Monday, January 29, 2024


Release date:

December 21, 2023


Jeethu Joseph 


Mohanlal, Anaswara Rajan, Priyamani, Siddique, Santhi Maya Devi, K.B. Ganesh Kumar, Sreedhanya, Jagadish, Aditi Ravi, Nandhu


Malayalam with English 


Sara Mohammed (Anaswara Rajan) is an artist who is blind. When Sara is home alone one day, she is raped by a stranger. She gathers her wits about her during the assault, and much to the surprise of the police, is later able to identify the attacker despite her inability to see. 


It is an intriguing concept, and with Jeethu Joseph directing Mohanlal in the role of Sara’s lawyer Vijayamohan, it is hard not to have sky-high expectations after their team-ups for Drishyam 1&2


Neru (Truth) is not in the league of the Drishyams – its writing is not as refined. It also does not match up to the naturalistic genius or finely tuned politics of that other fantastic recent Malayalam legal saga, Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval’s Nna, Thaan Case Kodu (2022). And its courtroom drama dips into several tropes of the genre – a down-and-out lawyer re-donning his robes for what seems like a lost cause, a bumbling lawyer (Nandhu) whose clumsiness serves to underline the leading man’s skills, and so on. Still, the question of whether Vijayamohan will ultimately trump his insecurities and triumph over his rivals, the pleasure of seeing Mohanlal in a part shorn of macho posturing, Sara’s resilience, her parents’ supportive attitude and Anaswara’s measured performance make this a special film in its own right. 


Mohanlal’s filmography has for decades been dominated by hyper-masculinity and omnipotent heroes. So when he chooses to play a man who wears his vulnerability on his sleeve, the character’s significance extends beyond the boundaries of this storyline. 


Neru is about a system teetering on the precipice of letting a woman down, a system redeemed by a few good souls. Vijayamohan had withdrawn from practising law after a setback years back. He remains a respected legal expert. The rapist, Michael Joseph, is the son of a Mumbai-based industrialist. Realising that the public prosecutor is messing up the case and that the accused’s wealth can buy almost anyone, the senior policeman Paul Varghese (K.B. Ganeshkumar) goes out of his way to help Sara. Paul and a zealous young advocate, Ahaana (Santhi Maya Devi), persuade Vijayamohan to don his robes again, thus setting up a confrontation between him and the reputed, unethical defence lawyers Rajashekhar (Siddique) and his daughter Poornima (Priyamani).


Written by Santhi Mayadevi and Jeethu, Neru benefits from the duo’s background. Santhi is a lawyer in addition to being an actor-writer, Jeethu has a knack of getting the best out of one of Malayalam cinema’s biggest ever stars. Their joint effort results in a film that remains engaging till the end even though the culprit is revealed at the start. The suspense in the script lies elsewhere. 


Neru is a showcase primarily for Mohanlal, as such films tend to be, but the writers have had the good sense not to entirely neglect the other actors and characters. Though Sara is not developed as fully as Vijayamohan, she is for a change conceived as a regular person, not a helpless simpering woman nor a warrior queen avenging her rape in the way women survivors do in fantastical worlds routinely created by men writers. She is tough even if hurting, spirited even if traumatised. She is also an illuminating example of a survivor who is doubted because she kept her cool, although if she had not she would undoubtedly have been asked, “Well, where’s the proof?”


It is a relief to see Mohanlal in a part that allows him to focus on his craft instead of a swagger. He gives a moving rendition of a lawyer who acknowledges his courtroom phobia and ultimately comes into his own. When Vijayamohan says, “I lost that touch. I am not confident anymore,” the actor ensures that the pain in his character’s voice is under-played yet palpable. Mohanlal makes Vijayamohan’s transformation almost indiscernible in the way only he can when at his best. 


Priyamani’s character is just outlined, but her striking personality leaves a mark on Neru. It is nice to see her given visibility in this narrative, but she deserves a better-written role. 


Surrounded by accomplished and charismatic veterans, the seven-year-old-in-films Anaswara not only holds her own but lends tremendous maturity to Sara. 


