March 25, 2011
Divya Dutta, Ashutosh Rana, Rajit Kapoor, Kitu Gidwani
This seems to be a week of films that must have looked good on paper. Monica is the story of a girl from Little Lucknow who moves to Big Bad Delhi and becomes more involved than any journalist should in the world that she’s covering as a reporter. Monica Jaitley has an affair with a powerful politician, gets too close to her sources and is ultimately murdered.
The film begins with promise. Divya Dutta comes across as very real while playing a wannabe who allows her ambitions to get ahead of her. And Ashutosh Rana shines as the politico with gray shades. He’s not all bad or all good: he’s a blend of both, which is such a rarity among Hindi film ‘villains’, so a pat on the back for the writer too. But two good performances, one well-developed character and a few other plus points can’t carry a film through.
The greatest flaw in Monica is that it shows a limited understanding of the media. Yes, there is no doubt that there are too many journalists around who are intoxicated by the false sense of power that the job can bring. So yes, the director is spot-on on that front. But it’s the little things that irritate. Firstly, how about having checked with the HR departments of major media organisations about their salary scales? Junior print journalists are not a lavishly paid lot and yet, Monica the rising scribe (whose husband, we are told, is still struggling) is shown living in a sizeable flat in Delhi that houses a spacious granite-laden bathroom with a roomy Jacuzzi. At that point in the story she has not yet been drawn into the corrupt system, so do tell me where the money came from? An editor in the film lambasts Monica for being ungrateful to him when it is he who elevated her from the post of a mere “sub reporter” to a special correspondent. What the heck is a “sub reporter”? Either he meant “cub reporter” (an informal term used to describe newcomers on the job) or a “sub-editor”. But clearly, the team of Monica hadn’t done enough research to know the difference. The least they could have done was consult Peepli Live’s Anusha Rizvi who is one of the few directors in the history of Bollywood to have got the workings of an Indian newsroom right.
What’s also wrong with Monica are the many insinuations that it makes despite being a work of fiction. The film’s pre-release publicity suggests that the story is at least partially inspired by the murder of journalist Shivani Bhatnagar. There can and should be no half measures in such matters. If Monica Jaitley in this film is the late Shivani Bhatnagar of real life, then won’t the public infer that the drunken, insecure, unsuccessful Mr Jaitley of the film is the real-life Mr Bhatnagar? Isn’t that insensitive and irresponsible considering that viewers may draw conclusions about Shivani’s family after watching this film?
Add to this the loopholes in the script, the fuzzy characterisation of the leading lady, a story that becomes terribly confusing after a point as it goes back and forth between flashbacks, and some surprisingly bad acting by the usually dependable Rajit Kapoor as Monica’s husband, and you know why there’s as little hope for this film as there is for the protagonist who digs her own grave. We witness Monica’s dramatic transformation from a diffident small-town girl in saris to a bold, hyper-Westernised, cleavage-flashing, chain-smoking, unscrupulous big-city journalist – I’m not saying this is implausible, but I wonder why we are never given the reason for this metamorphosis. Monica’s first decision to sleep with politician Chandrakant Pandit (Ashutosh Rana) is not opportunistic but emotional. But we are never given to understand when, why or how arrogance and promiscuity set in. When she sleeps with a powerful female industrialist (Kitu Gidwani) it’s unclear whether she is genuinely leaning on another woman for support or was a closet lesbian/bisexual all those years or was merely cashing in on the older woman’s attraction towards her.
But in that unexpected dalliance, I still find something to praise in Monica. Homosexuality is usually caricatured – and male – in Hindi films. Fire starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das was a rarity. More recently came Karan Razdan’s ridiculously bad Girlfriend. After seeing Ishaa Koppikkar and Amrita Arora hook up in that film, I must say I felt some trepidation at the prospect of icky, vulgar or laughable shots of two women between the sheets when I heard of a lesbian angle in Monica. But kudos to director Sushen Bhatnagar for shooting Divya Dutta and Kitu Gidwani in bed without making any crude effort to titillate. Wish the rest of the film had been just as deftly handled.
Rating (out of five): *1/2
CBFC Rating (India):