The Perfect Murder
There is a lot that goes right for the Netflix thriller Monica O My Darling
Vasan Bala’s 2018 action- comedy Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota was one of Bollywood’s most entertaining efforts in recent years—a delirious, hopped-up convergence of screwball comedy and martial arts high jinks. Bala’s close reading of— and overwhelming affection for—the genre classics of the ’70s and 80s elevated what was al- ready a highly effective premise (namely, a vigilante with a congenital insensitivity to pain). A lot of these same qualities (the vintage cinematic allusions, the off-kilter humour, the sheer energy levels) are abundantly on display in Bala’s latest, the magnificent Netflix neo-noir thriller Monica, O My Darling, starring Rajkummar Rao, Huma Qureshi, Sikandar Kher and Radhika Apte.
Rao plays Jayant aka Jay, a robotics prodigy from IIT who has quickly risen through the ranks of a mega-corporation called Unicorn (thanks to his state-of-the-art tech), getting betrothed to the founder’s daughter in the process. But he’s also sleeping with his soon-to-be father-in- law’s secretary, Monica Machado (Huma Qureshi), who’s blackmailing him and a couple of others from Unicorn’s senior management—including the suave and scary Nishi, the old man’s son, played to perfection by Sikandar Kher—by insisting she’s pregnant. The perfect murder is planned by Jay, Nishi and Arvind—the three men who Monica in- tends to separate from their money. Of course, things go off the rails almost immediately and just about every single character here shows their ulterior motives in the second half.
The film excels in all technical departments: the nimble cinematography that sets the actors in painterly frames, or the many silhouetted shots strewn across the two hours. The story is also helped along by one of the best soundtracks of the year with composer Achint and lyricist Varun Grover creating an impeccable ’70s and 80s soundscape. Every song either channels or parodies a ‘stock’ genre of Bollywood music from the era; there’s a cabaret track, a ghazal imbued with over-the- top, comedic melancholy, even a deliciously evil Baila song called ‘Love You So Much (I Wanna Kill You).’
The performances are similarly outstanding. Qureshi and Rao are imperious, disappearing under the skins of Monica and Jay, respectively. Rao especially, has now notched up several compelling small-town characters in recent years, men whose first encounters with big-city razzle- dazzle changes them in fundamental ways.
Jay is perhaps his finest performance yet. Radhika Apte has fun as eccentric cop Naidu, peeling off deliberately saccharine Bollywood lines with visible glee. But the real surprise is Sikandar Kher, who walks away with some of the best lines and a whole lot of moustachioed menace, as though we were watching an evil princeling from a folktale, lording it over his inferiors.
For eagle-eyed movie buffs, these are punctuated by tasty movie allusions; Monica replicates Tabu’s gun-toting mountaintop scene from Maqbool. Jay’s fiancé goes on about “my cousin Vinny”, a reference to the classic 1992 comedy of the same name. While flip- ping channels on TV, Jay listens to snatches of an old Anurag Kashyap interview and a crucial scene from Johnny Gaddar (2007), perhaps Bollywood’s last great neo-noir caper before this one.
The only sore point for me was that the script didn’t really need to make Monica a Goan Catholic woman (Machado). The characterisation—a Catholic secretary and occasional cabaret dancer—is a reference to the ‘Sandra from Bandra’ stereotype. It is one of many Vasan Bala manoeuvres steeped in irony, but irony doesn’t always blunt the impact of harmful cultural tropes. For all its undeniable brilliance, Monica ... might cause more harm to an already marginalised group —and that’s a shame, because the film would be just as good if Monica had not been a Machado.