Obviously it is essential to ask why Indian cinema routinely gives centrality to Vijayamohans and not Saras, to men who are allies of women rather than to women survivors themselves. Usually, male leads in these films become saviours and the films themselves are guilty of a condescending gaze on the woman. The reason why Neru escapes that label is that it views Sara through a lens of empathy and solidarity, not pity, and gives space to her story and her strength – even if not primacy. The film also gives her greater interiority than most such films do and does not patronise her.


 trips up on the latter front towards the end though, when Sara stands before Vijayamohan with hands folded and head bowed, and the camera zeroes in on this exchange. 


Symbolism is crucial to cinema. In Indian culture, a NamaskaramNamasteNamaskarNamaskara is a traditional greeting, but the physical gesture with palms meeting has various meanings here and elsewhere – humility, resignation, supplication, worship or gratitude. In a cinematic universe replete with male saviours, in an industry that routinely marginalises women in stories and discards women actors while creating circumstances conducive to megastardom and longevity for men like Mohanlal, Sara pressing her palms together and lowering her head is more than a thank you.


To avoid even a hint of a saviour vibe it was vital for Vijayamohan and Sara to be shown as equals, and for Mohanlal-Anaswara to stand shoulder to shoulder at all times. In that moment, they do not. 


The bow in Neru harks back to a Dalit folding her hands before a Brahmin ally, a policeman, in Article 15 (Hindi, 2019) or another Dalit folding her hands before an upper-caste ally, a lawyer, in Jai Bhim (Tamil, 2021). Both were empathetic films. In each case, the gesture – a fleeting one – was made by a member of a subjugated group, aimed at a member of a dominant group played by the marquee name in the cast, and when juxtaposed against the larger socio-political context in which these films were made, subtracted, even if marginally, from their anti-dominance messaging.


Just like the passing mention of a past relationship between Vijayamohan and Poornima. Their link is superfluous to Neru’s plot, and is yet another example of a standard practice among male stars in India who seek to prove their eternal magnetism by ensuring that a woman partner is featured in every story to be played by an actor vastly younger than they are rather than a woman of their own generation. In this case, Priyamani is almost a quarter century younger than Mohanlal. 


These asides are completely unnecessary in an otherwise entertaining, sensible film. 


Neru approaches the theme of rape largely with understanding, although it could have done without the heightened maudlin music and repeated – albeit brief and not titillating – flashbacks to the assault on Sara. One scene sticks out like a sore thumb: the one in which Vijayamohan greenlights an idea that allows the unscrupulous Rajashekhar to be alone in a room with Sara, thus leaving him free to taunt and re-traumatise her. This decision is inconsistent with Vijayamohan’s sensitivity towards his client in the rest of Neru and his progressively improving presence of mind up to that point. The episode is obviously written for theatric effect, and is thoughtless considering that real-life activist lawyers lay considerable emphasis on prioritising a survivor’s mental well-being over all else whereas Vijayamohan’s move is viewed with an uncritical eye by the script. The scene took me back to an even worse one in Pink (Hindi, 2016) in which Amitabh Bachchan’s character badgers his own client, a sexual assault survivor, in the witness stand to make a point in court. 


Malayalam cinema tends to do language mixes well, epitomised by last year’s Thankam and Ariyippu in 2022. Neru is not brilliant like them, its dialogues in the courtroom are sometimes stilted, but the Malayalam-English blend at least fits the setting, characters and actors perfectly, barring the English lines written for Rajashekhar that don’t sit well at all with Siddique. 


Legal wranglings, extra-legal machinations and the surprises thrown up by Vijayamohan’s probe sustain interest in Nerueven with its flaws. This film is not Jeethu’s best, but may turn out to be his most important if it heralds a new phase in Mohanlal’s career. Neru is hopefully an indicator that after cringe-worthy outings arguably epitomised by Monster (2022) and Alone (2023) the actor has finally sensed the winds of change blowing through Malayalam cinema, as the other Big M did some years back. If my reading of his participation in this film is accurate, then it’s a turning point not just for his career but for his industry too, more so because Neru follows close on the heels of the excellent Kaathal in which Mammootty played a gay man in a heterosexual marriage. 


The two M’s are as mainstream as mainstream can be. It’s a joy to see them join hands with filmmakers who are resisting the wave of male fury currently sweeping across commercial Indian cinema of most languages. Neru belongs on the list of Malayalam films defying the national trend. 


