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Why Merry Christmas Left Me Feeling Shortchanged

January 27, 2024 11:03 IST
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If you have never seen Sriram Raghavan fly, you would hardly realise that this time, he is happy in his cage, this time he isn't reaching for the skies, notes Sreehari Nair.

IMAGE: Katrina Kaif in Merry Christmas.

Though the caged bird motif running through Merry Christmas is intended for the movie's protagonist, I think it applies more to Sriram Raghavan this time.

And judging by the quality of the watching experience, I have to say, I know why the caged bird doesn't sing.

Raghavan's reaction to the failure of Agent Vinod was to go all out and stretch himself to the limits of his ambition. And if in Badlapur and later in Andhadhun he was working on the edge of his unconscious and trusting his audience to respond, what we have in Merry Christmas is an example of a film-maker consciously trying to deny the audience what it wants.


Yes, we are in 2024, and Sriram Raghavan has made a movie in which the impulse to violate expectations is stronger than the creative drive.

It's as if Raghavan had set out to craft something intimate because he feared he was one step away from being sucked into a cinephile culture that overdoses on such terms as 'The Sriram Raghavan Movie Universe' and 'The 1000 Crore Club'.

The problem with Merry Christmas is that it treats 'intimate' as a shorthand for dreaming small and not as a manifesto for catching lightning in a bottle.

Given its rheumatic structure, given the restrictions that Raghavan had imposed upon himself, the success of the film depended on it getting two basic particulars right.


IMAGE: Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi in Merry Christmas.

In the first place, the lead actors had to create a new kind of poetry just by the way they interacted; a poetry that would have transcended what was on the page.

Those who are applauding the supposed chemistry of Vijay Sethupathi and Katrina Kaif, are, in my view, applauding Sriram Raghavan's unconventional casting rather than giving an honest account of what comes through on the screen.

The truth is that Sethupathi and Kaif don't reach out to fill the spaces between them. A cock of her head doesn't produce in his wintry eyes anything that even resembles a flicker.

Their conversations never once come to the point of overlapping.

In Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman were more than just misplaced souls negotiating a world of spies and intrigue. They were also two performers hell-bent on changing each other's default settings -- and they did it sometimes with an exploding cleft, and sometimes with a caress of the ear.

Hitchcock may have been the most controlling of movie-makers, but when Grant and Bergman took to the screen, you could sense the conductor's baton melting.

In Merry Christmas, when Sethupathi and Kaif get down to doing a combination of Dappankuthu and the Twist, it feels very much like an executive decision, a mere point in the plot to be ticked off, an expression of formal fun, a failed attempt at curing neurasthenia.

I hope you understand it's not just sexual sizzle that is missing here but the suggestion that brainwaves are being altered as a result of two performers working in such close proximity.

And since Merry Christmas is widely being described as 'romantic', I am obliged to remind the hyper-educated class that romance follows from the act of giving yourself over -- something that Sethupathi and Kaif clearly did not sign up for.

I think it's unfair to single out Vijay Sethupathi's face for lacking the ability to emote when his other body parts are equally complicit. I mean, the man's stock-still presence in a movie frame is so jarring that to call him a 'restrained actor' would be to fall for his ruse; for what he gets away with is motionless acting.

Hrithik Roshan had vastly improved the gangster character in Vikram Vedha on the strength of his agility alone.

Sethupathi's co-actors, however, are often not so lucky, and they can come off looking like slobbering fools if they press on to fill the void cast by the immovable force in the room.

In this movie, for instance, he has a scene with Tinnu Anand where good old Tinnu winds up moving his body for both of them (and so fiercely, I must add, that I was scared he might break a hip).

It may then be a mark of Katrina Kaif's shrewd instincts as an actor that she keeps it simple: Her chemistry with Vijay Sethupathi has no bodily aspect to it whatsoever.

Their characters, Maria and Albert, start off as strangers in the night (proverbial enough to be accepted without questions), and they kindle their flames the post-MeToo way, by telling each other their weepy back-stories.

IMAGE: Tanu and Ayushmann Khurrana in Andhadhun.

As a Sriram Raghavan loyalist, I know why Merry Christmas left me feeling shortchanged.

It's that gnawing sensation that this time, Raghavan is out to move me by the broad outline of the plot rather than his artistic vision.

In Andhadhun, the stakes were so delicately poised that when Tabu and Ayushmann Khurrana went at each other in a dungeon, you felt they both had a valid claim on that crummy space.

In a movie like Badlapur, it's not just the fine moral judgments implicit in the tale that got to you; it's also the way those judgments were filtered through frames that looked like Monet's Haystacks and Water Lilies.


IMAGE: Looking at Katrina Kaif's room in Merry Christmas.

This time, I could not perceive any heat or pepper behind what I saw, only fillers: A few wisecracks to give Sethupathi some velocity; a nice pair of murderous gloves for Katrina; four abrasive yet juicy creatures at the periphery; a whole bunch of references that do not mate; a city that never bleeds into the interiors and seems captured separately during an 'outdoor schedule'.

To round off an earlier point, two aspects of Merry Christmas had to click in unexpected ways: While the leads had to be willing to knock themselves silly, Raghavan's production designer and his cinematographer had to pool their talents and rustle up a den that cinema lovers could savour.

Yes, for this movie to discover its marrow, Katrina Kaif's living room needed to have a life of its own.

It needed to be as striking as the castle in The Wizard of Oz or the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever.

It needed obsessive Balzac-like detailing, and it needed a touch of the psychedelic.

It ought to have fused lightly with the scenes, while always offering an intimation of ecstasy and violence.

Katrina's living room had to beam down on you like a shrine and then hit you like a hall of mirrors. But, as if to complement the two leads and not hurt their egos, the room too is devoid of personality.

IMAGE: Vijay Sethupathi in Merry Christmas.

Those who squirmed through the dreary first half of Merry Christmas before they were jolted into alertness by the twists and counter-twists in the second hour have found a way to rationalise their mixed feelings.

Their unqualified raves seem to rest on the candy-floss ending, which shows Sethupathi's Albert sacrificing himself -- for a petite, helpless lady and a mute child, no less.

To put it mildly, the character's generous heart saves Sethupathi's performance and the film.

Now, this is the sort of philistinism that you saw in the Malayalam movie 2018 as well, in which all the characters seemed dull and uninteresting until they went out into the flood and saved a few lives.

Who could have foreseen the day when Sriram Raghavan would grow so square as to find romance in an age-old conceit?

To think, this is the same Raghavan whose weak-kneed lovers we have cheered on in the past even when we knew deep down that their reflexes were overtaking their good judgment.

To think, this is the same Raghavan who gave us Liaq and Jhimli, whose first scene had him exhorting her to talk dirty into a prison phone, and who bowed out of the story like two philosopher-bums.

Merry Christmas has Sriram Raghavan riding on the force of his legacy to make something small, but also something risk-free.

The sad part is, if you have never seen him fly, you would hardly realise that this time, he is happy in his cage, this time he isn't reaching for the skies.

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