“Dekho wo aa gaya” followed by the most famous lustful heavy breathing in Hindi song history. Who can forget that RD Burman composed, sexy Helen number from Caravan (1971) voiced by Asha Bhosle? The male refrain from that song Piya tu ab to aaja, “Monica, O My Darling”, is the title of the new noir Netflix original directed by Vasan Bala. The word Darling seems to be currently having a moment in movie titles with Darlings in Hindi and Don’t Worry Darling in English, and all 3 movies having dark subject matter.
Film noir was a staple of 40s and 50s Hollywood, dark thrillers with a femme fatale triggering the worst impulses of men – lust, greed, revenge, murder. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) with a searing Barbara Stanwyck is the gold standard. Bollywood adopted that genre too with Guru Dutt’s C.I.D. (1956) being the best example with a luminous Waheeda Rehman debuting. Sriram Raghavan superbly revived noir in the 2000s with Ek Hasina Thi (2004), Johnny Gaddaar (2007), Badlapur (2015) and Andhadhun (2018). That’s why Bala credits him with a thanks in the opening credits.
Bala, whose previous work was his directorial debut, the superhero genre subverting madcap comedy Mard ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018), pulls together a cast with great acting chops – Rajkummar Rao, Huma Qureshi, Radhika Apte, Sikandar Kher and Vijay Kenkre. Rao plays Jayant Arkhedkar, a small town guy with unbridled ambition who has risen to head the robotics division of a Pune based (Sriram Raghavan had set his past 2 movies in Pune as well – is Pune becoming India’s murder capital? 😊) conglomerate owned by Satyanarayan Adhikari (Kenkre). The opening scene in the robot factory hints at the macabre carnage to follow. His fiancé is the boss’s daughter, Nikki. Jayant aka Johnny (one of multiple Easter Eggs and meta cinematic references sprinkled throughout the movie, like Bates Motel or cousin Vinny or the list of movie director names on a housing society board) is hated by the CEO’s coterie – his son Nishikant (Kher), his right-hand man Tamang (Shiva, whom you may remember as Captain Zattack from the Amitabh movie Hum (1991)), and his accounting head Arvind (Bagavathi Perumal aka Bucks). The CEO’s Lady Friday, the titular Monica Machado (Qureshi) sets things in motion after a coital tryst with Jayant when she threatens to unravel his well laid plans of social and corporate ascendancy. The narrative then follows the noir template of seemingly perfect plans spiraling out of control, and each attempt to salvage them further entangling the web of deceit. Radhika Apte, Netflix India’s ubiquitous reigning queen, plays a diabolically wacky cop ACP Naidu, adding a peppery rasam tadka to the proceedings.
Things do get a tad bit outlandish towards the end, but never does the movie slack off the tension. It doesn’t pull any punches by showing any decency or redemptive traits in any of the characters. Even the seemingly banal and innocent ones always have an ulterior motive. It’s the perfect movie for streaming to pause and rewind something missed on first viewing, a sexy cabaret that will leave you panting for more.
November 13, 2022