sukesh Vishwanath, editor Atanu Mukherjee, composer Achint Thakkar, and more, he seamlessly shifts from dark comedy to action to sci-fi to horror to suspense without drifting away from the film’s overarching style or substance.
Huma S. Qureshi, Rajkummar Rao and Radhika Apte are on the poster of “Monica, O My Darling.” And if you know anything about their filmography, you know that it’s expected of them to blow us away. But, recently, the kinds of projects they were choosing weren’t utilizing them properly. Under Vasan Bala, the trio really gets to shine. You see how subtle Rao can be when his character cannot reveal his true intentions and how over-the-top he can be when his character just can’t keep it together. Qureshi switches so elegantly between sophistication and utter crudeness while holding onto that undercurrent of vulnerability. Apte is clearly having so much fun antagonizing everyone in her vicinity. Her maniacal laughter is way too infectious. The supporting cast of “Monica, O My Darling” is spectacular as well. Bagavathi Perumal (or Bucks), Sukant Goel, Vijay Kenkre, Zayn Marie Khan, Sikandar Kher, Akansha Ranjan Kapoor, Faisal Rashid, Shiva Rindani, and Devendra Dodke are truly excellent. In addition to them, every single actor that appears on the screen for even a second is so good that you are never taken out of the experience. Be it the newscaster or the snake charmer; everyone is doing a little more than hitting their marks, thereby heightening the realism of the film.
“Monica, O My Darling” is undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year. On the surface, it’s a pretty straightforward neo-noir thriller filled with excellent performances, foot-tapping numbers, and interesting visual storytelling that harkens back to the aesthetic of Bollywood films from the ’70s and ’80s. But if you dig a little deeper, it’s about the complacency that comes with nepotism. It’s about how ambition can sometimes become toxic. It serves as a commentary on how so-called modern cities have a clear insider and outsider bias. And it talks about the lengths women have to go to and the professions they’ve to choose in order to acquire a grain of success or control over their own lives. And I am pretty sure there’s much more to it than that. So, do watch “Monica, O My Darling” on Netflix, talk about your theories on that cliffhanger ending (and what it means), and dance your butt off to “Yeh Ek Zindagi.”