The first kill in Monica, O My Darling had me chuckling with delight. In a control room of a robotics factory, engineer Gaurav (Sukant Goel) is watching a video of Shalu (Zayn Marie Khan), the woman he pines for. A colleague, Dev, turns up, excited. He’s just proposed to someone, and she's said yes. Even before he confirms it, we know the new fiancé is Shalu. The camera stays on Dev as he walks over to a giant yellow remote-controlled machine with a claw-like hand, which is whirring for some reason. When he turns his back on the machine, the claw arches menacingly. There’s a terrific comic beat as he turns and the arm retreats as if caught in the act. Then, in the space of a few seconds, the arm darts forward, knocks Dev down, grabs his head and twists it violently. Screen goes red like a giallo. Stabbing violins on the soundtrack like the shower scene in Psycho.
The 2011 TV movie Burūtasu no Shinzou has pretty much the same scene at its start. So too, I’d guess, does the novel of this name by Keigo Higashino, the source for both TV movie and Monica. The credits sequence that follows, however, is recognizably Vasan Bala, a pastiche of old school ‘vamp’ numbers, with backup dancers in ruffled shirts and a siren punctuating her song with coquettish English phrases. It’s a hoot—and there’s a special thanks in there for Sriram Raghavan, probably because Johnny Gaddaar plays on TV later on, but perhaps a more elemental debt as well. Raghavan’s films have people who exist outside of morality, in a realm of pure motivation. Monica, bookended by deaths, populated only by murderers, is cut from the same cloth.
It’s been six months since the incident—deemed a technical malfunction—at Unicorn Robotics. Gaurav is now married to Shalu, who also works at the company. Her brother, Jayant (Rajkummar Rao), has just been promoted to the board of trustees. He’s a golden boy: hardworking, self-made, dating CEO Satyanarayan Adhikari’s daughter, Niki (Akansha Ranjan Kapoor), more a son to the old man than his own son, the hulking Nishikant (Sikandar Kher). But Bala and co-writer Yogesh Chandekar also show us the cracks. When Gaurav gifts him a congratulatory watch, Jayant waits till his back is turned and tosses it into the wastepaper basket. He's barely been promoted and he already thinks he’s better than middle management.
Oh, and golden boy is cheating on his devoted partner with Monica (Huma Qureshi), Satyanarayan’s secretary. What’s worse, she tells him she's pregnant with his child, matter-of-factly toting up the living costs he’ll have to incur for the baby’s upkeep and her silence about the affair. Jayant would have probably gone along with the blackmail had Nishikant not summoned him and another co-worker and told them they were all being extorted by Monica. At Nishikant’s urging—Sikandar Kher is brutish in an absolutely compelling way —they decide the only way out is to murder Monica and dispose of the body.
I won’t reveal more—and there’s so much more. Bala has fun with the other kills too, including murders yet uncommitted and ones that never take place. In keeping with the pitch-black comic tone, the police inspector that turns up is the opposite of a moody investigator. ACP Naidu cannot contain her enthusiasm at the prospect of tripping up criminals, Radika Apte channeling the febrility of her Lust Stories character in an enjoyable comic turn.
One particular mystery is signaled so clearly that you know the film isn't serious about hiding it. It's an ambitious move: letting the audience think they have it figured out, then yanking the rug at the last moment. It just about holds up—though, as Naidu gleefully points out, there aren’t many left to suspect by the time the film wraps.
Bala’s last feature was the riotous martial arts comedy Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018). Monica has the whacky energy of that film, but less sunny, more constricted. The set-pieces are thought-through, unusual. During a fight in a factory booth, we remain on the outside, looking at the combatants through soundproofed glass, their bloody exertions muffled. An elaborate sequence involving kulfi, a high-rise and a piece of incriminating paper is stretched like the tennis match in Strangers on a Train, our delight in the deliciousness of the predicament competing with our desire to see the person escape it.
Then there’s the little details studded through the film: the casino chips Nishikant rolls between his fingers, the Giant Robo t-shirts Jayant wears, the cops asking uncomfortable questions with a painting in the background that resembles blood splatter. A knock-down-drag-out fight is choreographed to a faux-Goan folk song (Varun Grover as comic lyricist). Achint Thakkar’s clever soundtrack pastiches Morricone, R.D. Burman, ‘80s disco (Bye bye, adios!) and gentle Jagjit Singh murmurings, though nothing’s better than the sincere-sounding violins when Jayant is reassuring his boss that he won’t do anything to let down the firm. All manner of films are waved at in passing—there’s everything from a bicycle thief to a cousin Vinnie.
Qureshi is smart casting as Monica. Her go-to mode has always been unflappable, which makes her just right for a resourceful seductress with an eye on her future, running rings around a bunch of weak men. Rao plays up Jayant’s cowardice—his voice quavering when Monica blackmails him—even as the plot turns on his resourcefulness. It’s a great slimy performance, a reminder of how unpredictable early-career Rao could be.
When Jayant is reeling off an elaborate alibi, Naidu tells him he should always leave a few loose ends. Any backstory that fits together perfectly seems unnatural, she says, adding: “The beauty of humanity lies in small mistakes.” And, of course, there eventually comes a small mistake, ironically a result of trying to tie up a loose end. I was more touched by the ramshackle Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota. But Monica, O My Darling, pitiless and primed to hurt, is the better film.