Rating (out of 5 stars): 2.75   


Running time:

152 minutes 


Poster courtesy: IMDB 

Still of Anaswara courtesy: Neru’s trailer 

Sunday, January 28, 2024


Release date:

January 25, 2024


Siddharth Anand 


Hrithik Roshan, Deepika Padukone, Anil Kapoor, Karan Singh Grover, Akshay Oberoi, Ashutosh Rana 




“PoK ka matlab hai Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Tumne occupy kiya hai. Maalik hum hai (PoK stands for Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. You have occupied it. But we are the actual owners),” says Hrithik Roshan’s character in the midst of raging fisticuffs with a Pakistani terrorist in the new Hindi film Fighter


For the record, the dictionary defines maalik as: owner, master, lord, proprietor, husband. In the subtitles given in the trailer, the producers opt for “owner”. 


“We are the actual owners.” Never before has a Hindi film spelt out its proprietorial attitude towards Kashmir in such black-and-white terms.


Director Siddharth Anand’s Fighter – based on a story by Anand and Ramon Chhib, with a  screenplay by Chhib and dialogues by Hussain Dalal and Abbas Dalal – pretends to be a romance, the saga of an Indian Air Force (IAF) officer whose over-confidence cost him the life of someone dear to him as a result of which he denies himself the right to love and be loved again. Behind that emotive, humane camouflage though, Fighter is just another loud, jingoistic affair in which India and Pakistan battle over Kashmir while the voices of Kashmiris are entirely erased. 


That’s precisely what 2023’s Shah Rukh Khan starrer Pathaan (2023) did too, so what’s new with Fighter, you may ask? 


Not very much. For one, this abhorrent line on ownership in Fighter is delivered by an A-list star who has not overtly aligned himself with BJP-RSS off screen in the way so many of his Hindi film colleagues have. Pathaan played it safer on this front, to create the false impression of being a progressive film (read my review here) although it was just old wine in a bottle of deceptive dialogues, insidious and intentional ambiguity about the religious identity of the protagonist and the primary antagonist, cleverly disguised pandering to majoritarian sentiments and SRK’s charm. 


Second, Fighter is pegged on actual news developments: the suicide bombing in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district in 2019 that killed 40 members of the Central Reserve Police (CRPF), and the IAF’s retaliatory air strike on an alleged terrorist training camp in Balakot, Pakistan.


In tenor and spirit nevertheless, Fighter really does feel like Pathaan 2, while Pathaan itself felt like War 2. That Pathaanand War (2019) were also directed by Anand is no coincidence. Reminder: Roshan was the co-lead in War, which might have been nothing more than a noisy, slick action flick if it weren’t for its condescension towards the Muslim patriot played by Tiger Shroff.


In Fighter, Roshan is Shamsher Pathania a.k.a. Patty, an ace fighter pilot who is in the bad books of his boss (Anil Kapoor). The latter believes Patty is prone to prioritising personal glory over the interests of his team. Patty is part of a crack team of IAF pilots that includes Minal Rathore (Deepika Padukone) a.k.a. Mini. Obviously these two are drawn together like magnet to metal, but Patty’s past keeps him from openly expressing his feelings for her. 


In Chapter 1 we get hackneyed introductory scenes stressing Roshan’s sexiness in a white towel and in pilot’s uniform, and Padukone’s sexiness in uniform, followed by extensive passages of bonhomie between all the members of Patty and Mini’s team. There’s light-hearted teasing, songs, a couple gazing at each other across a space filled with people while music plays in the background, incremental revelations about the enigmatic hero’s painful back story that, as it turns out, lacks novelty, and other familiar elements that are often used in Indian films to superficially establish a sense of fraternity and a pivotal romance. In the background is the Pakistan government and a deadly terrorist – a snarling chap with a bloody red eye called Azhar Akhtar (Rishabh Sawhney) – who they recruit to target Kashmir.


Chapter 2 deals with Pulwama and Balakot. 


Despite the hyperbolic cartoonishness of Azhar Akhtar and the blatant cover-up that Fighter pulls off on behalf of the Indian government in Pulwama, despite the surfeit of clichés and decibels, the film until this point is carried on the shoulders of Roshan’s good looks, the sparks between him and Padukone, Satchith Paulose’s exquisite cinematography in stunning locales, the adrenaline high that comes from watching pilots in combat in skilfully executed action scenes and the sadness of knowing that those CRPF jawans were indeed murdered in real life. 


