A pulpy, hilarious, retro-but-fresh murder mystery
“If Anurag Kashyap and Shriram Raghvan had an offspring, it would be Vasan Bala”. That is what a friend of yours truly remarked after watching Bala’s Monica O My Darling and he is not wrong. For those unfamiliar with Indian cinema, Kashyap and Raghvan have distinct narrative styles.
Filmmakers in the Hindi industry have often been reluctant to experiment but auteurs like these have a major presence in how their films turn out. Bala first broke onto the scene with Mard ko Dard Nahi Hota in 2018. It was quite similar to Monica O My Darling in tone, combining quirky with heady. Bala’s amalgamation of Kashyap’s rawness and Raghvan’s metrical approach comes alive with splendor in Monica.
The premise is far from simple but confined to a company called Unicorn Robotics. Its employees – Jayant, Monica, Nishi, Arvind, and Gaurav – are quite ironically attached to each other but not in a pleasant way. Most of the action takes place through Jayant’s (Rajkumar Rao) perspective. He is the audience’s eye in the cinematic universe and navigates compelling mysteries of murder, disappearances, and extortion on his own. Bala’s world is surprisingly isolating and impressively avoids self-indulgence at the same time.
Even when the camera is not on the other characters, they are always in play and are potent enough to surprise with something unexpected. His flavorful style of filmmaking is replete with pop-culture references. The little episodes where he breaks the norm and carves devilishly enticing set pieces for his characters are interesting side plays. If one browses modern cinema, that aspect of narration most closely resembles Quentin Tarantino. Like his characters, Bala’s characters are more than just lines on a piece of paper. An easter egg for fans of Bala’s 2018 film is the presence of Radhika Madaan as Supri in one of the scenes, possibly hinting at a confluence sometime later on. Film enthusiasts will find more such opportunities in Monica’s runtime, making for a clever creative choice.
The visual fabric has many throwbacks to the golden era of Bollywood when it was breaking out of the shackles of social realism. The industry as a whole went through a tumultuous metamorphosis and embraced a new zany, retro vibe that attracted more flies to the cake. Costume, music, and story format are the chief weapons Bala uses here to give Monica that nostalgic undertone. As a result, the film resembles a lot of hit ’70s and ’80s Hindi cinema. Huma Quereshi is perhaps the biggest surprise package and rules the screen with her central femme fatale act. She is Monica, after all, and is the story’s chief catalyst. Without her, all the events do not happen and the worlds of Unicron’s corrupted men never collide.
Monica‘s biggest strength, though, is the fact that it constantly unfolds. There is undeniably the presence of a layered story where each person plays a part. Style aside, the core story is ladled with important emotional decisions and choices that carve the path forward. During, before, and after they have gone one way, it is certainly not easy for them to reflect on them afterward. Bala makes sure that there is continuity in the sense that each decision comes back to influence the future. This consistency is quite admirable and a glaring miss in most Hindi movies these days. Monica‘s relentless world of crime often leaves them and the viewers with surprising conclusions.
Despite the overwhelming positives, Bala’s protagonist feels unconvincing. This is one of those rare occasions that Rajkumar Rao did not live up to expectations. That very well might be due to the lackluster work in the development room but even on screen, Rao feels out of place. The depth we are so used to seeing in his works is somewhat missing here. Jayant, as a character, is sort of thrown from one corner to the other without too much intervention. He is a pawn in a larger game not controlled or understood by him. Maybe that arch could have gone down differently.
Another ineffective part of the storytelling is the lack of composure in the third act. It seems almost wilfully ignorant how the frailties of the murder mystery come exposed in the final leg. In spite of a masterful second act, Bala comes up short linking the missing pieces to make them equally decisive. The noir elements feel like a cover-up of sorts when it comes down to the core conceit of the story.
Overall, Monica O My Darling is a thoroughly enjoyable weekend watch. It has come at the perfect time when the Hindi industry was craving a different experience. Vasan Bala clearly has a long way to go in the future and hopefully, some of his idiosyncrasies could rub off on other filmmaker duds.
Read More: Monica O My Darling Ending Explained
Verdict - 7.5/10