Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota director Vasan Bala, tongue firmly in cheek and one hand ticking off a list of references to his favourite movies, is back with an entertaining crime thriller that’s more batter-fried than hard-boiled.
For the Netflix release Monica, O My Darling, the filmmaker has at his disposal a fabulous cast up for all manner of mischief and the opportunity to leap from cutting-edge technology to oozy pulp over the span of 129 minutes. The Netflix release has a lot of fun snaking this way and that, even though the joke might sometimes be lost on viewers.
Monica, O My Darling literally wears its heritage: a perfume is called “Notorious Noir Extreme”. The tribute to murder mysteries gone by from the likes of Vijay Anand, the Coen brothers and Sriram Raghavan starts with the title, taken from the RD Burman song Piya Tu Ab To Aaja in Caravan (1971).
Monica (Huma Qureshi) is the darling of not one but at least three men, one of whom she says has left her pregnant. Among the candidates is Nishi (Sikandar Kher), the layabout heir of the robotics company where Monica works. There’s the company’s latest hire, robotics wunderkind Jayant (Rajkummar Rao). Jayant has shoved aside his childhood friend Gaurav (Sukant Goel) on his way up.
The company is Nepotism Central: Jayant’s sister Shalu (Zayn Marie Khan) works there, while Jayant is dating Nishi’s sister Nikki (Akansha Rajan Kapoor).
Finally, might Arvind (Bagavathi Perumal), the company’s dweeby accountant, be in line for daddyhood? A planned murder that will clean up the matter goes topsy-turvy, scattering the characters hither-tither as rough-talking police officer Naidu (Radhika Apte) takes charge.
Events play out in Pune, the unlikely site of murky adventures in Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun (2018). The story and script by Yogesh Chandekar (also one of Andhadhun’s writers) takes its cue from Naidu’s advice to a suspect: rather than coming up a perfect backstory, leave a few strands loose to avoid suspicion.
There’s plenty of activity on the screen and off it. If the brain has to keep track of a series of hairpin bends, the eye is guided towards cinematographer Swapnil S Sonawane’s lush visuals and the ear has to accommodate renditions of Piya Tu Ab To Aaja and Achint Thakkar’s self-consciously retro score. What’s this, Crime Patrol Pune, asks last-word freak Naidu.
The identity of the plot’s chief tormentor is scarcely a matter of suspense. The staccato narrative includes shifting loyalties, two winking cameos, and a few too many strands to straighten out. The grace notes in the cacophony include a welcome lack of moralising, a cheerfully wicked tone, and the amiable cast.
Rajkummar Rao’s superbly judged amoral climber is the star of the show. Finally handed a part that matches his protean talent, Rao easily towers over most of the cast.
Sikandar Kher’s “dynamic appearance”, as it is aptly billed in the opening credits, suggests that this contemporary actor fits right into the 1970s milieu in which the film’s makers dunk their ideas. Radhika Apte gleefully chomps hard on her character requirements, which include evil laughing.