A movie needs to set its tone right off the bat because, as an audience, if you are familiar with it within the first ten minutes, you might be receptive to the events taking place and view them in an appropriate context. “Monica, O My Darling” opens with Sukant Goel’s character, Gaurav, looking at a video message of Zayn Marie Khan’s Shalu wishing a happy Diwali. He is working at a robotics factory and is interrupted in his musings by his best friend leaving the factory, but not before informing him that he had proposed to Shalu. In response, Gaurav chose this moment to kill his friend. The randomness is not Gaurav’s predilection in killing him; it’s in how he decides to execute it by utilizing one of the hydraulic arms to choke his friend’s head and twists it. A gruesome death? Of course. But the predominant aspect of this entire sequence that remained with me was its fickleness and the use of a background score which made me realize I couldn’t take this film too seriously.
Let’s take this as the modus operandi of “Monica, O My Darling.” Vasan Bala is systematically crafting a sleek and sexy 60s noir with disco lights, a grainy aesthetic, and, of course, a cold-blooded murder. The protagonists are in darker shades of grey but with tongue-in-cheek humor that almost devolves into farce at points. The soundtrack is a masterclass in mixing music of a bygone era with modern instrumentation while maintaining a quirky tone and a groovy vibe.
Mild Spoilers Ahead
At its core, “Monica, O My Darling” is about Jayant Arkhedkar (Rajkummar Rao), a man who has risen from the small town of Angola to become the apple of the eye of the owner of Unicorn, the premium robotics company. Arkhedkar is also engaged to Nikki, the daughter of the owner of said company, while managing to carry on an affair with the titular Monica of the film – Monica Machado (Huma Qureshi). It is during one of these passionate moments that their affair takes a sharp turn, forcing Jayant to team up with Nishikant Adhikari (Sikander Kher), the ignored heir of the company, and Arvind Swamy (Bagwathi Perumal), the head of accounting for the company. All of them have been blackmailed by Monica and are now looking for an opportunity to remove her permanently from the equation, thus hatching a circuitous scheme where the murder, transport, and burial would be executed via a partnership resembling a relay race. Of course, since this is a movie, one that thinks of itself as subversive and clever but also very dependent on the tropes of this genre, the plan fails, and a comedy of errors ensues.
As long as the planning and eventual resolution of the above-mentioned plan occur, the movie moves at a rollicking pace. There are moments which feel completely out of the left field; for example, the appearance of a leopard in the middle of the jungle while they are trying to bury the body, Jayant managing to steal a bike by throwing the mobile phone of the owner of the bike and stealing it when he is distracted. This, however, complements the overall menacing tone of the story. There are also elements where Bala plays with aesthetics, changing aspect ratios, and dream sequences, which manage to bring a semblance of variety to the narrative. Once the plot starts to get convoluted, with Jayant and Arvind becoming targets, the story begins to fall apart primarily because screenwriter Yogesh Chandekar confuses plot convolution with frontloading frivolous events as plot threads in the hope that something will stick.
A poisonous snake being gifted by the killer to Jayant leads to a scene where the latter has to ensure he doesn’t break eye contact with the python. Concurrently a flashback shows a younger Jayant studying in the light of a fading lantern and waking up almost immediately after falling asleep. It’s a fascinating form of character development built on the back of an event that comes out of nowhere. There are also moments of immense tension and adrenaline rush—Jayant trying not to fall off the ledge of the building or a violent scuffle between Jayant and Monica devolving into something far more gruesome—which are undercut by the score and the quirky songs, deflating the tension and eliciting laughs from the audience. It is confusing the dissonance between how the scenes are structured and how the final scene is presented with appropriate context. There is a healthy amount of commentary about the effects of capitalism and greed and how over-ambition can make a person lose their humanity, but those aren’t truly the primary focus. The protagonist isn’t testing the waters of the dark side; he is already a bonafide dirtbag, slippery enough to remedy the jam he is stuck in.
There are innumerable references to older Bollywood movies, especially the cheese-fest movies of the 1970s and 1980s. Even Radhika Apte’s character of ACP Naidu feels like a character from one of those movies, always armed with a smart comment and a witty comeback but unable to make a dent beyond being a hindrance. However, a persistent form of humor is her commenting on the story that Jayant is fabricating as the alibi. In a manner befitting that of a meta-commentary, she comments on how to keep backstories vague, how to let the plot be loose or keep the plot airtight. It doubles for fun banter while also serving as a meta-commentary of the storytelling itself, which would have worked if the flaws didn’t actually exist within the storytelling. It is commendable that director Vasan Bala and screenwriter Yogesh Chandekar maintain the protagonist’s slippery tendencies, and Rao plays him with a shifty eye and quiet arrogance. Sukant Goel, as Gaurav, feels like the personification of the supposed unpredictability of the overall story. Radhika Apte’s character is good as comic relief, but its purpose doesn’t serve to impact the story so much.
Much of “Monica, O My Darling” rests on comedic bits or a mix of silly and serious moments which, in a vacuum, feel riotously hilarious; in the context of an overall story, it loses its impact. The balance between comedy and legitimate stakes feels skewed by the time the movie approaches the finish line. Thus, when the inevitable finally occurs, you just observe it with a hint of tired disbelief; even then, your brain is too wired to expect randomness to surprise you anymore. When unpredictability also becomes predictable, nothing remains surprising. It’s a banger of a soundtrack, though.