Monica, O My Darling: Relax, Bollywood is doing just fine; you’re not looking in the right places
Anybody who says that Bollywood is flatlining needs to know that after starring in one of 2022’s worst Hindi movies, Rajkummar Rao has now also starred in one of the best. And the chasm in quality between the mindbogglingly terrible HIT: The First Case and this week’s Monica, O My Darling is perhaps the most elegant metaphor for the unpredictable (and divisive) year that Bollywood has been having.
Neither of these movies is ‘original’, strictly speaking. But while HIT seemed like something that a beta version AI had coughed up after being fed hundreds of CID episodes, every minute of Monica feels — despite being deliberately derivative — like a breath of fresh air. The film is based on one of the more obscure novels by Japanese mystery maestro Keigo Higashino, but it’s brimming with energy, has more twists and turns than the Mumbai-Lonavala highway, and more personality than the sort of movies that usually dominate Netflix’s top 10 list. Movies like HIT.
A remake of the Telugu thriller of the same name, it represented everything that is wrong with Hindi movies these days. HIT was unoriginal, plot-heavy, and utterly unaware of its own ridiculousness. Which was kind of shocking, considering that its cop protagonist would try and solve crimes by walking into rooms and literally sniffing for clues.
In the post-pandemic era, a clear line has been drawn between films made for a theatrical marketplace, and those designed with a streaming audience in mind. But there is also a third level to this hellscape of modern entertainment, a no man’s land where creativity goes to die a lonely death. I’m talking about movies like Haseen Dillruba, Cuttputlli, and yes, HIT. These are movies that pretend to have been designed for the online crowd, but whose sensibilities would’ve been ancient even in the 80s — widely regarded as the most deplorable era in Bollywood history. These movies are the worst-offenders; in their desperation to pander to the only audience demographic that is still resisting the internet age, they’re basically sullying the image of streaming as a whole.
But just when you’d given up hope — fuelled no doubt by the likes of Brahmastra, Liger, and The Gray Man — Monica, O My Darling came shimmying along. Directed by Vasan Bala from a script by Yogesh Chandekar, the neo-noir crime-comedy can best be described as a Tarantino-esque romp through Sriram Raghavan’s backyard. Like Raghavan’s Andhadhun, it’s set in a semi-fantastical Pune that looks like one giant film set. Think the New York City of the John Wick movies, complete with a hyper-stylised hotel (where Sikander Kher runs away with the film’s best scene), and gorgeously evocative locations that wouldn’t feel out out of place in a comic book. We are, after all, watching the expansion of a shared Bala-verse.
But these are all superficial flourishes. More importantly, Monica joins a small-ish list of Hindi streaming movies that kind of capture what it is like to live in India today. These movies — like Serious Man, Thar, and Love Hostel — are nihilistic and angry; they’re concerned more with the psychology behind a character’s actions than the actions themselves. But they also balance out their pessimism with progressive politics; these films understand that life is more difficult for minorities, and that they mustn’t contribute to the narrative of oppression. And even though they might share thematic overlaps with the similarly rebellious cinema of the 70s, the characters that populate them aren’t at all idealistic. The last four decades, these movies seem to be suggesting, have made something as basic as aspiration — for money, emotional stability, love — an act of indecency.
The last four decades have dehumanised the common man. To afford surviving another day, he has had no choice but to sell his soul.
Look at Rao’s Jayant, who is ostensibly the protagonist of this picture, but is clearly not somebody that we’re supposed to root for. He’s terrible to his sister, he belittles his co-workers, and doesn’t think twice before agreeing to murder the woman whom he believes is a pothole in his path to professional success. The movie has great fun subverting the idea of heroes and villains, especially because it’s packaged like the kind of retro entertainment in which these roles were so clearly defined.
Monica, O My Darlings reclaims the narrative from the sweaty dudes who’ve been in charge for so long, and foregrounds the sort of character who’d normally be restricted to the sidelines. By allowing you to assume that Monica is a devious femme fatale, the movie is gently disrobing the ‘doglapan’ of Indian audiences, and setting up an act of massive subversion that is paid off towards the end. We assume that Monica is a mastermind because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to believe.
But Monica is no villain. Like Jayant, there’s a sense that she’s a social climber, yes. But just because she’s a woman, her journey isn’t admired in the same way that his is. While Jayant saunters in and out of the office like he owns the place, she’s made to perform what is essentially an item number at a company event. The film’s opening credits sequence buries uncomfortable truths behind the bells and whistles. Bala is recontextualising the problematic language of the past to present a more empowering vision of the future.
In a way, both Jayant and her are in the same boat; they’re small-timers with big ambitions, overwhelmed by the soul-sucking nature of corporate culture — a symbol of ‘modern’ India — and in many ways, representatives of it. Both Monica and Jayant behave in the kind of cutthroat manner that you’d expect people like them to. But the movie isn’t really commenting on ‘real’ people; it’s actually offering commentary on characters — constructs of a mind coated in personal biases — in the same way that Andhadhun did.
Easily my favourite story about that film is the one that its star, Ayushmann Khurrana, recalled in an interview some months ago. He said that he was surprised when people started chuckling at a preview screening — Andhadhun is an unambiguously funny film, by the way — and when he pointed this out to Raghavan, who was sitting next to him, he was told to shush. Khurrana said that he was under the impression that they had made a ‘serious’ thriller. In his dedication to subvert the expectations of the audience, Raghavan essentially engaged his own star in a long con. He knew that even if Khurrana didn’t understand the tone of the movie they were making, the audience would.
Having that kind of faith is rare. And this is why we mostly get films like Ponniyin Selvan: I, which would rather tangle you up in plot than engage you on a thematic level; it would rather tell you what to feel about characters instead of encouraging you to draw your own conclusions about them. Monica is about as unwieldy as Mani Ratnam’s historical epic, but it’s self-aware about it. There is a sincerity in its silliness.
Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.