None of this is enough though to save Chapter 3 from its deafening volume, silliness, unoriginal storytelling, formulaic characterisation, inexorable length and the lies that begin in Chapter 2. 


First let’s deal with the cover-up. When the Pulwama terror strike occurred, corporate-owned news media largely avoided asking the obvious questions raised by the public on social media and some experts regarding the massive intelligence failure involved. Many have even ignored the statements by Satyapal Malik who was Jammu and Kashmir’s governor at the time of the Pulwama attack – Malik has said at multiple forums that the attack resulted from the incompetence” of the Indian establishment, the Union Home Ministry in particular, and the CRPF, while also calling out the Prime Minister himself for his response. 


Obviously, Fighter does not have the guts to show any of this. Like every government-pleasing Hindi film since 2014, Fighter is disinterested in introspection, fixated on chest-thumping and backs the position that all acts of courage and all innovation in India have been initiated in the past 10 years. Mirroring the bombast of Uri: The Surgical Strike’s “Hindustan ab chup nahi baithega. Yeh naya Hindustan hai. Yeh ghar mein ghusega bhi, aur maarega bhi (India will no longer remain silent. This is a new India – it will not only enter your house, but it will kill you there),” in Fighter we get a politician, one assumes the PM, surveying the coffins of dead CRPF jawans and saying: “Picchle pachaas saalon mein kisi sarkar ne unki inn harkaton ka muh-thod jawaab nahin diya. Lekin ab bas. Unhe dikhana padega ke baap kaun hai (For the past 50 years, no government has given them a befitting reply. But now…enough. It’s time to show them who’s the boss).” 


Fighter kills whatever emotional resonance it had until the Balakot episode by following it up with endless screaming, ridiculously conceived confrontations between the IAF and Pakistani terrorists, and dialoguebaazi that peaks with the “maalik hum hai” line and Patty yelling a threat at the top of his voice that India will turn Pakistan into – wait for it, it’s every aggressive nationalist’s wet dream – “India Occupied Pakistan”. It’s not that Hindi filmdom is incapable of delivering credible battlefield sequences involving India and Pakistan. For a recent example within the commercial Hindi space, refer to Vishnu Varadhan’s Shershaah starring Siddharth Malhotra. 


In this segment, the sole Muslim on Patty and Mini’s team, Basheer Khan (Akshay Oberoi), has that inevitable conversation about Islam with a terrorist that has by now been made mandatory for loyal-to-the-vatan Muslims in propagandist Hindi films. 


And in the end, Fighter trivialises itself with a steaming hot song ‘n’ dance by the sea that has zero connect with the flavour of the rest of the narrative. Yes of course all those body-baring outfits on Roshan and Padukone are titillating, but the entire package is too imitative to be impactful and is anyway terribly out of place in a film in which it was preceded by bloodshed, a beloved character’s mutilated body and immeasurable heartbreak. In fact, the inclusion of this song, Ishq Jaisa Kuchh, indicates a lack of commitment on the part of the filmmaker to his chosen theme. 


Like the entire ensemble cast, Roshan’s acting in Fighter is as okay as it can be in such a film, barring a scene in which, while shouting something like “Main aa raha hoon” in a life-and-death situation, he adopts a trademark tone reminiscent of his character in Koi... Mil Gaya – a tone that few directors have managed to completely control in his dialogue delivery. 


Padukone does better but make no mistake about this: she plays an ordinarily written supporting character who ultimately amounts to little more than the leading man’s romantic sidekick and sensual drapery, in a film designed as a showcase for Roshan. 


Uri was dangerous because it peddled its agenda with a blend of originality, finesse and craft. WarPathaan and Fighter are recycled versions of each other and of the entire multitude of war-mongering deshbhakt films of the present era. Fighter actually has some good things going for it to begin with, but gradually squanders those positives by resorting to lazy storytelling to fulfil its agenda. Yawn.


