Movies playing in the Bombay of Merry Christmas: Weekend at Dunkirk, Rebecca, The Merry Widow; 1964, 1940, 1934. Pinochhio, from the looks of the poster not the 1940 Disney one. “Albert Pinto ko gussa kyon aata hai?”, someone asks, so it’s 1980 or later. And it’s before 1995—‘When Mumbai was Bombay’. Clearly the year isn’t important. “Let’s time travel,” Maria (Katrina Kaif) tells Albert (Vijay Sethupathi), something Sriram Raghavan has always encouraged in his films, where a 1950s Hindi cabaret number and a 1970s Italian pulp novel might not just coexist but cohabitate.
Lonely, unhappy Albert is back home in Bombay after seven years. Drinking in a restaurant on Christmas Eve, he comes across Maria and her young mute daughter. They get to talking and though both are guarded, something clicks. As he walks them home, she confides that her husband, Jerome, is cheating on her. She invites him up, puts the child to sleep, offers him a drink. The mood turns festive, then romantic. But there’s always something keeping us on edge: a mutilated doll; a record player blasting Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, the sound of crisis, of frantic action.
Action, though, is a long time coming in Merry Christmas. Most of the first hour is Albert and Maria exchanging sad life stories (her husband is truly evil; he’s haunted by a marriage proposal that never was) and flirting and walking around festive Colaba. A surprising amount of silence punctuates their conversations—intended, perhaps, as wistful pauses, but hanging like dead air. The progress is careful and rather inert. One of the people thanked in the opening credits is Eric Rohmer: not an obvious choice for Raghavan, who seems more a Chabrol guy. It’s the Rohmer-ian aspects of this film that fall flat: the circular conversations, the forensic study of attraction.
With the right pair of actors, this might have gone differently. But Kaif and Sethupathi, a fascinating idea on paper, never find a rhythm here. Directors are still figuring out how to use Sethupathi in Hindi films and series; he was perfect in Farzi, atrocious in Jawan. The impression is of an actor learning his lines phonetically; often he’ll hit the wrong word and it’ll deflate the humour or the poetry (his performance in the Tamil version of Merry Christmas might play differently). Kaif is professional and sometimes moving, but there’s a formality to her acting that acts as a ceiling. When more malleable performers turn up—Sanjay Kapoor, Ashwini Kalsekar—you can sense the effort in Kaif.
Raghavan, adapting pulp mainstay Frédéric Dard with Anukriti Pandey and regular co-writers Pooja Ladha Surti and Arijit Biswas, starts to build ominously around the halfway mark, leading to a flurry of twists (perhaps mimicking the gathering squall of In the Hall of the Mountain King). Maria’s apartment becomes a crime scene, though we’re not sure who the criminal is, or how many there are. It becomes clear why so much care was taken to establish details in the initial stretch; whether hindsight makes those scenes better is debatable. Albert reveals an important bit of his past—it’s shocking in a way that’s at odds with everything else, a Badlapur detail in a Andhadhun-like film.
Sanjay Kapoor’s lecherous jollity sparks Merry Christmas alive. It gives Sethupathi and Kaif something to play off of—and Vinay Pathak’s wry detective is a welcome late addition. Still, the interrogation scenes don’t sing like the Shefali Shah-Alia Bhatt-Vijay Maurya ones in Darlings, or the Radhika Apte-Rajkummar Rao ones in Monica, O My Darling, both decidedly Raghavan-esque films.
Some of the touches are pure joy. The film’s split-screen opening: two mixer-grinders, one filled with spices, the other with pills (the capper: a wedding ring added to the ground masala). Rajesh Khanna’s face on a paper stub with a line of encouragement—or is it a warning? All those roses: Rose mansion; another Rosie in an unhappy marriage; ‘Night Rose’, the horny scribblings of a teen; the ghost of Red Rose, a 1980 film in which Khanna plays a killer (it’s based on a Tamil film with Kamal Haasan; in the Tamil version of this film, Kamal’s face replaces Khanna’s on the stub). In these moments, Merry Christmas hits the dark comic romantic notes it’s reaching for. Yet, too often, it’s out of time, marginally off-key.