Nasty surprises and quirky humour make Monica, O My Darling an intriguing, fun, watch, observes Sukanya Verma.
Few film-makers wink at their audience like Vasan Bala.
Fewer have the nerve to embrace their madcap energy.
A delightful discipline in his whimsical ideas is as certain as the element of surprise. But for all the nonconforming he subscribes to, Bala understands and uses music in the most traditional Hindi film sense.
Songs in our movies pave the way for dance and celebration.
But they are also the viewer's most intimate friends, letting us in on a character's untold desires, deceit and secrets.
Fittingly then, the title of his latest work is inspired by the most iconic line, Monica, O My Darling of Caravan's most sizzling song, Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja.
It's not the first time someone's doffed their hat at the feverish melody, but the trills and turns of Asha Bhosle's voice and Rahul Dev Burman's tune play a dramatic role in amping up that foreboding feeling before throwing everything off balance.
The rest of its orchestra-evoking soundtrack, especially Yeh Ek Zindagi by Composer Achint Thakkar and Lyricist Varun Grover, stay true to Bala's retro-revering aesthetic.
Movie references come naturally to his cinema-pickled head when pat comes the reply, 'aakhree raasta', a casual introduction to 'my cousin Vinny' alludes to a Joe Pesci gem and if you listen carefully, Jalwa's diabolic drone reserved for Dalip Tahil's hitman can be heard hovering above a character's demons here as well.
Exuberant reminders of the pop culture overabundance that Bala's first release Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota doled out, 'pop' up here as well.
Mostly though, it is the clockwork precision of Johnny Gaddar's crime and timing it consciously emulates.
High on offhanded humour and nasty surprises, Monica, O My Darling evokes Sriram Raghavan and Coen Brothers.
Only here, the menace wears itself lightly and the wrongdoers come across as somewhat benign in their politics of scheming and self-interest. Like that unexpected moment of tenderness following a War of the Roses-intense, violent tussle between members of the opposite sex.
Set in Raghavan's Pune (though Monica, O My Darling's Marathi identity rarely registers beyond surnames or locality), populated by moral ambiguity and dark deeds, Jayant Ardhekar (Rajkummar Rao), the freshly promoted engineer of a robotics firm, finds himself at the centre of a blackmail crisis that threatens to destroy his carefully crafted career and cozy relationship with the boss's daughter (Akanksha Ranjan Kapoor).
It's been a long, uphill climb from his modest Angola (sounds exotic!) days and Jayant is in no mood to lose any of it, especially after learning he's not the only one at the receiving end of the extortion threats.
A meticulously detailed (doodled, really) murder plot is drawn on board with a jittery colleague from the account's team (a pitch-perfect Bucks) and the boss's bullish, resentful son (a robust Sikandar Kher). But as the mood shifts from sinister to suspense, things invariably go south.
Where Huma Qureshi, as the titular, tantalising Monica, leaves us wondering about her darling or devil ways, Jayant's sister (Zayn Marie Khan) and brother-in-law (Sukant Goel), both employees in the same company as him, add to the guessing game.
Above all (as rolled out in the opening credits), there's Radhika Apte's eccentric, jokey cop ACP Naidu whose superstitious interjections, 'Somwar ko main sabpe yakeen karti hoon' lend to her shady yet loopy persona.
Given that the prying, quirky detective is always reserved for the guys, it is nice to watch Apte deliver the sharps from a woman's perspective.
Based on the novel Burutasu No Shinzou by Japanese author Keigo Higashino (whose Devotion of Suspect X adaptation by Sujoy Ghosh is already underway), Monica, O My Darling's neo-noir gets its grim kicks out of ruthless go-getters, master manipulators, underhanded perpetrators, entitled elites and slithery opportunists.
What's exciting is not just the darkness they are capable of, but also how Bala and writer Yogesh Chandekar (Andhadhun) regularly pull their leg and give them a hard time.
Between zingers dipped in sarcasm -- Zimmedari toh uthayega nahi, phone utha -- and ophidiophobia finding its antidote in poet Kusumagraj's stirring verse, wit and wackiness go hand in hand.
Between appreciating the mirth of in-jokes 'Saleem's se khana mangaya,' referring to Huma's family restaurant or marveling at the slickly choreographed one-on-one combat in a robotic workshop and Swapnil S Sonawane's whiskey hue frames, Monica, O My Darling refuses to commit itself to a specific genre.
But there's a downside to all the meta overload as well.
Apart from the ever reliable trio of Rajkummar Rao, Huma Qureshi and Radhika Apte, nobody else gets any meat to bite on.
Shiva Rindani's Captain Zattack contribution never goes beyond a gimmick whereas the concerned sister, spoilt girlfriend and ignored childhood friend arcs get lost in its eagerness to quip, 'Tu chronology samajh'.
Dig deeper and an allegory for classism is still waiting to be discovered, but for Monica, O My Darling, anticipation is far more rewarding than arrival.
Monica, O My Darling streams on Netflix.