Rating (out of 5 stars): 2   


Running time:

167 minutes 


Visuals courtesy: IMDB 

Thursday, January 18, 2024



Release date:

South India: January 5, 2024

Rest of India: January 12, 2024


Anand Ekarshi 


Zarin Shihab, Vinay Forrt, Kalabhavan Shajohn, Selvaraj Raghavan V.R., Aji Thiruvankulam, Sudheer Babu, Madan Babu, Santhosh Piravom, Sijin Sijeesh, Jolly Antony, Nandan Unni, Sanosh Murali, Prasanth Madhavan




Conversations on the all-pervasiveness of patriarchy and violence routinely draw this clichéd caveat from defensive participants: Not All Men. Aattam is a quiet reminder that perpetrators of male aggression and anti-women discrimination cannot be viewed in isolation. If you add to them the enablers and the silent spectators – some apathetic, some afraid, some prejudiced, some pre-occupied, some opportunistic, including those who may not be active perpetrators but never protest since the status quo privileges them – then the appropriate rejoinder often is: Yes, All Men.


But let’s get back to the messaging later. 


Aattam (The Play) is a fabulous Malayalam thriller by the debutant writer-director Anand Ekarshi. It defies most conventions of the genre. Only a couple of its twists are in the form of actual events and overt action, the rest are swift changes in attitude among the characters. Sometimes, a flicker of a facial expression or the quickness of a reaction betrays an individual’s relief at being given a justification to change a stance they took to appear politically correct. Without any of the tools traditionally used by thrillers, the suspense is sustained on the strength of the written word. 


Until the very last line is spoken in Aattam, there is no let-up in the grip this question has on the narrative: who done it? By then though, the far bigger question is: how did everyone else respond?


The film is set in a drama troupe in Kerala called Arangu (meaning: stage) that’s performing a play with 13 artistes: 12 men and a woman. The latter, Anjali (Zarin Shihab), is an architect. She is in a clandestine relationship with her co-actor Vinay (Vinay Forrt), a chef. Hari (Kalabhavan Shajohn) is a movie star who is yet to play a lead on screen. His comparatively high profile nevertheless gives him a stature in the group that some among them resent. None of the rest are full-time theatre professionals either, each one’s primary source of income lies elsewhere, because the stage is not a lucrative career. Some are financially struggling, some are comfortably off. 


Late one night after a party, Anjali is molested by a colleague. When the others hear of this, they assemble to determine the culprit’s fate. Saying anything more about the plot would be a spoiler (though it must be mentioned that subtitles referring to groped breasts when the survivor only uses the word for “groped” is not only wrong, it changes the import of a crucial interaction).


Through the course of 2 hours and 20 minutes, Ekarshi brings to life every single one of these 13 people. Although the investigation in Aattam is being conducted by those close to Anjali, it mirrors the standard systemic and social response to a woman who objects to sexual assault: suspicion, victim blaming, questions about her looks, attire, conduct, sexual morality and so on. 


For a filmmaker to be aware of these hurdles women face is not remarkable considering that they have been highlighted in the public discourse for years, especially since the social media explosion turned the entire world into our drawing room. What is remarkable in Aattam, however, is how deftly and convincingly they are transposed on to inter-personal relations in an intimate setting. 


Ekarshi takes Aattam beyond just these broad aspects of male violence and the plight of woman complainants though. In the minutiae of the characterisation and the almost microscopic touches in his script, he reveals himself to be a committed student of gender politics. What we witness in Aattam therefore, is not empathy alone, but also a keen eye that has observed the marginalisation of women at fundamental levels in art and in life: in Indian cinema, including cinema on sexual violence against women, in real-world deliberations, including deliberations specifically about women’s concerns, and in decision-making involving women’s own bodies and lives. 


This point is embedded in the very structure of Aattam: the choice of 12 men and only one woman as the principal players.


The numbers 12 and 13 are significant. There are 12 months in a year, Jesus had 12 male Apostles, school in large parts of India ends with Class 12, and while India no longer has a jury system, the one cinephiles track most closely is the one brought to us by Hollywood, namely, the US judiciary where juries tend to have 12 members. My favourite interpretation of those that come to my mind is that Mary Magdalene deserves to be counted as an Apostle, just as much as the 12 men – add Magdalene to the 12 and you get 13. Anjali makes Arangu whole, she also deserves to be there. 


When I first saw Aattam’s poster, I was cynical. The side-lining of women in cinema has been on my mind even more than usual since the shock of seeing outright erasure in two recent Indian films: Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana(Kannada, 2021) and Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon (Hindi, 2022 in theatres). Ekarshi pointedly assures us that his intention is not to marginalise but to spotlight marginalisation by having a journalist in Aattam’s introductory passage ask Arangu’s director why his play has only one female character. We do not hear enough of the answer to determine if it is a cover-up, but the film’s discerning nature is established from then on. 


