Director: Sriram Raghavan
Starring: Vijay Setupathi, Katrina Kaif
Rating: 3 stars
For a true cinephile, a Sriram Raghavan film is a cause to celebrate. If there is one director who combines style, substance, quirks and thrills perfectly, it is Raghavan. The auteur, whose repertoire boasts of brilliant neo-noir gems like Ek Hasina Thi, Johnny Gaddar, Badlapur and Andhadhun, has a unique knack of weaving a fascinating world with morally ambivalent characters who try to commit the perfect crime.
They may or may not get away with it, but his skill as a filmmaker lies in drawing you into this world, making you a happy participant, and even forcing you to inadvertently put your detective hat on as you guess – ‘Just what could have happened?’. The loose ends, without the need to tie up the plot points in a perfect bow, makes for riveting viewing.
Merry Christmas, Raghavan’s latest, falls into similar territory. The movie generated interest from the moment it was announced, primarily because of the leads – Vijay Setupathi and Katrina Kaif. He, a celebrated thespian and she, the epitome of Bollywood glamour.
The premise is time-tested but a fool proof one as far as thrillers go. Two strangers meet one night in Bombay (when it was still Bombay and not Mumbai), and strike up a connection. One thing leads to another but instead of a fairy tale ending, you get a murky murder and some drastic attempts at cover-up. Katrina Kaif and Vijay Setupathi play the aforementioned strangers whose paths cross on a fateful Christmas night.
A mother of an adorable girl, Maria (Katrina) has pain and pathos written all over her gorgeous face but how can Albert (Vijay) resist when she offers him a drink? She leads him into her lair…sorry…her well-appointed apartment, and the plot thickens. Their half-night relationship has many elements – compassion, empathy, concern and chemistry, and it could have led to something more but alas! A shocking surprise awaits them (and us) which tears their world apart.
Frankly, the viewer can sense murder from a mile. We also know that Maria is not who she portrays herself to be and Albert has some revelations of his own. The picture-perfect apartment in an old musty South Mumbai building, Maria’s edgy behaviour, the silence of the festive night and the air of mystery, all propped by Daniel B. George’s superb background score and Madhu Neelakandan’s moody cinematography, make you wait impatiently for the action to begin.
Unfortunately, that’s where the film loses out. The first 45-50 minutes of Merry Christmas are spent in world-building as Maria and Albert have long-drawn conversations on the road and in her house which, truth be told, can test your patience. Needless to say, there are several red herrings and Easter eggs that Raghavan drops and you need to be alert to catch them.
The scenario perks up only once the murder takes place with another stranger entering the space – Ronny, a flirtatious caterer played with relish by Sanjay Kapoor.
Like any other Sriram Raghavan film, Merry Christmas too celebrates Hindi cinema. In one scene, an instrumental version of RD Burman’s soulful Pyar ke Mod Pe plays in the background while in another, the rumbustious Asha Bhosle number Chor Chor from the 1973 film Raja Rani is belted out. His love for retro continues with this movie as well with a scene showing Setupathi buying an old-fashioned railway ticket with Rajesh Khanna’s faced imprinted on it.
These little touches, the cinematic twists, tiny details like the thriller novels in Maria’s homes, the use of origami and the beguiling climax where characters acting with perfect synchronicity to hide a secret, take this film several notches above the ordinary. Plus, unlike his previous ventures, there is a certain tenderness, vulnerability and love between characters that open up several possibilities.
Merry Christmas is a class act but despite so many plusses, the execution fails to sustain your interest beyond a point and that’s because of the pace which unfolds leisurely. A bit too leisurely! The rewards are rich if you stay with it and one of them is the performance of every actor. Vijay Setupathi is reliable as ever, assured even in Albert’s awkwardness, but it’s Katrina Kaif who is the true surprise packet. She manages to hold her own against Setupathi, letting herself go with abandon in some scenes (watch out for the brilliant impromptu dance she breaks into in her house) while showing steely restraint and determination in others. Their unusual chemistry is the bedrock of the story.
There are so many things to like about Merry Christmas even if the parts never add up to a satisfying whole. If you have loads of patience, celebrate this festive murder mystery at the cinemas.