This leaves us with the interesting question: how different would the situation have been for Anjali if there were other women in Arangu or if it had been headed by a woman? 


Or one for Ekarshi and Arangu: the present play’s script may have had only one woman character, but what is the rationale behind having no woman member at all? Not even among the crew? 


Think about it. Meanwhile, it’s heartening to see that at no point is centrality or agency taken away from Anjali despite the ups and downs in her equation with her male colleagues. You see, Aattam may feature more than one man with a saviour complex but the film itself does not have one. 

The word “aattam” has several meanings: stage performance, motion, shaking, swaying motion, oscillation. It’s a clever choice of title since, apart from the mystery of what actually happened to Anjali, it is the see-sawing, moment-to-moment shifts in the mood and views of the self-appointed jury that keep the film suspenseful in its own unique way. 


The use of sync-sound in Aattam, Renganath Ravee’s sound design and the sparing deployment of Basil CJ’s music complement the naturalism in Anurudh Aneesh’s cinematography and Mahesh Bhuvanend’s editing. All these are geared towards Ekarshi’s determinedly realistic storytelling.


The first-rate cast has been chosen well to match the director’s vision. They are all stage artistes. Only three – Vinay Forrt (PremamThamaashaMalik), Zarin Shihab (B 32 Muthal 44 Vare) and Kalabhavan Shajohn (DrishyamRamaleela) – are film stars. The rest are making their screen debuts here. Each of them is to the camera born though, adding to the vibe Aattam gives off of being a reality show in which Arangu was filmed without their knowledge.  


I first watched a preview of Aattam last year before it was unveiled on the festival circuit to  widespread applause. At the time, I wrote on Instagram that “after suffering so many mediocre and bad films, each and every time I come across a good one, my heart does a little dance of celebration”. There are few greater joys as a critic than discovering a film that takes you completely by surprise, and lives up to its early promise right down to its final frame. More so when it comes from a debutant who has the assuredness of Anand Ekarshi. Especially when it deals with marginalisation and oppression, and is so consistent that you have to know it is not pretending to care – cinema, sadly, is filled with such betrayals. Aattam has finally come to theatres, and it feels as fresh now on my nth viewing of it. Six months on, my heart is still dancing. 


Rating (out of 5 stars): 4.5   


Running time:

140 minutes 


Poster courtesy: IMDB 

Monday, January 15, 2024



Release date:

January 12, 2024


Sriram Raghavan 


Katrina Kaif, Vijay Sethupathi, Sanjay Kapoor, Pari Maheshwari Sharma, Vinay Pathak, Pratima Kannan, Luke Kenny, Cameos: Radhika Apte, Gayathrie Shankar 


2 versions of this film were shot – one Tamil, one Hindi – with different supporting casts. This is a review of the Hindi version. 


“So this is Christmas / And what have you done?”

These words from the 1971 John Lennon-Yoko Ono song Happy Xmas (War Is Over) flash on the screen as a prelude to the director Sriram Raghavan’s Merry Christmas. They are played in quick succession with a tribute to Shakti Samanta and a teaser featuring the film’s stars Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi. The teaser alerts us to Raghavan’s intent to deceive and reveal in equal measure minus melodrama through this narrative. 


Happy Xmas – credited here to Lennon alone – is an introspective carol that emerged from an era of activism and opposition to the Vietnam War”, as a blog by a Lecturer of International Politics on the University of Liverpool’s website explains. There are no manipulative global superpowers at work in Raghavan’s Merry Christmas. The battle here is familial, resulting in an unexpected alliance. And the director’s treatment is devised as a paean to Samanta, maker of such classic thrillers as Howrah Bridge (1958), China Town (1962) and Kati Patang (1971). 


Raghavan is a master of mystery. His filmography includes the stop-in-your-tracks delightful Andhadhun (2018), and his gripping debut feature Ek Hasina Thi (2004). Merry Christmas – an adaptation of the French novel Le Monte-Charge(English title: Bird in a Cage) by Frédéric Dard, with a Hindi script by Raghavan, Arijit Biswas, Pooja Ladha Surti (also the editor) and Anukriti Pandey – is a crime drama aspiring to be a love saga. It is a slow burn that is intriguing in its first hour, but declines after its big reveal. 


Since even minor specifics could be spoilers, here is a broad introduction to Merry Christmas’ plot. Kaif plays Maria who runs a bakery in Mumbai. She is married and a mother. Her daughter Annie is mute. Sethupathi’s Albert is returning home to Mumbai after several years, following his mother’s passing. When their paths cross, Albert feels an inexplicable empathy for Maria that goes beyond the appeal of her good looks. His past quickly catches up with him though, so he walks away after a warm encounter. When Albert realises that he is not the only one with a secret, however, he is fascinated and unable to stay away. 


Few Hindi directors have explored film noir as persistently as Raghavan has and made it his own. Merry Christmas’ gold-tinged world of warm lighting and shadow-rimmed frames has a furtive quality from the start. Its tone is deceptively understated as Maria and Albert go about their business on what initially seems like a routine evening for two lonely people on the town scoping each other out. Yet Raghavan builds an atmosphere aimed at keeping a viewer’s antennae on alert. 


The screen is filled with suggestive imagery that plays with our minds and plays on the traditions of crime fiction: a character who sculpts origami swans, speechless little Annie (Pari Maheshwari Sharma) with the innocent wide eyes, a high-ceilinged apartment in a building with an ornate cage for an elevator, an attractive trinket, a watchful giant teddy bear. Besides, Maria and Albert have an aura of sadness about them, and they’re alone in a big city on Christmas eve, a time usually spent with family and community. Something’s gotta give. Obviously. 


The determined refusal to pinpoint the year in which this story is set adds to its inscrutability. 


I enjoyed Merry Christmas’ opening hour immensely, the sense of expectation, Kaif’s sweetness, Sethupathi’s extraordinary ability to elevate even stray words and glances into moments of great humour or poignance, the empathetic gaze on Maria in this troubling era of Animals and animosity, the art design, the cinematic references, the vintage tunes complementing Pritam and Daniel B. George’s music, Maria and Albert’s lively dance, and a slimeball played deliciously by Sanjay Kapoor. It is also nice to see a normalised representation of a religious minority that is not often visible in Hindi films these days, and an acknowledgement of the diversity within the community that an earlier era of Hindi cinema restricted to Goans and Anglo-Indians. Albert’s full name is Albert Arogyasami, but he is neither a caricatured Christian nor the stereotyped ‘Madrasi’ that Hindi filmdom was once notorious for. However, after a grand deception is unmasked – I can’t say more than this – the writing and direction get lax, the unplugged holes in the deception become apparent immediately and a glaring giveaway is even allowed to linger by the perpetrator.


The understatedness that works in Merry Christmas’ favour through much of the narrative delivers diminishing returns from then on, culminating in a climax with limited impact. What is missing in that final stretch is a magnetic pull between the leads and an urgency in the build-up that was sorely needed for the ending to provide a release. It doesn’t help that Maria’s character remains under-explored in comparison with Albert’s, or that Kaif’s likeability is no match for Sethupathi’s casual brilliance. As a consequence, as the curtain falls, it is possible to read Albert’s motivations and emotion but Maria is still an enigma, so it cannot be said with certainty whether she is driven by anything more than desperation and gratitude. 


The last half hour of Merry Christmas feels as if it was left to direct and edit itself and rely on the leading man’s speaking eyes to fill any gaps at that point. 


The philosophy behind the film is encapsulated by Albert in this sentence: “Sometimes violence is better than sacrifice.” Ultimately, Merry Christmas suggests that violence inevitably necessitates sacrifice – by someone – but the closing is too loosely handled for the point to be compelling.


Merry Christmas succeeds considerably as a thriller before losing its way, but is unable to establish itself as a romance. A pity, because while the going is good, it really is damn good. 


Rating (out of 5 stars): 2.75   


Footnote: The credits walk a tightrope with a smartness that made me smile. Kaif’s name comes first in the beginning, Sethupathi’s comes first in the closing scroll, in a nod to their massive stardom in their respective industries, Hindi and Tamil, without succumbing to the gender bias that pervades all Indian film industries or ignoring concerns about Hindi belt supremacism. 


Running time:

144 minutes 


Poster courtesy: IMDB